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Posts Tagged ‘Godzilla’

When a once-popular and long-running series finally bites the dust, the natural conclusion to draw is that it must all be the fault of the final instalment, and this is often an entirely justified response: Carry On Emmanuelle, for instance, is pretty much guaranteed to stink out any venue where it is on, and the same is true of Batman and Robin (even though I personally find it marginally less gruelling than Batman Forever). But it is not always thus: Licence to Kill, for example, tends to have a bit of a bad rep amongst Bond fans, simply because it was the last movie before an unprecedented six-year gap between outings for the commander. People assume it was an artistic and commercial failure, even though this is really not the case.

Sometimes what happens is that a succession of substandard films does such damage to the critical and popular standing of series that it’s impossible for things to recover, regardless of whether there’s a turnaround or not – Licence to Kill is far from perfect, but it’s still arguably better than the films immediately preceding it. And the same is true of the movie which brought down the curtain on the original run of Godzilla movies, Terror of Mechagodzilla (also known as Mechagodzilla’s Counterattack, The Terror of Godzilla, and the eerily inaccurate Monsters from an Unknown Planet).

This is one of those films best-known outside Japan through the proverbial ‘international version’, although the results here are not quite as extreme as is sometimes the case. This movie reached America in 1978, three years after its domestic release, through the good offices of Henry G Saperstein, long-time associate of Toho and the man responsible for the appearance of so many anonymous American actors in earlier Godzilla movies. The American version of Terror of Mechagodzilla was produced by ‘The Mechagodzilla Company’ (an organisation perhaps not named with longevity in mind) and mainly differs from the original in the addition of a rather unusual pre-credits sequence.

This is basically a brief reprise of the entirety of the Godzilla series to this point, taking a few liberties with the actual facts along the way – the exact origins of Godzilla are left vague, and he is presented as an essentially innocent victim of human aggression. The arc of the series, such as it is, is recapped – Godzilla beginning as the unstoppable engine of destruction, before becoming the ally of humanity and defender of Earth against alien threats. All this concludes with the events of the previous film, in which Godzilla was obliged to take on his evil robot double. The execution of this whole sequence perhaps leaves a little to be desired, but it does set up the film quite well.

Things get underway shortly after the climactic battle of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla, with an experimental submarine going in search of the wreckage of Mechagodzilla, which was dumped into the sea. The crew’s first shock is that there is no wreckage to be found; the second is that they come under attack from a giant amphibious dinosaur and the sub is destroyed.

(One of the slightly peculiar things about this film is that it features quite a few moments where people hear of this creature and go ‘A giant dinosaur?!? Really?!?!’ despite the fact that it is supposedly set in a world where Godzilla, not to mention the rest of the Toho kaiju, have been cheerfully running amok for decades. One more giant dinosaur shouldn’t surprise anyone.)

Well, the sub’s owners at the Ocean Exploitation Institute go to Interpol to complain, because the police are obviously the best people to deal with the problem of giant dinosaurs sinking submarines. Rudimentary investigations put our very forgettable heroes on the trail of Dr Mafune (Akihiko Hirata), a genius biologist and generally embittered mad scientist, who claimed to have discovered a surviving dinosaur in the oceans just off Japan – a creature he christened Titanosaurus. Tracking Mafune down to his remote house on the coast, the cops learn from his slightly creepy daughter (Tomoko Ai) that Mafune died years ago and she knows nothing about the Titanosaurus problem.

She’s lying, of course: Mafune is still alive, has Titanosaurus under remote control, and is planning to use the monster to exact vengeance on the world which refused to listen to his brilliant theories about fish farming. (As you would.) What is more, he has teamed up with the Black Hole Aliens (bad guys of the previous film), who basically seem to want to demolish Tokyo and redevelop the area. To this end they have just finished putting Mechagodzilla back together in their secret base, having pinched the wreckage from the sea floor in their flying saucers. (Interpol could track down the Black Hole Aliens’ operation very easily just by monitoring sales of bacofoil and silly hats.) Needless to say there is a lot of evil laughter when these guys get together.

Soon enough Mafune goes off the reservation and unleashes Titanosaurus ahead of schedule, just in time for the traditional scene of toy tanks and model planes attacking the monster to no effect whatsoever. The Black Hole Aliens are initially cross about this failure to stick with the masterplan, but eventually take a more relaxed view – Godzilla’s bound to turn up and fight Titanosaurus, and even if he wins, he’ll be so puffed out he should be easy prey for Mechagodzilla to deal with…

As mentioned up the page, Terror of Mechagodzilla takes a lot of stick it really doesn’t deserve, for while this is hardly a top-division entry in the Godzilla series, it’s still better than most of the early 70s films. We can probably attribute this to the presence of the series’ original director, Ishiro Honda, who hadn’t made a Godzilla film in the previous five years, and if nothing else he seems to be working hard to make sure it has some vestiges of integrity and craft to it. Honda is limited by the low budget he’s clearly been saddled with, but at least the film largely eschews attempts to smuggle in reused footage from previous entries, and the monster suits and modelwork are pretty good. (Although the back projection in this movie is woeful.)

