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.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Kaiju Theater: Godzilla (2014)

Back in the summer of 2000, one scorching August afternoon I made my way to the crummiest theater in Temple, Texas, because that was the only place showing Godzilla 2000. The film was the first Japanese Godzilla film distributed to American cinemas since Godzilla 1985 15 years before. Growing up watching all the cheesy Shōwa series films on Saturday afternoon TV "Creature Features" and was jazzed to see a modern incarnation of the Big G. But when I got to the theater, they told me the air conditioning was out, and would not be repaired for the foreseeable future. It was at least 100 degrees out, and likely to get hotter before the day was out. What's worse, I couldn't catch an evening show because as a sports reporter, I worked evenings. Knowing this was very likely to be my only chance to ever see a real, for-true Godzilla film on the big screen (even then I dismissed the 1998 travesty completely) I bit the bullet: I bought my ticket, and watched the film, all by my lonesome in the empty screening room in sweltering, 90-degree temperatures.

I share this only so readers understand from where I come from. I'm a Godzilla fan from way, way back, and take the atomic age metaphor seriously. Which is why I--and my family--looked forward to this big-budget American production (co-produced by Toho) directed by Gareth Edwards, who gave us 2010's nifty low-budget Monsters. The film opens with an extended setup in which Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody loses his wife, Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) in a suspicious nuclear power plant accident in Japan. Flash forward 15 years, and Joe Brody has become a wild-eyed conspiracy nut, convinced the government is covering up the real cause of the accident and his wife's death. His son, Ford (Kick Ass' Aaron Taylor-Johnson), all grown up and a bomb-disposal expert in the Marines, is just returning home from a tour of duty and desperate to spend quality time with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Except he get a phone call that his crazy dad has been arrested in Japan, so Ford flies to land of the Rising Son to bail him out. Once out, Joe convinces a skeptical Ford that the same seismic events that triggered the disaster 15 years ago are repeating themselves, and needs to return to the restricted area around the ruined power plant to recover his records to prove it. Ford reluctantly agrees with the scheme, but once they sneak in, not only do they recover Joe's long-list zip drive discs, they also discover the area isn't a radioactive wasteland. They're promptly captured by security and get a ring-side seat at a MUTO--a giant, vicious insect-like monster that eats radiation and has cocooned itself in the reactor for the past 15 years, breaks out to join its mate and reproduce. The rest of the movie consists of Ford attempting to return home to San Francisco whilst Godzilla pursues the two MUTOs because Big G is the "apex predator" and the MUTOs are his prey.

Edwards plays things very close to the vest, withholding any glimpse of any monster until well into the film, and only then offering glimpses. Godzilla himself doesn't show the halfway point, and by then, audiences are primed for some serious kaiju-on-kaiju smackdown. Except we don't get it. When Godzilla confronts the male MUTO in Hawaii, Edwards abruptly cuts away to show news reports of the devastating battle. That's it. What works as a cute joke quickly loses its humor once the audience realizes the break isn't just a brief interlude, that Edwards really isn't going to show any of the fight. I've seen reviewers praise Edwards for making "such a bold choice" but I have to call bullshit. Sitting in the theater, watching Edwards tease the audience over and over without delivering the action, all I could think of was my utter disappointment with 1981's big budget flop, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, another movie that chose to tease the audience with promised excitement of a larger-than-life title character, yet fail to deliver until the final act. To be sure, Godzilla does a better job of maintaining interest than that earlier snorefest, but only just. Yet when the final battle comes... well, I didn't feel the payoff was worth the wait. Yes, it's cool when Godzilla finally (reluctantly, it seems) unleashes his famed radioactive breath. The male MUTO makes good use of his hooks and wings to aerially attack Godzilla in ways that would make Rodan jealous. Godzilla himself fights tooth and claw and tail, far more effectively and convincingly than even the best of the rubber-suited Toho films. But still, it remains a fight very much cut from the same cloth of those earlier films. I didn't see anything new brought to the table other than a much, much bigger budget. It certainly wasn't as inventive as the jaw-dropping battle for Hong Kong in last summer's Pacific Rim, and perhaps that film makes a good comparison. The battle for Hong Kong was such a spectacular show-stopper that the final act, with the two Jaegers Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka battling massive kaiju on the ocean floor something of a letdown. It just couldn't measure up. Godzilla's final act feels very much like the final act of Pacific Rim, only Godzilla's show-stopping spectacle was the battle for Honolulu, which audiences never actually saw.

