May 17, 2014

GODZILLA (2014)



There’s a scene in Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA of military types standing around a wall of monitors. On one of the monitors is a map of the west coast of the United States. Three different colored arrow paths mark the proposed trajectory of three different giant monsters. One of the analysts suggests a possible landing mark, a point of convergence for the creatures. This immediately brings to mind the endless analysis of meteorologists and storm trackers whenever a particularly nasty storm springs to life over the ocean. This obsessive tracking of nature may help us brace for impact, but it also fosters this na├»ve idea that if we can just predict where the storm will hit, if we can just prepare for it, then we can survive it. In reality, nature has an uncanny ability to kill us off by the thousands to the millions. No amount of preparation will ever be enough. Nature will always win.

This has long been the mantra of the disaster movie. Earthquakes level the most magnificent buildings, fires consume whole metropolises and meteors remove whole countries from the world map. They are expressions of a truth, that our continued existence is not a guarantee. We are at the mercy of forces much greater than ourselves. In playing this same card, GODZILLA emerges not as an action orientated monster fest but as a classic disaster film. It is far more concerned with how people would react to the fantastic situation of giant monsters running rampant in major cities than with said monsters fighting to the death. There are scenes of mass destruction, shots of bodies lying twisted beneath rubble, wounded men and women huddled in makeshift medical bays and a sea of frightened, confused faces. The military, as the military is wont to do, frantically tries to control an uncontrollable situation. But in the face of unstoppable nature, all we can ever really do is gawk and cower, run or die.

Anyone expecting anything more than a human drama will likely be disappointed. The majority of reviews are comparing this film to PACIFIC RIM, a decidedly non-serious film that revels in its scenes of destruction. PACIFIC RIM is a good film but it suffers from the same problem many action films these days suffer from: CGI burnout. Simply put, by the time you reach the midway mark of the film, all of the monster mayhem becomes redundant. Like TWISTER, it’s the same scene repeated over and over again. The only thing that changes is the size of the calamity. GODZILLA, if it has any source of inspiration outside of Honda’s 1954 masterpiece GOJIRA, owes more to JAWS than any other film. The monster action is meted out in small doses with the first handful of monster showdowns coming across as little more than teases of larger things to come. Time and time again, Edwards cuts away before a single punch is thrown. Why? Because he understands that the film needs to earn those scenes. Indulging at every opportunity would only blunt the effect.

That isn’t to say that GODZILLA is completely devoid of action, monster related or otherwise. The MUTOs, insect-like monstrosities from the same evolutionary and geological period as Godzilla, are frightening and perfectly realized creations. They get the bulk of the monster screen time here. While it might seem a bit hypocritical to call your film GODZILLA and then proceed to push the title character to the side in favor of the secondary monsters, I think the decision was the right one. Godzilla is right up there with King Kong in terms of popularity and, more importantly, familiarity. Even if you’ve never seen a GODZILLA film, you know what he looks like and what he’s capable of. The MUTO creatures are new creations and the film takes the time to set up their arrival and answer questions about their origins and abilities. If this film had not been a GODZILLA film, had it been solely about the MUTOs, I still would have enjoyed it. But without Godzilla, it would have taken one hell of a deus ex machina to bring the beasts down and so here he is, rendered in glorious CGI and voiced by an impressive catalog of Oscar-caliber sound design. The creature designs and special effects work on display in GODZILLA are simply awe inspiring.

People are simply not good at conceptualizing great heights or distances. Our brains have trouble with the incredibly small and the incredibly large. Usually in films like this, it’s difficult to really gauge the sheer size of the monsters or aliens. If I dug a hole in my yard six feet deep, you would have no problem visualizing that hole, if only because you probably know someone that stands six feet in height. Now if I told you the hole was 100 feet deep or 300 feet deep, chances are you would have a problem visualizing that. Godzilla and the MUTOs are huge things. Godzilla himself is said to be 350 feet tall. In any other film, we would have seen Godzilla in typical action shots, cameras swooping and weaving around the giant mass of destruction. Edwards does something much more interesting. Nearly every scene of monster action is framed by recognizable objects. Nearly every scene features one or more human characters on screen. When Godzilla emerges from San Francisco Bay, threatening to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge in the process, Edwards films the action from within school buses. He keeps soldiers in plain view of the camera. We have a constant frame of reference and that helps us grasp the sheer size of the monsters. It’s such a simple trick but it pays off beautifully. You can’t help but be amazed by the spectacle and overwhelmed by the sheer size of the beasts.