The plot is the usual B-movie-influenced nonsense about alien invaders and ‘supersonic wave projectors’, but it is somewhat distinguished by the way that Mafune and his daughter are marginally better-characterised than your typical Godzilla-movie characters. The daughter in particular is clearly meant to be a tragic figure, laden with pathos – a lab accident years ago nearly killed her, and she has been turned into a cyborg by the Black Hole Aliens. Being half-human half-machine is clearly not fun for a young lady – ‘Your heart is withered and dry! Who could love a cyborg?’ sneers a senior Black Hole Alien, rather unkindly. Well, it turns out that one of the Ocean Exploitation Institute dudes can, though (you will be surprised to hear) this is not the most convincing romance in cinema history. Tragedy looms, however, although this does set us up for the best line in the movie, and possibly in the entirety of film as a medium: ‘Please kill me – Mechagodzilla’s brain is installed in my stomach!’

Pleasantly diverting though all this is, it doesn’t much help with the film’s main problem, which is that this is a movie called Terror of Mechagodzilla, and Mechagodzilla isn’t in it that much. The story is more preoccupied with the various doings of Titanosaurus, who is a reasonably well-designed monster, but even so. Mechagodzilla gets less screen-time than Titanosaurus, though it could be worse – Godzilla is the ostensible hero-monster of the movie, and he’s in it less than either of them. He barely gets mentioned in the first half, turning up unannounced out of nowhere to fight Titanosaurus, and everyone involved – both actors and film-makers – seems to take him entirely for granted. He’s almost just a plot device rather than a character or a participant in the story.

Still, this is far from the only Godzilla movie to have this particular problem, and it may in fact be a fundamental flaw in the genre. At least Terror of Mechagodzilla seems to be taking itself relatively seriously, and doesn’t include too many wacky elements. Nobody’s favourite Godzilla film, probably, but a creditable attempt at striking a balance between sticking to the classic formula and doing something slightly different.

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Well, here’s something which has kind of snuck up on me: having recently watched Takao Okawara’s Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, I find myself in the position of having seen all thirty-two of Toho’s Godzilla movies. This has been a long road, to be perfectly honest: there were only seventeen when I started, back in 1990, and the fact that most of the recent films are very difficult to track down in the UK did not help much. Thank the stars for the internet. It seems quite appropriate that this should form the basis of the landmark 1002nd film review on the blog (look, I do literature, not mathematics).

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II was released in 1993, and was apparently intended at the time to mark a pause in production for films in the series: the first big-budget American Godzilla was believed to be imminent at the time (in the end it was another five years before it arrived, so Toho made another two movies before finally putting the series on hold). Watching the movie now I suppose you can just about discern the suggestion that things are being concluded, but for the most part it resembles the films around it, not least in the way it reintroduces famous characters from the films of the 60s and 70s.

The film gets underway with the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre unveiling their new weapon to sort the big lizard out once and for all: the severed robotic head of Mecha-King Ghidorah has been fished out of Tokyo bay (where it ended up at the climax of 1991’s Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah) and reverse-engineered so its futuristic technology can be employed in two new vehicles: Garuda, one of those flying tanks which seem to be common in tokusatsu movies, and Mechagodzilla, which is, um, a mecha which looks like Godzilla.

(There is a bit of a departure here from the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla, which – if memory serves – was basically a robot. Here it is essentially a somewhat outlandishly-designed vehicle. This take seems to have gained some traction, for the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla – the Kiryu version, from Tokyo SOS – sticks very close to the same concept. On the other hand, this may have something to do with the same guy, Wataru Mimura, writing all the recent Mechagodzilla movies.)

Flying Garuda, to begin with at least, is lovable lunk Aoki (Masahiro Takashima). In a piece of foreshadowing about as subtle as being hit by a truck, we are informed that Aoki is a huge fan of pteranodons, not that this particularly informs the plot much. However, quite early on he is redeployed to elsewhere in the anti-Godzilla corps, which if nothing else means he gets to wear a snappy cravat with a big G on it (this is actually part of the uniform).

From here we cut to a bunch of scientists on one of those remote Pacific islands which are such a common feature in these films. They are excited to have discovered some impressive pteranodon fossils, and also an actual intact egg. Excitement shifts to alarm when they realise that another egg has already hatched, and a giant pteranodon is roosting in the vicinity. The unlikely size of this beastie is explained by one of the boffins as the result of nuclear waste irradiating the island, though I’m not sure this entirely explains what pteranodon eggs are doing on a Pacific island in the 1990s.

