Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kaiju Theater: Godzilla Final Wars

With the new Godzilla film tearing up the screens worldwide, I thought it apropos to revisit the most recent Japanese Godzilla film that preceded this American production. And that film would be 2005's Godzilla Final Wars. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I'm reprinting here a slightly edited version of my original review from 2006 for RevolutionSF.

Anyone going into Godzilla: Final Wars expecting the second coming of Destroy All Monsters is going to be disappointed. Despite all the hype about relentless monster battles and kaiju assembled from decades of Toho films, this isn't that movie. What this is, rather, is a continuation and culmination of Toho's "Millennnial" series, which started with Godzilla 2000 and continued with Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, Tokyo S.O.S., Giant Monsters All-Out Attack and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. Those fans who hold firm the belief that the series lost its way after the Heisei series of Godzilla films (1984-1995) or even the Showa era (1954-1975) would best be served by moving on. For everyone else, well, Godzilla: Final Wars is an entertaining romp. Flawed and problematic, sure, but entertaining nonetheless.

Part of the problem appears to be that nobody -- not Toho and certainly not Sony Pictures -- has really been able to figure out what to do with Godzilla since the big radioactive lizard was first reduced to a pile of bones at the bottom of Tokyo Bay way back in 1954. Ignoring the Nuclear Apocalypse/Force of Nature aspect of the concept, most Godzilla films boast all the plot sophistication of cheap porn -- flimsy, nonsensical plots with even worse acting designed to fill those tedious minutes between beautiful people getting naked and sweaty with each other. Or, in the case of Godzilla, men in rubber suits stomping miniature cities as they act out cockeyed interpretations of professional wrestling's steel cage matches.

With the advent of the Heisei series, the plots did become somewhat more sophisticated, while at the same time, paradoxically, remaining an afterthought. Films like Godzilla vs. Biollante, Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah shamelessly lifted huge swaths of plot from such Hollywood blockbusters as Little Shop of Horrors, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Terminator. Whenever the pressure is on Toho to come up with something new and fresh for the Godzilla franchise, the first thing they do is look to plunder Hollywood's big vault of cliches.

And so it is with Godzilla: Final Wars. With all the wire-fu, shiny black vinyl outfits and throbbing techno soundtrack on display throughout the film, a more appropriate name for the film might be Godzilla vs. the Matrix. Even Masahiro Matsuoka, the lead actor playing mutant Earth Defense Force Soldier Shin'ichi Ozaki, bears more than a passing resemblance to the lean-featured Keanu Reeves (although Masahiro's acting is better. Even when dubbed). The actors spin, punch, kick and fly through practically every scene they have, and there's even a wildly kinetic motorcycle duel on a deserted freeway that owes as much to Tron and Akira as it does The Matrix.

Because that's the way this movie is: It's not just borrowing from The Matrix. No, it's effectively borrowing, swiping, pinching, stealing and paying homage to practically every SF actioner ever made. Well, maybe not Ice Pirates. Even so, Final Wars riffs on everything from Star Blazers to Independence Day, and not subtly, either. There's a scene near the end that might as well have been based on the storyboards from Return of the Jedi.

And that's not even counting the many Toho films that were "officially" incorporated into the movie, ranging from the obscure flying submarine battleship movie Atragon to the popular Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. This movie doesn't have an original bone in its body, and that's a shame, because the budget and enthusiasm here should've made this the greatest installment in the series to date. Instead, it suffers for being merely "okay."

The scenario starts out promisingly enough. After Godzilla's first appearance in 1954, the Earth Defense Force designed a super flying/submersible/burrowing battleship to counter the monster. Fortuitous circumstances enabled the ship to bury Godzilla deep within the Antarctic ice pack, where he went into hibernation. Flush with success, an entire fleet of these warships were commissioned, to counter any new monsters that threatened human civilization. Manned by mutant humans boasting extraordinary physical prowess, this armada proves extremely effective in controlling monstrous invasions until one day when 10 monsters simultaneously appear around the globe and begin weaking havoc.

Rodan, in particular, stands out as the giant pteranadon lays waste to New York with his trademark sonic booms, while those who remember the much-maligned 1998 U.S. entry into the Godzilla canon will get a kick out of seeing that big, grey lizard (here referred to simply as 'Zilla) stomp its hermaphroditic way through the streets of Sydney, Austraila. Things look bleak for the Earth until golden UFOs appear to disintegrate the rampaging beasts.

These aliens, calling themselves Xillians, hit all the requisite talking points about universal peace and harmony, but before long they're replacing the leaders of Earth with evil duplicates and thumbing through well-worn copies of "To Serve Man" (hint: it's a cookbook). To make matters worse, they subvert and take control of the mutant human defenders through a genetic flaw, and unleash the supposedly-vaporized monsters to finish what they started. Buying into the "It can't get any worse than this" strategy, Earth's few remaining defenders pilot the lone remaining battleship, the Goten, to Antarctica in an attempt to wake Godzilla.

Gigan -- the bizarre, hook-armed cybernetic chimera that's been absent from Godzilla movies for nearly 30 years -- shows up right as Godzilla is rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Their battle is entertaining, if brief. From that point on, the movie becomes a sequence of fights, as the Xillians throw one monster after another at the Big G in an attempt to stop his advance. The long-awaited confrontation between Godzilla and 'Zilla in Sydney is shocking only for its berevity -- the kaiju equivalent of a one-punch knockout is played out as a punchline (ahem) and clearly shows the esteem Japanese hold for the American import.

The subsequent fights take on a similar tone, with the focus on how quickly, humorously or spectacularly Godzilla can defeat his opponents. In some instances, the audience is treated to bare snippets of the ongoing carnage, intercut with various other human-oriented sub-plots. The final battle, a confrontation featuring Godzilla, a wickedly re-designed and rebuilt Gigan, the odd Monster X (which resembles an unnatural hybrid of an Alien, Predator and Skeletor from Masters of the Universe) and ultimately the three-headed Kaiser Gidorah, proves nearly worthy of the buildup. Even Mothra makes a brief -- but significant -- appearance in the climactic showdown.

There's some good stuff to be had here. The new Godzilla suit is downright agile, a vast improvement over the ponderous rubber suits of the past. The special effects are flashy and effective, although the over-reliance on computer animation to generate several of Godzilla's foes seemed awkward and out of place. There are some entertaining location shots as well, highlighted by a couple of Aussies' unfortunate encounter with 'Zilla in Sydney, and a you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it 1970s-style cop-vs.-pimp smack fest in New York.

Also, American martial artist Don Frye, a successful professional wrestler in Japan, steals practically every scene he has as the tough, rebellious Captain Douglas Gordon, skipper of the Goten. Frye seems to have two acting modes -- he channels either Dick Butkus or Mike Ditka. He delivers practically every line with a growl, and in an odd twist, almost all his lines were originally in English, meaning that every piece of scenery he chews comes across the same in the English dub as it does in the original Japanese.

All in all, Godzilla: Final Wars is the most energetic, most kinetic, most lavish and most ambitious film of hte series. Unfortunately, it's also the most derivative and unfocused as well. The kitchen sink approach may have seemed like a great idea on paper, but on the big sceen it pushes the movie into self-parody on occasion. Final Wars never sinks to the depths of mediocrity shared by such films as Godzilla vs. Megalon or Godzilla's Revenge. But Final Wars should have been the great Godzilla film everyone wanted, but it comes up short everywhere it matters.


Guy Plunkett said...

How did I miss this one? It even includes Atragon (you call it obscure, but it was right up there with Attack of the Mushroom People in the late night creature feature rotation). I'll have to hunt this down.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

My work here is done. :-)