With all of the monster mayhem regulated to inciting incident material, it falls on the human side of the story to move the picture along. Opinions will vary on how successful Edwards and his band of actors are at pulling this piece of the puzzle off. I found it engaging and emotionally satisfactory, if a bit predictable. It barely rises above the typical “I got to get back to my wife” storyline that fueled hundreds of films before it, but it is all executed well and with a decent amount of conviction. Yes, there is a bit of bait and switch between the marketing of the film and reality of the film (let’s just say that Hitchcock would be proud) and the storyline does require a HUGE amount of coincidence to get everything working but those are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. I can forgive exposition and coincidence if it pushes the plot forward.

Is GODZILLA a perfect film? No, it isn’t. Is it the best GODZILLA film since the original? I think so. One of the most enduring characteristics of the GODZILLA franchise is the kitschy quality of the effects work. Never, not even in the best of the Japanese GODZILLA films, do you forget that you’re watching a man in a rubber suit destroying model dioramas. Though they sometimes dealt with very serious subjects like overpopulation, pollution, nuclear proliferation and mass extinction, the nature of the series remained rooted in fantasy. The Saturday morning cartoon quality of the films made them endearing and likeable. I don’t honestly think that this film will have the same kind of legacy that the Japanese films enjoy. I don’t think this film will be enjoyed as easily as say GODZILLA VS MOTHRA or GODZILLA VS DESTROYAH. It is a grim film, much more interested in telling a good story than simply indulging in fan service. GODZILLA is easily the bravest big budget summer event film ever made, a stunning, exciting masterpiece that deftly smacks around its audience, deceiving them and depriving them of masturbatory indulgence every step of the way. GODZILLA might play hard to get, but when it finally decides to give up the goods, it is, in every way, an amazing thing to behold.

May 16, 2014

GODZILLA'S REVENGE / GODZILLA VS HEDORAH / GODZILLA VS GIGAN / GODZILLA VS MEGALON


Diminishing returns led producer Tomoyuko Tanaka to declare an end to the once ultra-profitable GODZILLA franchise in 1968. DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, Toho’s monster fest that brought virtually ever famous Toho monster to the screen at once, was supposed to be the last entry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The 1970s were unkind to Toho and to the Japanese film industry as a whole. In 1969, the signs of the studio’s shaky financial future were everywhere. Theater attendance was declining, ticket sales were at an all time low and public support for Toho’s bread and butter franchises was disappearing. The young men and teenagers drawn to their monster fests had all but abandoned them. The only place for Toho to go was into the children’s markets, the singular arena where the science fiction film was still popular. Daiei Co.’s GAMERA films were still going and still performing well enough to turn a profit. The fourth (and at the time, most recent) GAMERA film, GAMERA VS VIRAS had a reasonably successful run at the box office and clearly Tanaka was paying close attention.

GAMERA VS VIRAS is one of the worst examples of footage recycling I’ve ever seen. Almost all of the monster footage is lifted from the previous films in the series. The only film that truly rivals the laziness of GAMERA VS VIRAS is GODZILLA’S REVENGE, Toho’s follow-up to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS. Even though Ishiro Honda was back in the director’s chair, Tanaka decided to simply reuse footage from earlier Godzilla films in lieu of filming all new battle scenes. The plot that was constructed for the film would be one of the strangest yet for a GODZILLA film.