(Now, the pteranodon is – obviously! – a new take on Rodan, one of the A-list Toho kaiju with a long and distinguished career which extends back to his own 1956 movie and is due to continue next year in a new Hollywood incarnation. The American dub of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is unique in that it reverts to using Rodan’s Japanese name, Radon. I’m going to stick with Rodan, however, as it would feel odd not to.)

The scientists go beyond alarm into actual panic when the sea erupts and Godzilla himself appears on the scene. Godzilla and Rodan catch sight of each other and promptly begin to party like it’s 1964, laying waste to most of the island in the process of their rumble. The scientists take this as a cue to make a swift departure with the egg. Being such a pteranodon nut, Aoki turns up to check out the egg in the Kyoto lab where it ends up, meeting nice young scientist Azusa (Ryoko Sano) in the process. Psychic Miki (Megumi Odaka), a regular character in these movies, is also hanging around and discovers that – fasten your seatbelts, friends – some moss sticking to the egg is actually telepathically singing to it. (Well, of course it is.)

As a result of the discovery of the singing telepathic moss, the egg hatches out, not into another pteranodon but a baby godzillasaurus, which everyone refers to as Baby Godzilla. Baby Godzilla seems essentially benign and doesn’t appear to be especially irradiated, which just adds to his cuteness. It’s never really confirmed that Baby Godzilla and the full-sized version are closely related, but big Godzilla certainly seems to take an interest in the newborn and starts heading for Kyoto. There’s only one thing to do: stand by to launch Mechagodzilla!

Well, if nothing else, I feel like I’m beginning to understand why so many of the sub-par Godzilla movies of the 1990s and early 2000s feel so samey – it’s because most of them were written by Wataru Mimura (Tokyo SOS, which is the best of the post-1992 Godzilla films, was the work of someone else). Quite apart from a rather Gerry Anderson-esque take on Mechagodzilla, what these films have in common is a tendency to treat Godzilla like bad weather – one of those annoying facts of life people just have to come to terms with – rather than the terrifying menace he is in some of the other films. Godzilla just turns up and attacks places in this film whenever the plot slows down a bit.

I say ‘plot’, but the main problem with Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is that in a very real sense it doesn’t actually have a plot – not to the extent that it feels in any way structured or thought-through. Things just happen one after the other, frequently without much in the way of explanation or causality, to say nothing of occasional odd tangents. The film is reliant on things happening without any real explanation – where do the eggs come from? What the hell is the deal with the singing telepathic moss? Why does Baby Godzilla seem to have psychic powers? How come Rodan mutates into a more dangerous form halfway through the movie? I could go on.

One result of this is that something rather odd happens with audience sympathy in the course of the film. To begin with, Godzilla is the same ambiguous anti-hero as in all the movies since the 1984 relaunch of the series, and the operators of Mechagodzilla are heroic defenders of Japan. But by the end of the film, one finds oneself rooting for Godzilla – or at least expected to do so – as he takes a beating from characters who are theoretically the protagonists. The only catalyst for this is the fact that the bosses at G-Force are unspeakably cruel to Baby Godzilla, using him as bait even though he is so small and cute. I suppose if nothing else this speaks volumes about the famous Japanese vulnerability to anything cute with big eyes.

Oh well. There are a few good things about this film – Megumi Odaka, perennial second banana in this series, gets some good material, and the monster suits are generally excellent. The Rodan puppet in particular is extremely impressive. The initial battle between Godzilla and Rodan is also boisterously good stuff. Apparently this was choreographed as it was due to complaints that too many monster battles in the previous few films just consisted of monsters standing off and zapping breath-rays at each other – which makes it slightly odd that the other battles in this film consist of pretty much that exact same thing. (Although the traditional scene where the massed model planes and toy tanks of the JSDF trundle out to engage Godzilla and have no effect whatsoever also makes an appearance, and it’s like seeing an old friend when it does.)

In the end, though, one has to remember that this film is predicated on the idea that, having salvaged priceless technology from the future, the best thing the UN can think of doing with it is to build a giant cybernetic dinosaur with laser-beam eyes. Normal standards of logic and sanity are clearly not in effect. In the past I have spoken of the special pleasures of a Good Bad Movie – Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is not quite a Good Bad Movie, but it is at least an Okay Bad Movie, and the dedicated Godzilla audience it was clearly made for will probably find stuff to enjoy here.

