Sunday, July 20, 2014

Kaiju Kavalcade #29: GODZILLA: FINAL WARS

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.

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LUCA:

Well... gee.

Ryuhei Kitamura’s GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is not a movie one should unwind with after a hard day’s work. If Godzilla movies (or kaiju flicks in general) are delicious junk food to be consumed as a guilty pleasure now and then, FINAL WARS is a cake that’s 70% frosting, 30% cookie dough and 5% XTC. I am aware that that is more than 100%, but I feel like that’s the only way to accurately describe FINAL WARS. It’s more than 100% FINAL WARS at all times. The story boils down to a remake of INVASION OF ASTRO MONSTER mashed up with a bit of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS for good measure. The Xilians even have the snappy sunglasses from ASTRO MONSTER! Rather than lying about trading a cure for cancer for the limited-time use of Godzilla and Rodan to beat back King Ghidorah, the Xilians this time lie about a huge asteroid named Gorath headed for Earth, which can only be repelled once the Earthlings gather up all their weapons in one place and… something. Before this ruse, though, the Xilians teleport all monsters to… somewhere? To gain the Earth’s trust, of course!

I was awake and conscious the entire runtime of this movie, and I did not imbibe or partake in any mind-altering substances. Maybe it was said where Earth’s weapons had to be placed or where the monsters were teleported to (one assumes on board gigantic holding ships) but honestly, after these two things occur, SO MUCH happens until the end of the movie that anyone could be forgiven for not registering such little trivialities as major plot catalysts. The aliens lie, their ruse is found out, and a young hotshot Xilian summarily executes his superior and takes over command in lieu of a more violent approach: unleash all monsters until the Earth is bludgeoned into submission! Oh yeah, there was no asteroid – it was just a clever Photoshop of a bunch of unrelated space phenomena. Luckily, there is ONE monster out there that has evaded Xilian control – Godzilla.

In the final alternate timeline (so far) of the Toho Godzilla series, Big G was contained on the South Pole after a big battle with Earth Defence Force vehicle Gotengo in… the 80s? If we assume FINAL WARS is in 2004 and Colonel Gordon (who looks about in his forties) says he was in that fateful assault, it’s probably around the 80s. Anyway, our heroic band of humans must head to the South Pole to free G so he can take the fight to all the mind-controlled kaiju and rid the Earth of that Xilian menace once and for all. Oh, did I mention that mutants have been living among humans for decades now? Their blood contains M-BASE, a substance also found in the fossilized Gigan that the EDF has hanging around. Could they be related? Our main guy Ozami is one of these mutants, and an EDF soldier to boot. He believes kindness is key to protecting humanity, while his frenemy Kazama believes mutants are made to fight, not protect humankind. I’m… not quite sure what these mutants do. They jump high and stuff? Know super good martial arts? Oh man, and there’s so much more stuff I could talk to you about here. But Travis, why don’t you tell me what you thought once your headache subsides!

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TRAVIS:

Boy howdy, Luca!  Toho knows how to take advantage of G's milestones, and GFW was the supersized birthday cake stacked to the brim with white hot sparklers as candles for his 50th anniversary in 2004 (G even got his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as commemoration!).  Even though fan reaction to the film was a bit divisive, there's no denying how joyful it was to see how packed GFW was with pure Toho-ness!  First off, what a monster roll call!  We got G, Minilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, King Caesar, Ebirah, Kumonga, Kamacuras, Hedorah, Manda, Zilla (from the '98 US film), Gigan, and King Ghidorah (reprised as the bipedal final boss Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah), as well as stock footage cameos of Varan, Baragon, Gaira, Gezora, Titanosaurus, Mechagodzilla, Megaguirus, and Godzilla Junior.  The cast too has many returning faces such as Showa mainstays Akira Takarada and Kumi Mizuno.  In addition, the main weapon of the good guys is the battleship Gotengo, which debuted alongside Manda in ATRAGON (both are seen once again in underwater battle in GFW).  Even the Xillians' faux asteroid is named after the 1962 sci fi film GORATH!  Pick up your baskets, G fanatics, because it's Easter egg season!

The mutants are a fun bunch too.  I think Kitamura only included them so he could have as many wire-fu fights as he wanted.  In the long line of Toho “borrowing” from popular American movies, the connections between Ozaki and young alien leader X are pretty much parallels to Neo and Agent Smith from THE MATRIX.  Both are powerful beings with one wanting to rule mankind as livestock while the other fights for humanity and ultimately taps into his god-like abilities to win the day.  Similarly, Smith's lively performance was my favorite from the MATRIX films, and the overacting X was my MVP pick in the non-kaiju acting department.  I particularly enjoyed watching his heartthrob status when he's surrounded by adoring teeny-bopper fans at his radio station appearance.  He's just loving putting one over on the humans!  You also gotta admire his variety of over-the-top arm gestures as he commands the various kaiju and spaceships attacking Earth.  The moment he finally won my heart was when he clenched his fists and commanded the dispatch of Gigan with an Oscar-worthy scream of “GIIIIIIGAANNNNNN!!!!!!”