A young boy named Ichiro is constantly bullied at school. He’s a latch key kid and a loner. One day little Ichiro is kidnapped by bank robbers. To deal with the trauma, he imagines himself on Monster Island where he befriends Godzilla’s son Minya. Minya is also having problems. He’s always being picked on by Gabara, a monster twice his size and capable of generating electricity. Godzilla wants his son to stick up for himself and put the smack down on his bully but Minya is terrified. Minya and Ichiro watch as Godzilla fights other monsters, have some monster / kid bonding and finally find their inner strengths. All of this parallels with Ichiro’s real life adventures with the robbers and his school yard bullies.

Let’s skip the niceties here. GODZILLA’S REVENGE is one of the worst films ever made, an absolutely horrible, incomprehensibly bad piece of garbage that shouldn’t exist on this planet. This is GODZILLA reimagined as an After School Special, a totally vapid, utterly disastrous insult to the collective intelligence of mankind. This is a cash grab masquerading as a message movie. The constant recycling of old footage reduces the film to a total waste of time for all but the most hardcore of GODZILLA fans. Tanaka’s desire to make a quick buck backfired, alienating whatever hardcore fanbase the franchise had left.

GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (or GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER) followed the next year. Encouraged by the success (even though small) of GODZILLA’S REVENGE, Tanaka thought it was time for the franchise to recapture its significance. The film would carry with it a social message, returning Godzilla to his allegorical roots, and dump the explicitly adolescent tone of the previous batch of films while still appealing to teenagers and children. Ishiro Honda would not be returning. Tanaka hired a promising young director named Yoshumitsu Banno and brought on board Riichiro Manabe to compose the score. Tanaka hoped the new hires would produce something that would appeal to audiences that had abandoned the franchise years back. Though GODZILLA VS HEDORAH was his first solo directing job, Banno was old hat in the film industry after having been assistant director on several Kurosawa films. Manabe was much more of a jazz composer than a classical composer, working on several films by the cutting edge visionary Nagisa Oshima. It’s clear that Tanaka’s decision to bring him on board was an effort to make the film feel hip and in tune with the attitudes of the youth in Japan.

As the film went into production, the Japanese film industry fell apart. Television finally became the medium of choice, keeping audiences out of the theaters in unprecedented numbers. Daiei Co. went bankrupt. Toho, so known for their in house effects extravaganzas, closed their famous special effects department. The company was fragmented and restructured. Tanaka became the president of Toho Vision, a studio offshoot comprised of many of Toho’s most talented ex-special effects department workers. They became a special effects company for hire, working on commercials and television shows. One of the holdovers was Teruyoshi Nakano, a special effects artist that spent many years working under Eiji Tsuburaya, Toho's legendary visual effects master. He was hired to bring the new Godzilla to life.

The booming economy in Japan had serious ramifications on the health of the country. Air pollution was sky rocketing. The air quality was so bad that oxygen tanks were installed on some street corners and people wore medical masks over their faces when they left their homes. This was the societal concern Banno and his co-writer Takeshi Kimura would address in the film. The creature Godzilla would fight during the film would not be a traditional kaiju. The monster, Hedorah, would be comprised of filth, pollution and trash. Godzilla would become, quite literally, a protector of the environment. The writing of the film proved difficult. GODZILLA VS HEDORAH was meant to be released as part of a special series of family friendly films, but that was not the film Banno wanted to create. The finished product is a strange mix of children’s story and nightmare horror film where cartoon monster designs and gross-out humor rub shoulders with mass death and grotesqueries.