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The 2001 Toho movie Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (sensibly abbreviated to GMK by sane commentators) is kind of the movie equivalent of a fairly obscure artist releasing a record on a minor label, scoring a considerable critical success, and then being signed up by one of the big boys as a result to see if they can work the same kind of magic with considerably greater resources behind them. The director of GMK, Shusuke Kaneko, first came to the attention of Japanese monster movie connoisseurs with his trilogy of Gamera movies, made for Daiei between 1995 and 1999 – during a pause in Toho’s own production of Godzilla films, as it happened. Now, most of the Toho Godzilla films of the early and mid 1990s are not bad at all, but Kaneko’s Gamera films have a freshness, style, and depth which means they are inarguably better.

You can make out signs of Toho trying to assimilate all of Kaneko’s innovations in the films they made when Godzilla production resumed between 1999 and 2004, but the fact is that the 1999 and 2000 films, Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, are both sub-standard entries to the series. You can see why the studio decided to go direct to source and retained Shusuke Kaneko himself to co-write and direct the next movie, GMK.

GMK follows the usual convention of Godzilla movies from this period, ignoring all the previous films except the very first one – though they can’t resist doing a gag at the expense of the 1998 American Godzilla, revealing that a giant monster recently attacked the east coast of the USA – the Americans are sure it was Godzilla, but Japanese experts are much less convinced.

The story gets going with the loss of a nuclear submarine in the Pacific, and a Japanese submarine named the Satsuma is sent in to investigate (‘satsuma’ is an odd name for a sub, but I suspect this is a homage to veteran Godzilla suit-artiste Ken Satsuma). Sure enough, there are claw marks on the sunken wreck and a familiar set of dorsal plates are spotted lurking in the vicinity. Property values in the Kanto region instantly take a hit.

We then meet Yuri (Chiharu Niiyama), our human point-of-identification character for the movie. She is a reporter for what seems to be a fairly trashy cable TV show, doing a film about legends of monster sightings in various parts of Japan. She sees a mysterious old man in an equestrian safety helmet, shortly before there is a rather unusual earthquake: a road tunnel collapses, crushing an annoying biker gang, and a survivor in the area reports seeing a giant monster.

The weird events continue, with some irritating teens being dragged beneath the waters of a lake, their bodies later being discovered wrapped in cocoons (yes, it’s Mothra’s work, but probably best not to ask what he/she is doing at the bottom of a lake). Yuri and her friends learn of the legend of three Guardian Monsters who will awake to defend the islands of Japan should they be threatened. It turns out the old guy in the riding hat is convinced of the truth of this and is using special stones as some kind of spiritual battery, to wake up the Guardians. Meanwhile Japanese defence command is preoccupied by a series of distraught (and somewhat self-referential) committee meetings – ‘Why is Godzilla coming here again? Why can’t he pick on some other country for a change?’ appears to be the main item on the agenda.

Anyway, Godzilla eventually comes ashore and starts wreaking havoc, just about the same time that the first of the Guardian Monsters breaks cover: it’s Baragon, a relatively minor Toho monster from the 1960s who is not famous enough to get his name in the title of the movie. It soon becomes fairly obvious that Baragon is not capable of being much more than an hors d’oeuvre for Godzilla, and the heavy lifting come the climax of the film wil fall to the other two Guardian Monsters – giant mystic lepidoptera Mothra, and multi-headed golden dragon King Ghidorah…

Now, I know you, you are wise in the ways of the world. Right now you are saying ‘Wait a minute, Ghidorah’s the good guy? Since when does that ever happen? Ghidorah is the embodiment of monster evil in the Toho universe.’ And I would normally agree with you. It seems that Kaneko’s original idea was for the Guardian Monsters to be Baragon, Varan, and Anguillas (all second-division Toho kaiju), but the studio nixed this on the grounds that the series at this point needed the marquee value of appearances by Mothra and King Ghidorah. Thus we end up with the unprecedented spectacle of Mothra and Ghidorah actually teaming up to fight Godzilla.

I mean, it doesn’t quite kill the movie outright, but it does feel very odd: that said, there are lots of elements of GMK which just feel odd, and one wonders about the extent to which Kaneko’s vision for the film was compromised by Toho’s requirements for it. I watched the English dub of GMK, obviously, and I’m aware that the tone of the English dialogue can sometimes give a misleading impression. As a result I’m not sure if this really is as knowingly cheesy a movie as it actually seems, or whether the cheesiness is just an accident.

There’s nothing wrong with a certain level of knowing cheesiness (or even unconscious cheesiness), but it does sit very strangely in a film which occasionally attempts to tackle some quite serious and even dark subject matter. Kaneko has said he was attempting to make more of a fantasy take on Godzilla, which probably explains the film’s most striking innovation – the revelation that Godzilla is possessed by the angry spirits of all those who died as a result of Japan’s actions in the Second World War, which is why he’s always homing in on Tokyo in a bad mood. It’s a curious and provocative idea, and not the only time the film skirts sensitive topics – the first moment when Godzilla unleashes his nuclear breath is followed by a scene where a school teacher looks out of the window and sees the resulting mushroom cloud rising over her town. ‘Atom bombs!’ she gasps. (No, it’s not all that subtle, but this is a Godzilla movie, after all.)

