Sunday, January 25, 2009

um, roar?

Continuing my quest to watch every science fiction movie in the L.A. Library's catalog.

Godzilla: Final Wars

Woo, where to begin. As a sci-fi fan since I was knee-high to an astromech droid I watched many of the 1960s and 1970s Godzilla movies. They were empty-headed fun, with the main draw being the destruction of many great models of buildings, tanks and other miniatures by Godzilla and assorted, and increasingly weirdly-designed, giant monsters. I even watched the restored original Godzilla film – perhaps the only sober one in the long series - again on its 50th anniversary release. So I have a familiarity and an appreciation of the Big G, if not an absolute love and devotion.

Having said that, G:FW was a complete mess. If you checked out my review of Cyborg 2, I called that movie on ripping off so many superior sci-fi films without ever doing anything to stand on its own. It was name-checking for the sake of name-checking. G:FW gives Cyborg 2 a run for its money in that department, by ripping off The Matrix, V-The Miniseries, The X-Men films, Independence Day, Return of the Jedi, Mission: Impossible 2, and even Power Rangers*.

*Yes, I know Power Rangers utilizes costume designs and action scenes from Japanese TV series, but I don’t expect that aesthetic to appear in a Godzilla film.

The plot is nothing original: the alien Xilians want to use humans for food so they hurl giant monsters at us to get us to submit. The first five minutes show us how Godzilla was literally put on ice in humanity’s last encounter with him many years ago. (Godzilla appears back-lit at one point, reminding me of nothing so much as a professional wrestler, which may be appropriate.) Cut to today and giant monsters are mysteriously appearing all over the world causing destruction: Anguirus in Shanghai! Zilla/GINO in Sydney! Rodan in New York! Karmachameleon in France! Newt Gingrich in Portland! To quote Elmer Fudd, “WHAT’LL WE DO, MR. WABBIT?”

We’re quickly introduced to the M Organization (MO?), the movie’s X-Men mutant group rip-off who dress in plastic motocross gear like rejects from a Megaforce sequel. Their mutant gene, M-base, allows them to move faster and be stronger than normal humans. It also allows them to hang in the air a lot longer than gravity normally permits, giving the movie some of its unintentionally funnier scenes. Note to Japanese filmmakers: if you want to do wire fu, contact your Hong Kong counterparts – they do that stuff in their sleep.

Turns out the Xilians also have M-base which allows them to control the similarly endowed giant monsters, except of course for the M-baseless Godzilla. Isn’t that weird, because Godzilla mutated from a dinosaur after exposure to atomic radiation, right – he wasn’t born a mutant, but he was mutated? A head-scratcher, that one.

The acting was all on the level of something like Power Rangers, which is to say a kiddie movie. Sure a few of the older Japanese actors brought some gravitas to their roles (they usually do), but the majority of the younger actors were terrible, especially Masahiro Matsuoka as Ozaki, limply aping Keanu Reeves’ Neo from The Matrix. Matsuoka’s M Organization rival, Kazama, played by Kane Kosugi, just whips his head around posing at the camera at and grimaces a lot. The hot female newscaster who interviews the U.N. Sec-General keeps making odd faces during the interview. The female MO commander (who wears gloves all the time) is laugh out loud terrible, as is the Sec-General himself. I love the fact that we see his plane blow up, then he re-appears as a Xilian in disguise, is destroyed again, but then he shows up at the end in his untouched, non-possessed regular human form and all he says is, “I managed to escape.” WTF?

Now let’s talk a minute about Don Frye, who plays sub commander Captain Gordon, who looks like Joseph Stalin and buys his clothes from Communist Party All Wool Apparel stores. This guy is a former mixed martial artist – which I guessed from his partial cauliflower ear. HOLY CRAP, BUT THIS GUY IS TERRIBLE. He sounds like he listened to nothing but those Sam Elliott “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” ads to prepare for this role. He has one facial expression, and about that many variations in his voice too. The sad thing is his fight scenes are pretty bad for someone who actually used to fight for a living! But you know, he really LOOKS like one of those anime sub commanders, I’ll give him that.

Aside from the many better films this movie rips off, it was just too goofy for its own good. The fight at the beginning between Ozaki and Kazama looked like it was someone’s visual effects test reel with its bullet time gag. The big sequence with the M Organization going up against the giant shrimp really looked and felt like something from Power Rangers. (When they show the MO guys gearing up to fight the giant monster one guy whip-snaps a pistol into his back holster. A pistol to fight a GIANT MONSTER?) And when the giant UFO sphere appears over their HQ, two dozen police or military guys all stand on the roof pointing their M-16-type rifles at it. Rifles against a GIANT UFO? And why do the MO guys all dress like Nazis in greys and blacks and long coats?

After the Xilians arrive on earth, everyone everywhere immediately and inexplicably gets Xilian fever, with one weirdo even appearing on Japanese radio calling himself “X” with this priceless line of dialogue, “It’s a collaboration across space, galaxy, universe, black hole…” What the f--- does that mean? What’s with the number two Xilian guy, Tak Sakaguchi, who looks like he shops at the Harajuku leather fetish stores. Hey, Xilian, Sting called, he wants his Dune wardrobe back.