If the tone of the film is confused, the look of the film is downright schizophrenic. The film is a strange mixture of avant-garde, classic kaiju, animation, horror, psychedelica and hippie environmentalism. It moves from a scene of Godzilla and Hedorah fighting to a strange animated interlude depicting a belching factory plucking plants out of the ground. Hedorah’s slithering is cross cut with a bizarre scene of a man hallucinating inside a dance club, all the patrons swaying in front of him while wearing fish masks. Everything about the film feels designed by committee. The opening credits are done in a James Bond 007-style with a pretty woman singing a grating song called “Save the Earth” (what else would it be called?). There is a moment where a bunch of friends are sitting on the beach in silence. With no warning or explanation, the scene abruptly turns into something out of a Frankie and Annette beach party flick. In terms of batshit insanity, only Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HAUSU tops this film.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with insanity for insanity’s sake. That isn’t the problem here. The real problem is that they tried to pass this off as a GODZILLA film. It is missing all the familiar elements. Aside from one very brief scene, there is no human intervention launched against either monster. The fight scenes are preceded by endless stretches of Godzilla and Hedorah just staring each other down. The setting, much like the South Pacific films that came before it, is bland and uninteresting, mostly set in barren environments. All of the spectacle has been removed. In place of exciting visuals, we get something out of a Troma film. There are endless scenes of people screaming in agony before turning into piles of bones. Hedorah literally fires balls of steaming shit at Godzilla. When the big lizard throws a punch, his fist sinks deep into Hedorah’s body, coming out the other side covered in dripping goop. Hedorah often excretes a river of thick brown fluid that looks like diarrhea. When Godzilla finally puts Hedorah down for the count, he spends two whole minutes ripping chunks of slime from the monster’s stomach, eviscerating it in plain view of the camera.

Banno was very proud of his film. Tomoyuko Tanaka did not share his enthusiasm. Tanaka was hospitalized during almost the entire production. This allowed the filmmakers a level of control they might not have had otherwise. After being released, Tanaka viewed the film. He accused Banno of ruining the franchise. After GODZILLA VS HEDORAH, Banno would never direct another feature film.

The next two films in the franchise, GODZILLA VS GIGAN and GODZILLA VS MEGALON would bring the franchise down to an all-time low. Returning to the cheap practice of reusing footage from earlier films, GODZILLA VS GIGAN is littered with footage ripped from GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS and several others. Even the soundtrack was a compilation of cues and themes from other movies. The story, a science fiction yarn about cockroaches in human disguise, recalls the typical “invading aliens” narratives of earlier films. The only interesting bit of the film is Gigan himself, a giant cyborg lizard from Star M in the Hunter Nebula with massive metal sickles for hands and a buzzsaw embedded in his stomach. The film does feature supporting monster turns by fan favorites Anguirus and Ghidorah but even they can’t save the film. It’s a shameless cash grab.

And then there’s GODZILLA VS MEGALON, one of the worst films ever made. A series of underwater nuclear tests all but wipes out the undersea kingdom of Seatopia. The inhabitants decide enough is enough so they send Megalon, a strange crustacean-insect monster, to the surface. Looking for an even greater advantage, the Seatopians steal a remote-controlled robot called Jet Jaguar and use it to bolster Megalon’s destructive force. A bunch of ridiculous shit goes down before the creators of Jet Jaguar regain control of their creation. Undeterred, the Seatopians contact Star M and ask for them to send Gigan to Earth. Gigan arrives, Jet Jaguar teams up with Godzilla and a tag team monster mash begins.

In the early 1970s, tokusatsu shows were all the rage in Japan. Shows like ULTRAMAN and ULTRA Q were eating up the ratings every week. So Toho, in another moment of extreme opportunism, decided to incorporate the giant robot craze into the next GODZILLA film. They held a contest to design an Ultraman-style robot. The winner was an elementary school student. If you’re asking yourself why Toho, a studio that still employed some truly brilliant designers, decided to leave such a pivotal design choice in the hands of elementary school students, you’re close to understanding why this film is so terrible. Everything about the film is a reflection of that lazy attitude. The backdrops are again barren landscapes, the Godzilla redesign looks terrible, the action is choppy and filled with recycled footage and all of the rough violence (and even a scene containing nudity) was left out of the foreign edit, the only version of the film that would available for decades. By the time GODZILLA VS MEGALON left theaters, Godzilla was treated as a joke by the critics and public alike. Toho’s most famous monster was living on borrowed time.