But then we go from this to the comedy caricatures of Yuri’s workmates, or a scene where a couple of tourists spot Baragon yomping towards them. ‘He’s enormous, but kind of cute!’ says one of them. ‘Let’s take a photo, then run!’ says the other. Seconds later they are both crushed to death as Godzilla smashes through the hillside they are standing on. In yet another tonally very weird moment, we see a man apparently contemplating suicide, fashioning a crude noose from his tie so he can hang himself from a tree. But he falls off the rock he’s standing on and does a comedy pratfall down into the cave where Ghidorah is hibernating.

How much of this is down to Kaneko’s attempt to make a more edgy Godzilla I don’t know. For me, the best moments of the film are the more subtle and restrained ones – there’s an impressive scene where a group of people in a small building are terrorised by Godzilla’s passing. You never see the monster, but the whole set is rigged to shake and sway and collapse at the sound of his footprints. The reactions of individual characters to Godzilla give the film what resonance it achieves.

Most of the time, though, this just feels like an old-school monster bash, like something from 35 years earlier. As such it’s not too bad, but really nothing very special – the CGI is impressive, and the monster suits are not too bad – although there’s something about the Godzilla suit here which makes him look more like a fat dinosaur than is usually the case. The way the movie concludes with a succession of deeply weird moments  and plot developments is also arguably a bit of a problem.

Well, the least you can say about GMK is that it’s better than the two movies that preceded it. But the fact is that not only does it not come close to the standard of Kaneko’s Gamera movies, but it’s also not quite as good as the films in a similar vein which Toho themselves had been making ten years earlier. How much of this is down to Toho insisting on the inclusion of certain elements, and how much to Kaneko missing the presence of Gamera co-writer Kazunori Ito, it’s difficult to say. But this film is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

 

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Like many people of my generation from the UK, my first exposure to the Godzilla franchise came from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that first aired in the late 70s and early 80s. It was diverting enough at the time, I suppose, but watching an episode a few years ago was a somewhat disconcerting experience: the animation was rather primitive, and, most jarring of all, Hanna-Barbera inexplicably chose not to license the sound of Godzilla’s roar, with the result that the King of the Monsters spent most of the time sounding like a gargling dog. The series took a few liberties with peripheral matters – Godzilla was an almost wholly benevolent figure, with laser-beam vision, accompanied by a comic-relief mini-me named Godzooky – but at least managed to hang on to the core experience of the franchise, which was a regular succession of monster smackdowns. It was a decent gateway to the full Godzilla experience, in other words.

Having been somewhat spoilt by some really good live-action Godzilla movies over the years, the news that Toho’s animation division was hard at work on an animated addition to the franchise was interesting, rather than a source of unconditional delight. Now the project in question has appeared, most likely, on a market-leading streaming site near you – originally entitled Monster Planet, it’s ended up being called Planet of the Monsters, which if nothing else gives you a decent sense of what to expect. It is directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita.

This is another total reboot of the series, which appears to have become Toho’s preferred option for Godzilla movies these days. The backstory goes as follows: in the last months of the 20th century (yup, you read that right), the human race found itself bedevilled by attacks by a series of giant monsters, culminating in the appearance of an invincible behemoth known as Godzilla. All attempts to defeat this menace having failed, the human race took advantage of an offer of help from two passing groups of alien refugees, the religious Exif and the technologically-advanced Bilusaludo, to abandon Earth and look for a new home on another planet.

Well, the story proper kicks off twenty years later, sort of: things look grim for the refugees, who are leading a gruelling existence of scarce resources and existential misery, with their continued survival doubtful and little prospect of their discovering a new home planet. Main character Haruo Sakaki is in really a permanent strop about all of this, convinced that humanity gave up Earth too easily. He even publishes an anonymous paper arguing that Godzilla could be killed using recent technological advances.

Somehow this persuades the ruling committee to take everyone back to Earth, either to resupply or – the best case scenario – resettle the planet. Due to time dilation, or whatever (this is basically a plot device, obviously), twenty thousand years have gone by on Earth while the refugees have been in deep space and the planet has reverted to a primeval state. But probes indicate that Godzilla is still present and still as implacably hostile, and so Sakaki joins the mission to take back the planet…

I don’t necessarily have a problem with Godzilla movies that allow themselves to be somewhat influenced by other bits and pieces of pop culture from around them – there’s an element of James Bond to some of the later films from the original series, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah owes a lot to The Terminator, there’s a large chunk of The Matrix in Final Wars‘ curious mixture of influences, and so on. But there’s definitely something odd about the way that you could watch Planet of the Monsters and in effect catch up on much of what’s been going on SF and fantasy movies and TV over the last decade so. In other words, there’s a bit of Interstellar here, a bit of Battlestar Galactica, a lot of After Earth, even a smidgeon of Skull Island. Which would all be fine, but the problem is that they seem to have left Godzilla completely out of the mix.