Imagine, say, World War Z with all the zombie action happening before, or after Brad Pitt arrived on the scene. Leaving the theater, The Wife groused, "Who'd have thought Superman would give us too much carnage, and Godzilla not enough?"

The biggest flaw with Edwards' Godzilla is the same flaw inherent with all Godzilla films--the audience really, really, really doesn't care about the humans in the film. The plot centering around the people is, to be blunt, filler to pad out the movie between expensive, special effects-laden monster battles. The Japanese worked around this somewhat by shamelessly ripping off... er, paying homage to such U.S. blockbusters as The Terminator, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Matrix. Pacific Rim skirted the issue by making the human actors actually physically fight their monstrous adversaries by donning armored suits that happened to also be giant robots. Edwards tries to move his film beyond this by going for a poignant human element, but Ford's efforts to get home to his family (a family that is given nothing to do other than be threatened by giant MUTOs) is the exact same story arc as Tom Cruise's in War of the Worlds. Although to be fair, Ford doesn't beat a crazy Tim Robbins to death in a basement whilst hiding out from MUTOs.

Lest I forget, Ken Watanabe is a fantastic actor wasted here. His only job is to look alternately pensive and confused, then spout plot points when convenient to the narrative.

Is Gereth Edwards' Godzilla really all that bad? No. I don't hate it, although it may sound that way. I'll get the Blu-Ray when it comes out, and skip to the final 20 minutes. In many ways it is superior to previous Godzilla films. It goes a long way toward washing away the stain the 1998 film left on the Godzilla legacy. The acting is better. The directing is better. The special effects are better. There are nifty set pieces in this film--the Halo jump from all the trailers being the undisputed emotive and visual high point. But the film can't maintain that level of awe, or even tension. Great effort is put into fleshing out the origins of the MUTOs, but from a storytelling perspective the film is no different from King Kong vs. Godzilla, in which helpless humans simply stand back and "let them fight." Except, in this instance, the audience doesn't get to watch the fun.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Keywords of the Zeitgeist

Bidding now open


Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office 
Technical Support Working Group 
360 degree scanning
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advanced technology
alert tool
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analysis algorithms
analytic capabilities
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catalogs electronic device
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combating terrorism
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CR-80 sized
credit card
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distinguish anomalies
driver's license
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electronic evidence
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entry control point
Expeditionary forces
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extracted data
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firearm simulator
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gap test
generate reports
Heads Up Display
high risk personnel
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Holistic Approaches
holistic baseline
Human Language Technologies
human performance technology
identification card
illicit finance
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information operations
ingests device data
innovative training technology
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Interagency interaction
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Level B
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Long Range Surveillance
Measures of performance
mobile application
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NFPA 1994
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Operational Environmental Tool
Optical Radar functionality
Partner Nation
passport card
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performance support applications
Personnel System
precursors of instability
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render safe
repository search
responses to stimulation
sea state
search and rescue
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sensitive information
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Social media
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social network charts
socio-cultural dynamic models
special facial characteristics
speech isolation
strategic communications
Surveillance System
tactical operations
Tagging Tracking Locating
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terror finance
Thermal Camera
threat finance
training evaluation
TTP Development
uncontrolled image data
Underground Reconnaissance
unmanned aerial system
use-of-force simulator
vehicle access
vehicle identification
vibrational spectroscopy
virtual currency
virtual detectors
virtual environments
virtual reality
web crawler
Web-Based Training
Work Flow Development

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Singularity Sperm

Decades ago, James Tiptree, Jr., wrote a disturbing story (did she write any other kind?) titled "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" Not to spoil it for those readers who haven't gotten around to reading it over the past 40-plus years, but the premise involves a crew of male astronauts passing through a spatial anomaly on the other side of the sun, which catapults them far into the future where men have gone extinct, yet human civilization continues as a single-gendered Amazon society.