May 14, 2014

GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO / GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER / SON OF GODZILLA / DESTROY ALL MONSTERS


After flirting with science fiction in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, the GODZILLA franchise tumbled straight down the sci-fi rabbit hole with their next film, GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO. A race of aliens from Planet X, a small, recently discovered planet orbiting Jupiter, contact Earth and offer a deal. They explain that their home planet is under attack by a creature they call Monster Zero. They wish to “borrow” Rodan and Godzilla in hopes that the monster duo can kill the rampaging beast. In exchange, the aliens will give us a cure for all known diseases. The humans agree to the deal and the aliens scoop up Rodan and Godzilla, transporting them to the surface of Planet X. It turns out that Monster Zero is none other than Ghidorah. The monsters fight it out and Ghidorah retreats. But the aliens have another reason for wanting to get their hands on Rodan and Godzilla. Their planet is running out of water. That makes Earth a prime target for a hostile takeover. They use a mind control device on Rodan and Godzilla and bring them back to Earth, ordering the monsters to trash everything in sight. Eventually, the humans manage to break the alien’s control over the monsters and Rodan and Godzilla confront Ghidorah in the final battle.

GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO was the result of a co-production deal with United Production of America. Under the terms of the deal, Toho would make three films, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, each starring an American lead to bolster cross cultural appeal. As a result of the deal, GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO would be the first GODZILLA film not to be radically altered for American release. The American editors trimmed a little bit of the fat away, rearranged some of the musical cues and added some unique sound effects. Even the dialogue was translated faithfully. All of this makes GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO a true oddity in the franchise, the first and only GODZILLA film that actually plays better in the re-edit.

Fans of the franchise spotted something odd during the film. There are moments when the monster carnage depicted is clearly lifted from other films. Footage from GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, RODAN and MOTHRA was repurposed and inserted into the edit, a cost savings measure that would become more and more frequent as the series progressed. While much of GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO looks great, it is obvious that corners were cut here and there. Some of the matte paintings, props and costumes look cheap. The fights scenes were no longer being filmed at high speeds, a process that was costly and cumbersome. The film was a noticeable step down in quality but still managed to be everything a GODZILLA film should be, fun, fast moving and full of monster action. That’s more than can be said about the next installment.

After their boat is attacked by a giant crab monster called Ebirah, a young sailor and his three companions find themselves stranded on a strange island. There they discover a secret nuclear assembly plant run by terrorists. As they try to escape, the terrorists give chase. The foursome conveniently finds Godzilla sleeping in a nearby cave. Using lightning, they manage to wake the slumbering beast. Godzilla wrecks the plant and fights Ebirah while everyone else tries to escape the island before the stored nuclear devices explode. That is about all the story GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER has to offer.

Throughout the 1960s, GODZILLA films began to perform worse and worse at the box office. Television quickly became the most popular medium in Japan and all of the studios were feeling some level of financial discomfort. GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER was originally set to star King Kong, but attaching Godzilla to the production gave the film a larger box office draw and a much better opportunity to turn a profit. But in order for the film to stand a chance at returning on investment, many more corners would need to be cut. The effects budget is noticeably reduced, allowing for fewer miniature sets and less intricate monster battles. Most of the action happens outdoors, either in the water or in barren locations. It feels strange. It’s easy to see why King Kong was the original choice for the lead monster. The setting suits Kong much more than Godzilla. It’s like they just swapped names without any consideration of how the film would turn out (they even left in the scenes where Godzilla has his attention swayed by a pretty young island girl, a plot strand that screams King Kong). All of these things result in a GODZILLA film that feels nothing like a GODZILLA film. To make matters worse, none of the changes helped the property at all. The film performed poorly at the box office.

SON OF GODZILLA followed shortly after. The first GODZILLA film made explicitly for children, SON OF GODZILLA deals with the sudden mutation of mantises on the Sol-Gel Island in the South Pacific. The mantis monsters stumble upon a large egg and break it apart. Inside is a baby Godzilla (commonly referred to as Minya or Minilla, though never named during the course of the movie). Godzilla defends his child, defeats the mantises and then proceeds to engage in cutesy moments with the temperamental little tyke for the rest of the running time. A giant spider monster called Kumonga threatens Godzilla, his son and a group of UN scientists stationed at the island to study weather patterns. Predictably, Godzilla defeats the monster with relative ease. At the films end, the scientists freeze the island and flee, leaving Godzilla and his son in peace.

