"In 1954, we awakened something..." Vivienne Graham
And here it is – in my opinion anyway, the most anticipated film of the summer blockbuster season 2014. Godzilla.
It’s certainly the one that I’m best prepared for this year. There have been an amazing twenty eight Godzilla films in existence prior to this, not including the lamentable effort from Hollywood in 1998, and incredibly, in the past few months, I’ve seen all of them in their chronological order. It was last year’s mission to collect ALL of them on DVD. That’s actually no mean feat because I discovered that there isn’t a country on the globe where you can buy all of them in the same region coding. Some came from the USA, others from Australia, New Zealand, France and naturally, Japan. There was only one title available in the UK. (This is why the film gods gave us multi region players, folks!)
The viewing of all of them resulted in two things.
1) a) It gave me an appreciation for the conventions of Japanese kaiju films, which are unique really to Japan – who have embraced the notion of giant monsters more than any other culture. Traditionally men in monster suits fighting in miniature cityscapes.
2) b) It was research for the longest article I’ve ever had published – Evacuate Tokyo which ran (or is running, depending on when you read this) in issues 400 and 401 of Starburst magazine. (Available at www.starburstmagazine.com)
Toho Studios made the definitive 28 Godzilla movies (not “nearly forty” as reported in the clearly clueless and ill researched article in Sci-Fi Now) and it’s fair to say that they run the gauntlet from eerily atmospheric, to fun, to goofy, to downright awful, to exciting, to absolutely stunning. But here’s the thing – they’re ALL watchable, they’re all entertaining.
The 1998 Godzilla film (and I can’t believe that it’s been 16 years since we saw that image if a giant reptilian foot stomping down in Times Square which was the poster image everywhere, along with the caption “Size does matter”) was a massive contradiction. Actually, a paradox.
It’s the worst Godzilla film ever released – no question. It robs Godzilla of everything that makes him Godzilla. There’s no distinctive Godzilla roar, no radioactive breath to cause widespread destruction and death. What the film is, though, is a great “monster on the loose” movie. It literally is Godzilla in name only. (Incidentally, in the last canon Godzilla movie to come from Toho Godzilla: Final Wars, the Hollywood Godzilla is actually accepted into the continuity, making a cameo appearance when he’s defeated by the REAL Godzilla in a couple of moments. That’s what you get when you take a movie icon and give it to someone who doesn’t even like the original material to direct. (Roland Emmerich admitted such. Hey it’s the Amazing Spider-Man 2 syndrome.)
Toho Studios licenced the character once again to a Hollywood studio, this time Warner Bros, with the reins firmly in the hands of Gareth Edwards, whose previous foray in this genre was the ultra low budget Monsters. (A film I initially disliked because it had so few monsters, other than some obnoxious humans. But rewatched a couple of days prior to the Godzilla release and discovered I actually enjoyed its clever understatement of the subject matter.)
The advertising campaign for Godzilla has been a picture perfect model of exactly what such a campaign should be. Last summer, I was reading reports from the San Diego Comic Con about their Godzilla Experience attraction, where only very fleeting glimpses of the monster’s head could be seen in a walkthrough that put the attendees in a high rise office at his eye level. The teasers and trailers that Warners have expertly dribbled out over the past several months have been textbook examples of marketing. The first teaser showed a squad of halo jumpers descending on the ruins of a city, where Godzilla was waiting for them. Other than that, the trailers have given almost subliminal glances at what the creature looks like and his overall size, while giving nothing away of the plot.
THAT’s how you sell a movie! Take note Prometheus publicity crew – the audience doesn’t need to see a shortened chronological edit of your whole damn movie in the trailer.
So, having booked a day off from the day job, a road trip to the multiplex was called for, with the Godzilla compilation soundtrack CDs from the Toho classics loaded up in the car (there’s something very cool about Japanese orchestral marching music that I can’t quite put my finger on). 3D glasses at the ready, for an afternoon showing in the hope of avoiding as many kids as possible while sharing a screening room with some real fans.
Would we be disappointed? Would the spectre of 1998 return? Early word was overwhelmingly positive, though there were reportedly complaints from Japan that Godzilla was too fat. (“Too fat”? Really? He’s never been anorexic has he?) The other complaint was that there was too much focus on the humans in the film and not Godzilla, leading to my irrational fear that Edwards had repeated his Monsters setup and made a Godzilla movie largely without Godzilla.