Don't look now, but science is making Tiptree downright prescient: Primitive sperm cells have been cultured in a lab using human skin cells as the genetic source material. Go listen to, and/or read the story now. It's fascinating.

In a paper published in the journal Cell Reports, Pera and her colleagues describe what they did. They took skin cells from infertile men and manipulated them in the laboratory to become induced pluripotent stem cells, which are very similar to human embryonic stem cells. That means they have the ability to become virtually any cell in the body.

They then inserted the cells into the testes of mice, where they became very immature human sperm cells, the researchers report.
Yes, the process is still in its infancy (no pun intended). There are many, many technical hurdles ahead before this technique might be used to produce a viable, mature sperm. And even then, there's no guarantee the technique might conceal some genetic roadblock (shortened telomeres, anyone?) that would make an embryo unviable. But even if this proves to be a genetic dead-end, it is still a tremendous breakthrough that will undoubtedly contribute greatly to other areas of genetic research. But if it does prove to be a practical, safe and stable technique once it is refined and perfected...

The story came on the air as I was driving home with my eldest daughter, a 15-year-old as in to science fiction literature as I was at her age. She was fascinated by the story. "What obvious question did they not ask?" I said once the story ended. "They're talking about making viable sperm from human skin cells. Or human hair."

"They could make someone's children without their knowledge or permission. That's creepy."

"Yes, but take it further. They can make sperm out of any piece of skin, or hair," I said. "What happens if they take some of your hair..."

And her eyes got big.

I suspect the greatest demand for this process will not come from infertile men, but rather lesbian couples. Any children born of such unions would invariably be female, as the genetic code from the sperm mother could only contain an X chromosome. Beyond that, there is nothing standing in the way of women fathering children with other women. It's easy to forsee lesbian couples alternating pregnancies, with one being the sperm mother for the first baby, and then reversing roles for the second. It's as democratic as the reproductive cycle is ever likely to be. Men, obviously, would then be technically irrelevant, although for practical purposes I expect the Y chromosome to remain in demand amongst a large segment of the female population for some time to come.

Step back even farther, and the implications are even bigger: We are already living in the much-ballyhooed "Singularity." Consider the evidence--genetic breakthroughs are coming at a breakneck pace. We're already custom-growing gall bladders and other simple organs in the lab for transplant, and within the decade higher organs such as kidneys, hearts and lungs will follow. Two decades ago, we hadn't confirmed the existence of a single extra-solar planet, and now not only have we charted thousands of them, we're analyzing their atmospheres and marking potentially habitable ones for future reference. Cars drive themselves. Private corporations are getting the U.S. into space more than NASA these days. People implant magnets into their bodies to give themselves additional senses. Bionics are a real thing. A single smart phone has more computer power than all the U.S. and Soviet spacecraft that participated in the moon race, combined. We live in the Cloud now, texting and tweeing and showing the world what we had for lunch. Higgs boson. Quantum computers. The list goes on and on and on, and in many ways has far outstripped even the most visionary speculative fiction writers of the previous century (although there are some, like Tiptree, who nailed it in passing).

Change has come upon us so often and so fast that we, as a people, have become numb to it. Constant, relentless change has become the new normal. The Singularity isn't some distant spike looming over the horizon, it is upon us now. Only nobody has noticed. The Singularity Sperm is evidence of that.