This is honestly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’m not the target audience but even as a kid this film made me want to pull my hair out. It was obviously an attempt to muscle in on the lucrative children’s market that Daiei Co., Toho’s main rival, had cornered with its series of GAMERA films. It is desperate, desperate in every way. This was a simple attempt at a cash grab, betraying the entire franchise in hopes of reaping some quick revenue. The budget restraints were carried over and as a result the look of the film is flat and uninteresting. Adding insult to injury is Minya himself. What an absolutely hideous looking creation. All of the attempted laughs fall flat and every single scene feels juvenile and pathetic. The film does have a few things to say about environmental issues, especially overpopulation and the speed at which we are depleting the environment of natural resources, but everything is lost in an obnoxious haze of sight gags and children’s humor.

SON OF GODZILLA turned out to be a box office bomb, drawing in less than 2.5 million ticket buyers at the Japanese box office, the lowest total yet for a GODZILLA film. The overseas market had completely dried up and with it the prospects of carrying on the GODZILLA franchise into the 1970s. It was time to end the whole monster craze and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided to send it out in style. Back on board were director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube and special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya. Writing the screen play would be Takeshi Kimura, the screenwriter of many non-Godzilla monster films, most notably RODAN. Given a much larger budget and a much more relaxed shooting schedule, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS would be the ultimate monster fest, bringing on board virtually every major GODZILLA monster and even a few from outside the franchise. Gorosaurus, Manda, Baragon and Varan fighting alongside Godzilla, Minya, Mothra, Rodan, Kumonga and Anguirus in an epic battle against Ghidorah? What could possibly go wrong?

Well for starters, the promised monster fest doesn’t really kick in until 20 minutes before the closing credits. Sure there are extended scenes of monsters destroying cities and landscapes but audiences were promised an all out orgy of monster on monster action. What they got instead was a solid hour of science fiction drivel. An alien race, the Kilaaks, abduct all of Earth’s monsters from Monsterland, a deserted island in the Pacific that is home to all the various monsters in the Godzilla universe. The aliens release the monsters in major cities across the world as a distraction from their base building exercises near Mount Fuji. It is revealed that the monsters (surprise, surprise) are all being mind-controlled by the Kilaak. The United Nations Science Committee orders a captain and his crew to track down the source of the alien’s mind control frequencies. Once the system (which is on the freaking moon, by the way) has been destroyed, the monsters all return to Monsterland. In retaliation, the Kilaaks summon Ghidorah and the much anticipated monster battle begins. That’s quite the set-up for a single monster battle that barely lasts ten minutes.

There are random moments of destruction sprinkled throughout the film. Godzilla trashes New York, Rodan flies around Moscow, Gorosaurus burrows out of the ground in Paris, Manda slithers through London and Mothra trashes Beijing. These are really some of the most interesting scenes in the entire film. We rarely see these monsters destroying anything other than tourist spots in Japan. The miniature work done by Tsuburaya and his team of model makers is superb, a much needed return to form for the franchise after the budget-starved GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER and SON OF GODZILLA, both of which take largely place in barren, outdoors areas. But these scenes of destruction are all short and unevenly spaced out in the narrative. Yes, it scratches the itch and makes the wait seem less painful, but again, as with GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, the human side of the story just sucks the life out of everything. But then we get to the ending. And although it’s brief, it’s glorious. Ghidorah shows up, shoots a few lasers and then the beat down to end all beat downs plays out in awesome rubber suit monster fashion.