There are two basic ways of doing a story about Godzilla: either he’s the living-engine-of-destruction walking-metaphor-for-something-or-other bad guy, or he’s the possibly-misunderstood defender-anti-hero. This film tends towards the first position, but never completely adopts it. It’s not quite the case that this is one of those films that isn’t really interested in or even actually about Godzilla – he is the central driver of the plot throughout – but at all times it seems more about idea of Godzilla than a living, active monster. Godzilla is always just looming over the horizon somewhere, or being discussed, but other than occasionally nuking something with his atomic breath he is oddly passive, never doing much (well, there are no buildings around for him to crush), a cypher rather than a character or a metaphor.

The movie’s two innovations both have definite potential – there’s the idea of Godzilla taking on an army of sci-fi jet bikes, walking tanks and soldiers in power armour, and also the notion that over the course of twenty millennia, a whole new Godzillafied ecosystem has developed to cover Earth (in other words, everything’s a little bit Godzillaish). But not much is done with the latter, and former is just superficial, contributing only visual spectacle. You never really care about the action or feel invested in it.

This is, of course, largely the fault of the script, which features some laborious and rather baffling plotting. Why do they include not one but two distinct races of friendly aliens? Neither of them contributes much to the story. Much of the movie seems precision-tooled to generate maximum confusion, not to mention gloom. I sense some of this may have originated from quite high up in the production. Here is co-director Seshita discussing the ‘new’ version of Godzilla (heavily influenced by the Gareth Edwards version if you ask me, but whatever): ‘With his masses of muscle fibres and unique body tissue to support his enormous bulk, this is an extraordinarily rugged-looking physique. It was an overwhelming presence that reverberated through the whole project, like a fearsome deity that even we who created it must prostrate ourselves before.’ Hmmm, yeah. This sort of thing seems to have filtered through into dialogue like ‘When those fleeting lives destined to die, become arrogant and sing praises of their own narcissistic glory, such will shake the very heavens and split the earth.’ Well, quite (and this is relatively easy to follow, compared to some of the lines). It’s hard to tell whether this was written by a teenage poet, or Google Translate, or some odd combination of both.

The one thing mitigating in favour of Planet of the Monsters’ casserole of pretentious cobblers and joyless, confusing gloom is the look of the thing, which is certainly distinctive, although not completely consistent. The film goes from near-photorealism to scenes which look rotoscoped and then on to more traditional anime action and carnage. The look of the film isn’t actually bad and is certainly atmospheric, even if the atmosphere created is the one of dour oppressiveness which is arguably one of the film’s problems.

In a great (or even good) Godzilla film, you want the following things – a clear sense of who or what Godzilla is supposed to be, interesting and sympathetic human characters, masses of property damage, a worthy opponent for Godzilla to take on, a proper theme tune for the big guy, and at least a little bit of positivity, one way or another. Some good new ideas never hurt. Planet of Monsters falls down so badly because it seems to have viewed this venture into the unknown for the franchise as a chance to dispense with all the accumulated wisdom about how to make these movies work, and includes none of the above. All its innovation is visual, with the story a barely-functional stack of contrivances populated by anonymous characters. Still, it seems to have been successful enough to earn a sequel (current title something like Godzilla: Living Robot City Final Battle, which hardly bodes well even if it is supposed to have Mechagodzilla in it), and we can only hope that some lessons will have been learned. As it is, the less than stellar lineage of animated Godzilla projects continues, alas.

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In the Earth Year 1994, the Godzilla movie series was in fairly robust health – after fifteen years or so in the wilderness, with only one movie released between 1975 and 1989, they were back to cranking out a new sequel every year, and it didn’t hurt that the most recent movies had actually been pretty good, mostly. This is the situation into which Kensho Yamashita’s Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, sixth film in the then-current continuity and twenty-first overall, was released.

As the movie gets underway, the Japanese establishment seems to have dissolved into a (rather counter-intuitive) alphabet soup of different agencies and initiatives: we hear of the Counter-G Committee, Project M, and Project T. Naturally, most of these things are concerned with the ongoing Godzilla problem. Project M is a new weapon developed to fight giant monsters, a piloted robot called Mogera. Project T, on the other hand, is a scheme to telepathically take control of Godzilla using the psychic powers of series regular Miki (Megumi Odaka). Yeah, like that’s going to work.

