Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #24: GODZILLA 2000 (1999)

Welcome to KAIJU KAVALCADE, wherein the effervescent Travis Kirkland and myself will be revisiting every single Kaiju Klassik by Toho Studios starring Godzilla, most famous of all giant monsters, in the run-up to the release of Gareth Edwards’ upcoming new take on the big G-dude! Your humble servant is but a novice in all things giant monsters, whereas Travis has been a fan all of his life. This is reflected in our respective titles for the series: if you follow it on Travis’ blog Proton Media, KAIJU KAVALCADE will seem like the knock-off Raymond Burr version of MEMORIES OF MONSTER ISLAND!

TRAVIS:

Though Sony's GODZILLA ended up making big profits, audiences ultimately rejected the monster's blundered attempt at US dominance. Though his films were often perceived as cheesy by the general public, this was the first time that one of the entries had potentially sullied the franchise forever. Of course, box office was G's oldest foe, and Toho knew he had to come back swinging... and fast! Only one year after the Americanzilla debacle, GODZILLA 2000 roared into Japanese theaters to reclaim the title of “King of the Monsters”. Thus begins the Millennium era of the series, and like the Heisei era, the timeline is again given a clean reboot starting from the original GOJIRA. Unlike THE RETURN OF GODZILLA however, G2K loosely implies that kaiju sightings have been a regular occurrence in the intervening years. In fact, the movie begins with a ragtag team of G-enthusiasts named the Godzilla Prediction Network as they attempt to locate the next appearance of the big guy. They soon tangle with the government when G's recent activities coincide with the discovery of a mysterious UFO sunken in the ocean. It all comes down to a good ol' fashioned brawl in Tokyo as the UFO extracts some of G's DNA to create the mutated clone Orga so he can punch and bite G into city-destroying oblivion.

The Millennium films (G2K to GODZILLA: FINAL WARS) similarly restarts the series in Heisei fashion, yet there's a fun, adventurous malleability that recalls the Showa era. We'll see traditional stories, old friends, and new villains, as well as a few interesting experiments with the G film formula. There's a breeziness to this period that might've been missing from the more serious Heisei movies. Godzilla himself gets another makeover too. His height was boosted in RETURN to match the modern day skyscrapers, but he gets reduced back down to his Showa stature to seem less imposing. He's given a more stocky build (oddly comparable to his 2014 beefy look), and his dorsal fins are enlarged and more pronounced too. The most notable change is that for the first time in his history, G's skin is now green colored. Though pop culture often refers to him as a green animal given his reptilian background, he's actually had a gray, charcoal-like hide since GOJIRA to reflect the changes from his radiation exposure. Along with a new set of pearly, sharp teeth, this is a fresh-looking kaiju that's ready for the year 2000!

Originally released in Japan in 1999, G2K received a US theatrical run (appropriately) in 2000. Its middling box office would send the rest of the Millennium flicks direct to video in America, but it holds a special place for me because it's the only Toho-produced Godzilla movie I've seen in theaters. Coming down from the CG dreariness of G98, it was reassuring to watch men in rubber suits pummel each other in widescreen. It's a refreshing recharge from the GINO abomination, and its back-to-basics approach makes G2K a fine romp. Suitamation Godzilla, an enemy monster, evil aliens, army attacks, crumbling cities, and scientists and reporters running around are typical, yet bringing everything back old school style makes for a good time (even down to the traditional Toho logo!). This is also a rare case where I recommend the English dub over the uncut Japanese version. Nothing is substantially deleted or altered (no Raymond Burr scenes to be found), but the US cut actually tightens up the action considerably by reducing some ponderous moments and beats, resulting in nine minutes excised from G2K. That might seem like blasphemy for foreign cinema purists, but c'mon, this ain't Bong Joon-ho here. It's “GODZILLLLLLLLLAAAHHHHHHHHHH!” (as exclaimed by the villainous Katagiri before falling to his death). Were you happy to be back in Tokyo, Luca?

LUCA:

Immeasurably so, Travis! G2K is a blast after Emmerich's debacle, with Godzilla carrying some weight again, and human protagonists you don't wanna see strangled by alien tentacles. A step up, to be sure! Now, I'ma be honest, and say that G2K has a lot of modern Hollywood "influences"/”homages” yet again, just like DESTOROYAH's big ole ALIENS set piece. The first Godzilla encounter has our intrepid trio of heroes, professor Shinoda, his cute little girl Io and spunky reporter Yuki being chased in a suspiciously familar Land Rover that at one point even teeters over the edge of a cliff. Godzilla even takes the time to peer through the window and narrow his pupil. That's right, Emmerich isn't the only Spielberg fan on the planet! Later on, the alien craft destroys a building in (ironically) a clear nod to INDEPENDENCE DAY. But you know what? It didn't matter.

Unlike in Emmerich's movie, there's a sense of danger, high stakes and a couple of pleasant characters. Maybe it's because of the target audience for these movies, but I find myself quite charmed whenever there's a kid protagonist, and Io did not disappoint in this respect! I was highly amused by her banter with Yuki, calling the twentysomething reporter an "old maid" and shakin' her down for membership fees for the Godzilla Prediction Network. Also, the burgers she was frying looked delicious. Up there with Jack Burton's sandwich, I'd say! So many different emotions this movie calls up, from laughter to hunger! Big fan of Katagiri, the asshole government villain and his screaming death as well, yes. Toho is quite good with human baddies, I've found. I haven't been bored by a single one, and have often found them near or at the top of things to praise in each entry.