I must admit, though the finale is spectacular fun to watch, it does seem strange to see all these former enemies tag teaming Ghidorah. By the time the three-headed space dragon puts his feet on land, all of the monsters have lined up behind Godzilla like soldiers waiting for their general to yell “charge”. But all nitpicks vanish once the shit hits the fan. The battle is an amazing sight to behold, especially when you think of the logistics and choreography, with each of the monsters getting to showcase their unique fighting styles. Anguirus goes for the neck like a bucktoothed bulldog, Mothra and Kumonga try to cocoon Ghidorah in their webs, Gorosaurus does a kangaroo kick, Rodan uses his wings to create gusts of wind and Godzilla throws punches like a prize fighter. Even the hideous Minya gets a good blow in, choking one of Ghidorah’s necks with a smoke ring. Once Ghidorah’s down on the ground, the monsters gang up and stomp him to death. It’s brutal, fun and exhilarating.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS has some major problems. As mentioned, the human side of the story is needlessly complicated and occupies way too much screen time. We’ve already seen this story once before in GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO. We didn’t need to see it again. It’s bland, extremely black and white in terms of characterization and lacking in any real suspense or intrigue. Everything that doesn’t deal with monsters is forgettable and that’s a real problem for a movie that is 80% aliens/humans and 20% monsters. Like GODZILLA VS MONSTER ZERO, the film also recycles a decent amount of footage from other GODZILLA films, sometimes in extremely jarring ways. It may sound like I hate this film but honestly it ends on such a celebratory high note that it’s hard to really dislike it. For 20 minutes, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is the film that every kid had always wanted to see. It’s those 20 minutes that really matter here and they are glorious.  

May 13, 2014

KING KONG VS. GODZILLA / GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA / GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER



The success of GODZILLA and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN led to several giant monster movies being made on the back lots of Toho Studios. After Godzilla was buried beneath ice by the Osaka Air Force, RODAN appeared to terrorize the people of Kitamatsu, VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE began sinking ships in Tokyo Bay and MOTHRA took to the skies to protect Infant Island. All of these movies (with the exception of VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE) were hits. Their titular monsters all entered the popular culture of Japan and the zeitgeist of the Japanese film industry began, just a little, to change. Japan had discovered the B-movie.

In 1960, Willis O’Brien, the effects genius behind KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, had an idea. After a slew of monster films invaded international cinemas, he felt it was time for King Kong to make a comeback. O’Brien’s idea concerned a fight in San Francisco between Kong and a giant Frankenstein’s Monster. He worked hard on the concept, producing a treatment that was accepted by the executives at RKO Pictures, the famed production house that still held the copyright on KING KONG.  With RKO long out of the production side of filmmaking, O’Brien still needed to find a studio willing to make his dream project.  He was introduced to a savvy producer by the name of John Beck. At the time, Beck was working for Universal-International, a company with a rich tradition of monster films like THE DEADLY MANTIS, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and THE MOLE PEOPLE. Beck immediately went to work on finding a writer to flesh out O’Brien’s treatment. Hired to write the script was George Worthing Yates, the writer of THEM! And EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (among many, many others). To O’Brien’s disappointment, Yates removed all references to Frankenstein and changed the monster’s name to Prometheus. The script was completed in relatively short time. Unfortunately, Beck could not secure the necessary funds in Hollywood and was forced to search the foreign market. The company that eventually put up the money was Toho.

The Prometheus monster was written out of the script and replaced with Godzilla. It isn’t a secret that Toho’s interest in the project had little to do with the story. They simply wanted their hands on King Kong. Having secured the rights, Toho suddenly had an epic prospect on their hands, a film with cross culture appeal that could be made cheaply and efficiently. Toho took pride in the film, even releasing it as part of the Toho Studio’s 30th Anniversary Special series of films. To this day, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA remains one of the most profitable Japanese monster films ever made and, despite reports to the contrary, is one of the best films in the Godzilla franchise. Deftly mixing fan service, blistering attacks on corporate greed and rampant commercialism, and classic Toho-style monster battles, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, a film made by the same creative team that launched the franchise, would single-handedly make Godzilla a viable commercial property again.