However, what nearly everyone is ignoring is the approach of a hostile extra-terrestrial organism, which to begin with looks rather like Superman’s spaceship from the 1978 movie with an even grumpier version of Godzilla sticking out of the bottom of it. This, of course, is Spacegodzilla, a mutant clone of the Big G created after some of his cells ended up in space, fell through a black hole, absorbed crystalline alien life-forms, and so on. As happens all the time in Japanese monster movies. The only one who notices Spacegodzilla is on the way is Mothra (not in the movie enough) who throughout proceedings is off in space doing the stuff that a giant mystic lepidoptera has gotta do.

Mothra’s spokesfairies, the Shobijin, tell Miki what’s going on, but before Spacegodzilla arrives, there’s some other stuff to cover, namely the attempts of Project T to take psychic control of Godzilla. This happens off on a desert island somewhere, and is hampered by the presence of traumatised army veteran Yuki (Akira Emoto), who comes across as a deranged survivalist: one of his buds was killed in a Godzilla attack, and now he plans on killing the big guy with a special hand-made bullet. Yeah, like that’s going to work.

Well, the execution of Project T is a qualified success, but interrupted by the arrival of Spacegodzilla, who starts harassing both Godzilla and his offspring Little Godzilla (an irksomely twee character who’s been hanging around the movie since the start). Spacegodzilla beats the crap out of Godzilla and drives him off, traps Little Godzilla in a crystal prison, and sets off to devastate Japan, with seemingly only Mogera left to stop his rampage. Yeah, like that’s going to work…

Prior to watching Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla, I would have confidently said that the Heisei sequence of Godzilla films (the 1984-1995 run) was absolutely your best bet in terms of your chances of finding a fun movie which was competently made and not too egregiously daft. My confidence has taken a bit of a knock, to be honest, for Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is in many ways a throwback to the dodgier films of the early 1970s. And in a way the 70s feel is entirely appropriate: Spacegodzilla looks like a glam rock version of Godzilla, Mogera looks like a disco version of Mechagodzilla.

The main problem is that the story is simply not very good. The first act sets up the action, reasonably competently, and includes all the messing about on the island with Little Godzilla, Project T, and Yuki’s Godzilla revenge plan. The final act is a (very) extended battle between Godzilla, Spacegodzilla, and Mogera, which basically consists of the three of them zapping each other with ray blasts and Godzilla falling over a lot.

In between… well, the thing is that there isn’t really a second act. All that’s there is a frankly ludicrous subplot about the Yakuza kidnapping Miki so that they can use her to telepathically take control of Godzilla. This plotline comes out of nowhere. It goes nowhere. It’s just a lump of weirdness plopped down in the middle of the movie. However, there are lots of elements of this movie which just pop up from nowhere or disappear to the same place (not that this is always necessarily a bad thing: Little Godzilla is basically forgotten about after the first act).

My understanding is that the aim for this movie was to create something with a more light-hearted tone than the preceding movies, and also include more character development. How they got from this to a movie about a traumatised army veteran being put in charge of flying a robot, I’m not sure; I suppose Megumi Odaka gets slightly better scenes than usual, but you can’t go overboard on things like characterisation when it comes to a Godzilla movie: I was sitting there thinking ‘Yes, this is all very nice, but can we have some monsters, now, please.’

Of course, you should be careful what you wish for, because the actual monster battle at the end of the movie goes on forever and is repetitive to the point of being boring: it nearly put me into a coma. I glanced at my watch at one point and was dismayed to see the movie still had another twenty minutes left to run. This is quite long, for a Japanese Godzilla film – it could easily stand to lose at least ten or fifteen minutes of its running time. Many – perhaps even most – of the special effects shots are arguably sub-par too.

As I said, the Godzilla franchise was in pretty good shape in 1994, but the decision was nevertheless taken to put the series on hold after the very next film, Godzilla Vs Destroyer. Am I suggesting that Godzilla Vs Spacegodzilla is so bad that it effectively killed off the franchise, or at least put it into suspended animation? Hmmm, well, maybe I am – not that I have any evidence for this, and this movie seems to have done pretty well at the box office. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion: this is a poor movie, short on new ideas, seemingly without the imagination or affection for the Godzilla series that the best of the Heisei series have in buckets. A lowlight of the genre’s 1990s output.