That’s not the case. What we have here is a traditionally paced Godzilla movie. Most (but not all) of Toho’s films don’t even have Godzilla show up until the second half of the film. The first half is all set up, plot exposition and the second is where all hell breaks loose. In one film, the big guy doesn’t even show up until the final half hour, then he just disposes of the other monster who’s been terrorising Tokyo and wanders off again. So yes, there IS a lot of focus on the human members of the cast, but relax, unless you’re of the MTV generation and want everything now, now, NOW with no build-up you’re in for a well paced treat. (Even that first hour moves swiftly along, with some nice touches for observant fans. Check out the handwritten label on the glass insect box in the kid’s bedroom – “Mothra”? )
Edwards has gone to great lengths to pull off the impossible, giving us a Godzilla film that while standing alone, also ties in neatly with the original film from 1954. At that point, in the ORIGINAL cut, Gojira – NOT the recut American edit, the monster was a metaphor for the silent menace of radiation. Not only had the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki been wiped out with atomic weapons to end WW2, but further nuclear testing after the war had also irradiated the fish which was a staple of their diet. This film posits the notion that the nuclear tests in 1954 were to fight off Godzilla which had been sighted. Add to that a discovery in the Philippines of a monstrous cocoon with the grim realisation that there’s a second cocoon which has hatched, and a nuclear catastrophe near Tokyo which attributed to an earthquake and we’re away.
The hatchlings are called MUTOs. (This is an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). One is male, the other female. While one has yet to hatch, the other is being used secretly by the US government to eat nuclear waste.
One is a giant mantis type of thing, the other is very, VERY reminiscent of Rodan – a flying pteradon from the Toho films. The similarity is such that I was convinced it WAS actually Rodan from the microsecond I saw of it on the trailer. Their only purpose, apart from eating radiation, is to mate. Believe me, you don’t want these varmints breeding. For one thing, they give off an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) which knocks out electricity, causing mass power outages.
Let’s address the question of why create a new monster to oppose Godzilla instead of using an established character from the Toho stable like King Ghidorah or Gigan. Licencing and copyright is the reason. As I understand it, Toho would only grant permission to use Godzilla to Warners, presumably keeping their other properties safe until they could see the outcome of this film.
The MUTO chatter (because they communicate) wakes up an even bigger creature slumbering on the ocean depths, this is an alpha predator - literally an ancient force of nature to equal the balance. So, it’s about an hour in that we get a good look at Godzilla. Though definitely traditional in appearance, he’s bigger than ever before, but the reason for this is simple aesthetics. Godzilla HAS to be bigger than the city he’s traditionally stomping either to defend mankind, or to destroy it. (Godzilla has been both a fearsome foe and the human race’s best friend over his sixty year history). As skylines have risen, so Godzilla has had to be taller in relation to his surroundings. But he ain’t fat.
The battle against both MUTOs is in the classical kaiju mould, wreaking devastation through not only Honolulu, but also San Francisco as the two on one confrontation takes its epic toll (with Las Vegas also falling prey to the MUTO en route).
High points for me? The Godzilla roar was there, and at the point he uses his radioactive breath (a bluish white beam from his mouth, the significance of which was lost on the people in the row in front of ours, I repressed the urge to stand up and cheer. I would’ve high fived Steve, but he was too involved in the movie to notice his over excited father.
There’s nothing in this film to disappoint fans of the earlier franchise, and it’s certainly worth seeing in 3D of the option is available. Yes, I know there’s still the problem of slight ghosting in certain sequences, but seeing the big monster smackdown happen right in front of you with stunning depth of field is an experience worth putting down the extra cash, as are the sequences of the navy ships being tossed around the turbulent waters as Godzilla swims underneath them. Godzilla forcing open the mouth of a MUTO while blasting his radioactive beam down his victim’s throat, disintegrating him from the inside then then just staring at the severed head before dropping it is a classic bit of business that just fits in perfectly with the established character of the beast.
The King of the Monsters is most definitely back, and as Gareth Edwards has expressed a desire to make further films, I hope he gets his wish and that Toho will relax their licencing and allow maybe a King Ghidorah battle royal to take place in the near future.
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