The next film in the franchise, GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, pushed the series squarely into the realm of science fiction. A gigantic egg is found in Japan. Seizing the opportunity to exploit the public’s interest in this strange, alien discovery, the egg is quickly snapped by a greedy promoter named Kumayama (shades of KING KONGs Carl Denham). Despite the pleadings of Mothra’s Twin Fairies (seriously; they’re one foot tall Japanese twin pixies), Kumayama refuses to return the egg. Then Godzilla shows up and all hell breaks loose. The heroes of the film, a reporter, a photographer and a scientist, rush off to Infant Island, the home of Mothra, to beg for help. Eventually, the inhabitants of the island relent and Mothra is dispatched to deal with Godzilla. Unfortunately, Mothra is no match for the King of the Monsters and is killed. But Mothra’s egg hatches and her children (in larvae state) manage to take Godzilla down before swimming back to Infant Island.

Mothra had already been the star of her own successful picture (directed by Ishiro Honda, no less) in 1961. If KING KONG VS. GODZILLA was a smash, there was no reason for Toho to doubt the appeal and cross over potential of this match up. It’s a great monster film, full of life and laughs, great action sequences and likeable human characters. The techniques used in the film were also improved, lending the film a real shine that the previous films in the franchise were missing. It was a hit with theatergoers, virtually guaranteeing that Godzilla would return to Tokyo once more. And audiences didn’t have to wait long for that return. Eight months after GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA debuted in theaters, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER roared into theaters, giving birth to one of Toho’s most famous monsters.

Truth be told, as important as GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (or, depending on the translation, GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER) is to the franchise, it is one of the more ridiculous entries in the Godzilla series. The film is burdened with an uninteresting and unbelievable subplot involving a princess, her attempted assassination, and her sudden belief that she is really a prophetess from Venus. The princess comes under the protection of a detective named Shindo. Between dodging hitmen and endless assassination attempts, Shindo’s reporter sister attempts to exploit the princess for a news scoop. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, a meteor has crashed to Earth, carrying inside it the giant, three-headed dragon Ghidorah. Ghidorah bursts from the rock and proceeds to destroy everything in his path. The Twin Fairies call upon Mothra to help protect the Earth, leading her to recruit the temperamental Rodan and Godzilla to help put an end to Ghidorah’s reign of terror.

Now it must be said that relatively few of the GODZILLA films are heavy on the monsters. Most of them have a main plot, usually dealing with aliens trying to take over Earth, and a human element to the narrative with the monster battles acting as a backdrop. This film is no exception. It takes an hour for Ghidorah to wake up, an hour and ten minutes for Mothra to enter the film and another twenty minutes on top of that before any real monster action occurs. Sprinkled through the endless scenes of Shindo and the princess dodging bullets are mind numbing scenes of military types talking, Twin Fairies singing, people reacting to things outside of the frame, etc. Everything in this film is padded to death and overly complicated. To make matters worse, the monsters in the film are anthropomorphized. Mothra takes on the role of guidance counselor, trying her damndest to get Rodan and Godzilla to play nice and team up to save the Earth. All the roars and groans and chirps and grunts are translated for us by the ever-present Twin Fairies. It’s utter psychosis.

Unable to get Rodan and Godzilla to cooperate, Mothra goes it alone and gets roundly smacked down by the rampaging Ghidorah. At the last minute, Godzilla and Rodan show up and an epic four monster royal rumble breaks out. This is where the film is at its best. Yes, it’s campy (Ghidorah lasers Godzilla in the balls, Rodan stealthily dodges laser blasts behind rocks, Mothra gets to ride on Godzilla’s tail) and yes, it’s absolutely batshit insane but the level of complication in the action is staggering. It’s astonishing that they even manage to pull it off. It’s no surprise that Ghidorah and Rodan are flying around on wires. It’s no surprise that the endless boulders Godzilla chucks at Ghidorah are Styrofoam rocks. It’s all one big sight gag and it works beautifully. While the fight is going down, all the nonsense about princesses from Venus and bumbling assassins fades from memory. Sadly, this is the only redeeming thing about the film. Bloated up with an uninteresting human story that doesn’t even need to be there, padded out with too many useless dialogue scenes and way too slow to get to the action, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER is simply not a good a film.