You'd think a movie with all this slam packed goodness would be universally loved by G fans, but it surprisingly isn't the case.  The two biggest complaints I've heard are 1) there's too much human/mutant/alien action and not enough kaiju content and 2) the monster fights are too short.  Now, I don't think these assessments are necessarily wrong, but it seems like a case of focusing on the minutiae and ignoring the bigger picture.  To address the first complaint, there's always been human filler in the G films, and GFW is no exception.  However, Kitamura switches out ponderous scenes of people in labs or government buildings for ACTION ACTION ACTION.  What would you rather watch?  Another routine moment of scientists and military men arguing over nuclear politics or two mutants delivering flying kicks to each other on motorcycles?  As for the second complaint, while the fights are shorter, GFW makes up for it by giving us A BUNCH OF MONSTER FIGHTS.  G vs. Kumonga!  Ebirah vs. mutants!  Mothra vs. Gigan!  And so forth!  Not only are there a lot of battles, but they're so many awesome action beats stuffed in each one.  This review could've easily been just a BuzzFeed “list-icle” called 25 INSANELY EPIC MOMENTS FROM GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (gifs and all)!  I'll start off with one:  even if some G fans were disappointed with GFW, you can't deny how insane it was to watch Angy curl up into Soccer Ball Mode so King Caesar could give him the winning fly-kick at G. GFW definitely ended the Millennium era on a high note, Luca, so what were your favorite moments, and how do you feel about the M-movies in general?

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LUCA:

Yeah, I think FUTBOLZILLA was probably the high point of the movie, kaiju-wise. An entry worthy of the “Stupid Shit Toho Makes Godzilla Do For Fun And Profit” annals! Since they were sorta redoing ASTRO MONSTER again, it was only fitting that they’d try and top the Godzilla victory dance from that movie. As you said, basically everything X does is giggle-worthy. But you know what? Most things the humans do in this movie are giggle-worthy. Why is Colonel Gordon a weird katana wielding Zangief? Why is the Godzilla containment facility seemingly manned by no one but nihilistic Balrog and E. Honda? Seriously, at the news of the apocalyptic Xilian invasion, Honda says “Good! I’ll be able to read in peace!” Oh man, and the pug subplot! I was already heartily chuckling at an interview with “the first Japanese Secretary General of the UN” suddenly and pointlessly being derailed into talking about his pug Clint, so you can imagine how delighted I was that Clint became a big plot point and running gag. He’s even there to wave Godzilla goodbye in traditional Showa fashion!

Oh oh oh! I also loved the callback to fan non-favorite ALL MONSTERS ATTACK/GODZILLA’S REVENGE when Minilla was suddenly able to change size at will so the Godzilla/Minilla suit actors could interact without the interference of green screen. The fact that Kitamura even remembers that makes me think he’s not exactly a guy who doesn’t care about Godzilla who landed the gig of doing a Godzilla movie (see: Bay, Michael), just one who has verrrry specific tastes when it comes to the big G. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier. Oh oh oh oh again! When Mr. Secretary and Commander Lady are revealed to be not only alive but apparently not restrained in any way and come in John Woo guns blazing? Who cares that there’s little monster content! “They call me Mr. Infallible!” I can see why, sir!

Oh man, I think, in a way the Millennium series might be my favorite? Toho finally caving and letting directors do what-the-fuck ever with G without regards to continuity is a wonderful idea, and one that really hearkens back to the Showa era's freewheeling attitude. I respect Heisei for trying to craft a relatively "serious" series where each film builds upon the next but, as we've talked about before, there really is a limit to what you can do with big monster stories. So Millennium just went bugfuck and ran with it, man! True, G2K and MEGAGUIRUS are fairly standard (if still well done) Godzilla plots, but just for the Kiryu duology and FINAL WARS, I give them all the credit. What are your feelings on the Millennium-era, T-Hawk?

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TRAVIS:

If anything, I'm happy that the Millennium era managed to make the preposterously awesome Gigan even more crazy looking.  We've already discussed how Rob Liefeld-ian his design is, but GFW kicks it up a notch.  He's killed off early in the film by G at the South Pole, and after G's clobbered his way through the rest of the kaiju to the Xilians, he's revived and re-weaponized with a more cybernetic look.  Not only that, but his hook claws are replaced by DOUBLE CHAINSAWS.  Go ahead and slap Chainsaw Gigan on a YOUNGBLOOD cover already!  I also gotta mention Mothra's sweet finishing move to the Nebula Space M Hunter.  Gigan shoots twin razor discs at her, only to have them deflected by her wings and sent flying back at his neck.  His decapitated head falls to the ground, and Mothra incinerates the rest of him in a fiery, Phoenix explosion!  FATALITY.

There's definitely wilder experimentation in the Millennium era than the Heisei era, and I think the key difference between the two cycles can be found in the choice of directors.  They are fine Heisei flicks of course, yet most of them were made by longtime Toho company men who “stuck to formula” for better or worse.  The Millennium series could be compared to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe films in that the most vibrant entries are those where the helmers married their own idiosyncrasies with their childhood fondness of their beloved geek properties.  People like Joss Whedon and Shane Black brought excitement to Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and similarily, 'zilla-buffs Kitamura and Shusuke Kaneko breathed fresh life into the King of the Monsters for the new century.  From watching MONSTERS, it shouldn't be a surprise that G-nerd Gareth Edwards was chosen to give the big guy another shot at American fame.

And maybe it was time to cross the Atlantic again.  Despite all the 50th anniversary trumpeting, GFW ended up being the lowest grossing of all the Millennium films.  Perhaps fittingly, the final M-era flick was also the least attended G-film since TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA (which ended the Showa series also due to poor box office).  Yet again, the King of the Monsters was defeated by ticket sales, and as popular US blockbusters became more prominent in Japan, competition grew fiercer than any kaiju from the sea or outer space.  America had forced Godzilla out of Tokyo's theaters, so maybe it was time to pay the United States a visit...

We've completed the entire G film series at last, but we haven't reached the end yet!  Stay tuned as Luca and I wrap up our final thoughts on Godzilla, the franchise, our histories with the big guy, and everything else in between!  Keep your eyes focused on Monster Island!

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