The true star of G2K is director Takao Okawara, though. Guy has a real eye for composition, and the advent of computer technology allows him to throw some really awesomely framed shots on screen. I was not surprised to hear he also did GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA with its beautiful night-time ferris wheel fight. Now, CGI elements look pretty bad in this movie sometimes, but obviously that's a result of rushing this movie out in a year and having a severely limited budget compared to the US version. One might say that explains crappy visuals but doesn’t excuse them, but hey, you’re watching the 24th entry of a series that cranks them out one-a-year. You gonna be an asshole about shitty CGI? Can’t stand the shit, get out of the truck-stop restroom, I say! Some anti-CGI advocates will claim that bad CGI looks a lot worse than bad puppeteering or model shots, but at some point you’re just hungry for stuff to get shaken up a bit, and Okawara certainly uses the technique in a noticeable but not overpowering way. There's another thing to praise in this movie: the cool alien villains! What did you think of our monolithic friends, Travis?

TRAVIS:

The alien species of G2K are really interesting because they're quite mysterious compared to previous invaders we've seen. The usual MO for evil space people is to either announce their domination plans to the world or infiltrate the public as peacemakers or in human disguise. With the G2K aliens however, we never see them outright explain their intentions. Heck, we never even see them outside of their UFO! You might even surmise that the spaceship itself is the sentient extraterrestrial being since its energized by the sun and possesses great powers like data assimilation and DNA extraction. Orga himself is a pretty neat kaiju even though he only appears in the final act. He kinda reminds me of the Emmerich GINO creature all 'roided up. A more agile clone of Godzilla that ultimately is defeated by the big guy himself... hmmm...

I mentioned before how G2K's back-to-basics approach makes it a good time, and I particularly enjoy how we don't dilly-dally with G's return. You'd think that after his grand finale of a death in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH that G2K would be another slow, methodical re-emergence of Godzilla into the real world akin to RETURN, but nope! The movie opens with G already tearing shit up with the implication that he's been on the stomping scene for quite a while. Perhaps the hurried production schedule meant they didn't have time for a reboot origin story and relied on the tried and true “monster vs. monster” clobber match, but hey, it works! After the dreariness of G98, us G fans needed some of that reliable kaiju medicine.

And man, that medicine came with quite an ending! The third act contains so many joyfully odd/inexplicable/awesome things that it seemed like the silly Showa spirit was still alive. In a last ditch effort, Orga's jaw opens wide to reveal… a hypnotic, rosebud orifice to swallow Godzilla whole. G then charges headfirst into the vagina-like opening, and suddenly we can add Freudian imagery into the various academic readings of the G movies. He promptly roasts Orga in a gigantic explosion and sets his sights on Katagiri. Realizing his failure, Katagiri accepts his kaiju-assisted seppuku by lighting a cigarette and shouting that final “GODZILLAAHHH!” before G smashes the floor underneath, sending Katagiri plummeting to his death. As G makes his way out of Tokyo, the soundtrack is silenced except for the haunting, final score while he continues to leave a smoldering path in his wake. The characters watch in wonderment and ask each other why he always saves us even when we try to destroy him. Shinoda pauses, then wisely states that maybe “a piece of Godzilla is in all of us”. Before we're able to comprehend that line, G blasts a goddamn ring of fire around the city. That's how you end a movie! Were you caught up in all these weird codas too, Luca?

LUCA:

GODDDDD "There's some Godzilla in all of us" followed by Godzilla just wrecking and burning the shit out of Shinjuku while the credits roll is just too perfectly timed a joke for me not to think it was intentional. It's such a hilarious send-up of the usual finale where the human protagonists all stand on some vantage point and one of them utters a gentle platitude on the environment or co-operation or something as Godzilla swims off into the sunset. And so simple too! Let's just do the same thing as usual only Godzilla isn't done with wrecking shit yet. Together with Katagiri LIGHTIN UPPP and screaming "GOJIRAAAAAAAAAAA", this ending is surely an all-timer.

The aliens were definitely my favorite ones so far, if only because they truly seemed alien. I also assumed that the ship itself was their organism, so why they specifically needed Godzilla's cells to adapt to the Earth's atmosphere (especially since the ship seemed perfectly capable of flying around, issuing communiqués via Sony Vaio hand-held devices equipped with Windows 98 SE and even blasting the fuck out of Godzilla), I do not know. Maybe I'm just being disgustingly cisnormative and a silver spaceship was simply the identity they were assigned at birth, and they had been identifying as a crustacean rancor for the last seventy million years. Who are we to deny them their true identity! Well, we don't have a problem with it, but... let us add transphobia to the already cyclopean list of crimes Godzilla is guilty of!

Next week, Godzilla will take on a wholly new villain -- or maybe Anguirus has been hitting the protein shakes? Join us then for GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRUS!

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