One thing that gets me about Japanese sci-fi, and in particular Godzilla films, is they often cross the line from science fiction into fantasy. They give a scientific reason or rational for the Big G’s creation – and a great allegory between him and the atomic bombs - and ways they can stop him. They have all manner of science-based weaponry and devices. But then they do something like G:FW does and that’s all of a sudden transport characters from their labs into the lair of the little Faery Girls on Infant Island. They give Neo, I mean Ozaki, a magical talisman that will stop the bad guys, then just as suddenly (read, magically) they are back in the lab. That’s the kind of crap that happens in every low-rent Lord of the Rings wannabe. If the Faeries have teleportation power (and other powers), why don’t they use it to help in the fight against the aliens? Yeah, they later summon Mothra to help Godzilla, but, give me a break. I hate when a supporting character with demonstrated great powers inexplicably only uses them sparingly in a story. (And yes, I wonder why the giant eagles helped out in Return of the King but not at Helms Deep in Two Towers.) I expect fantasy and magic in something like Ringu and other J-Horror, not in Godzilla movies.

The visual effects are all over the place. The CGI is usually crude - Zilla/GINO looked pasted into his scenes, not well composited, and the CGI Rodan flying looked too cartoonish (same problem with CGI Manda). The vaunted Japanese miniatures run the gamut from great (usually the Godzilla scenes) to “Hello it’s 1962 all over again” (the missiles shooting off, or rather popping off, from the various flying submarines). At one point, with King Caesar, they don’t even over crank the camera, just shooting him at normal speed so he looks like a guy in a costume knocking over model buildings instead of a giant monster destroying buildings. And speaking of King Caesar, silly giant Pekinese dog-man that he is – dude is a transvestite – HE CLEARLY WEARS A BRA! Gigan with his buzz-saw belly and later twin-chainsaw arms is up there for weirdest J-monster ever.

For a movie that claims to be the final appearance of Godzilla, he wasn’t in it a whole lot. And when he does show up, he just WALKS THROUGH monster after monster. Um, Godzilla used to have to fight most of these guys through an entire film each, now he literally take one or two swings and they’re down for the count? Smog Monster? WHACK! Kumonga? Kamacuras? SMACK! POW! It was like the Adam West Batman outtakes. It played more like Godzilla’s Greatest Hits, than a real movie. Maybe that’s enough for hardcore G-Fans, but for the average viewer, you need more. And this movie is s-l-o-w paced. (At the 45 minute mark I couldn’t believe there was still more than an hour to go!)

Minya, or Minzilla as he’s called here, shows up. Oh, joy. I thought I hated Jar Jar Binks, but seeing this stupid rubber costume standing next to the old guy and his grandson made me want to punch something. The grandfather does have a great short speech in the film, explaining The Big G’s temperament, “Men did a terrible thing, and made Godzilla angry. They made a huge fire and burned everything on the land. Godzilla will never forget it.” I think that’s an amazing summation. I just wish Godzilla: Final Wars had done honor to what that speech meant, instead of merely paying it lip service.

1 comment:

  1. NO!!!!

    I love this movie!

    I've disliked almost all of the Godzilla movies of the last couple of decades because they were so pretentiously serious. This one was totally goofy and KNEW it.

    Almost all "hardcore" Godzilla fans hate this one because it was not meant to be taken seriously, but that is exactly what I liked about it. I guess the satire element didn't work for you - the whole thing was intended to be a satire of / tribute to the Godzilla series as a whole, especially the sillier films of the late sixties / early seventies. Minya was in there as a joke - how about when they just toss him in the back of a pickup? And the grandfather makes a face that shows just how repelled he is by the creature as you are.

    Along the same lines, I think the fact that Godzilla just plows through the monsters they send against him is just hilarious - as is the line, "somehow we managed to escape." Huge laughs at all the showings I've attended. INTENTIONALLY funny.

    Have to disagree strongly about Akira Takarada's role - I thought he was great as the Secretary General. He was the lead back in the original GOJIRA and has been in about 5 or 6 Godzilla films, plus is one of the most respected actors in Japan.

    Also disagree about Don Frye - sure, his acting is beyond stiff, but somehow it just added to the appeal. I thought many of his lines were hilarious - and not always unintentionally so. Met him last July, btw - nice guy.

    I agree totally with the mixture of SF and Fantasy that is a problem in many G films. Again, this is why I love Final Wars - it knows exactly how ridiculous that is and has fun with it. My problem with the 90's movies as that they try to have the same ponderous seriousness as the first film, and then add in all of the ridiculous fantasy elements and goofy weaponry (a giant robot Godzilla?!?!?! Have fun with the concept - don't try to convince me that it is BELIEVABLE!!!).

    I saw this three times in packed theaters and every time the audience was having so much fun with it, laughing, clapping and cheering. I think that was a huge part of the experience. (BTW, twice was with a "Godzilla audience," once with a general audience in Denver).