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Well, with the Oscars out the way, the decks are clear for an onslaught of releases which a few years ago would have been cheerful, unpretentious genre movies. These days, of course, everyone wants a slice of the megafranchise action that Marvel Studios has been concocting over the last few years, regardless of whether or not their material really fits the bill: out in a couple of months is a DC comics movie that for once looks like it won’t be actively painful to watch, while we are also promised the actual real first episode of Universal’s, er, Universal Monsters franchise (Dracula Untold has apparently been stricken from the record), while first off the blocks, representing Legendary Pictures’ rather similarly-titled MonsterVerse (put those lawyers on standby!), is Kong: Skull Island, directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

The year is 1973, and the Vietnam War is coming to its messy conclusion. ‘Things are never going to be this messed up in Washington again,’ declares Bill Randa (John Goodman), which at the very least is a felicitously knowing first line for a movie these days. Randa is high-up inside a secret agency named Monarch, whose mission statement is to hunt down Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or giant monsters to you and I). However, Godzilla’s visit to San Francisco is still forty years off, and to pass the time until then Randa gets himself and his team onto a US government mission to a newly-discovered island in the Pacific, surrounded by a perpetual storm system and – perhaps – containing a bizarre ecosystem the likes of which no-one has even suspected before.

Providing a military escort for the explorers is the possibly-unstable Colonel Packard (Samuel L Jackson) and his helicopter squadron, while also along for the ride are photojournalist Mason (Brie Larson) and ex-SAS guide James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Randa’s list of things to do on their visit to Skull Island, when they finally get there, starts with ‘drop bombs everywhere’ (the wafer-thin pretext is that this is to assist with a geological survey), which annoys at least one of the island’s inhabitants: one of the chopper pilots barely has time to say ‘Is that a monkey?’ before the squadron is involved in a pitched battle with…

Well, come on guys, the movie is called ‘Kong’, who do you think it is? It’s a bit of a divergence from standard monster movie grammar to wheel on the big beast in the first act, but the movie pulls it off, I would say. In the aftermath of the battle, the survivors regroup and start to think about getting home alive. But, naturally, it’s not going to be that easy, and many discoveries await: lurking on the island are all sorts of monsters, which seem intent on eating our heroes, and also John C Reilly as a stranded Second World War airman, who seems intent on eating all the scenery.

You could be forgiven for turning up to Kong: Skull Island with a degree of trepidation, for quite good reasons – 84 years on from the original movie, King Kong remains a movie icon like few others, but he’s an icon with a singularly poor track-record when it comes to appearances in subsequent movies – if films like King Kong Lives and King Kong Escapes have any value at all, it’s simply as glorious trash. You could also argue that to do a remake of King Kong which completely omits the tall building-related section of the story, and takes place entirely on the island, is also a rather bizarre choice.

However – and I can hardly believe I’m typing this – Skull Island is actually a really fun fantasy adventure film, with a lot going for it. The problem other King Kong projects have tended to encounter is one of tone – they either end up as silly, campy nonsense (the Toho and De Laurentiis projects, for example), or take themselves absurdly seriously (my main problem with Peter Jackson’s take on the great ape). Skull Island gets the tone just about right: it knows when to play things straight, and when to relax and have a little bit of fun with the audience.

There seems to me to be no pressing reason as to why this movie is set in 1973 (there’s some dialogue about how Kong is young and ‘still growing’, presumably to prepare us for a rather bigger present-day ape in a subsequent movie) – there are no overt references to the 1970s King Kong remake, anyway. It mainly seems that the film-makers thought it would be a cool wheeze to make, essentially, a Vietnam war movie that includes a load of giant monsters of different kinds. All the iconography of guys with assault rifles wading through swamps, and helicopters skimming low over the jungle canopy is here, and while it is just dressing-up with no thematic depth, it definitely gives the film its own identity (the classic rock soundtrack is also a definite bonus).

Kong himself (mo-capped by Terry Notary) is rather impressive, both terrifying and sympathetic at different times, as the story requires, and it seems to me the makers of this movie know their stuff when it comes to both this character and the whole giant monster genre – there’s a scene which seems to me to be a call-back to Kong’s love of calamari (first established in King Kong Vs Godzilla), and another which may be either a reference to a deleted scene from the original Kong, or an unexpected appearance by a new version of the Toho monster Kumonga (the fact that Kumonga is not one of the characters for whom Toho receives an on-screen credit – oh, yes, readers, there are big-name Toho monsters in this movie (sort of) – suggests the former). All in all, it’s an engaging new take on the character.

Even the stuff in this movie which is not especially brilliant doesn’t particularly detract from it as a piece of entertainment – Tom Hiddleston has an air of slightly detached bemusement throughout, as though he signed on for the movie without bothering to read the script, and I found this rather funny rather than annoying. I have to say that most of the actors are content to do big character turns rather than anything too subtle and nuanced, but again this is exactly what the piece requires.

If I’ve been at all excited by the prospect of Legendary’s planned monster franchise, then it’s really been more in hope than expectation – but Kong: Skull Island gets so much right that I’m actually really looking forward to future films in this series, provided they handle the tone and subject matter as deftly as this one. It’s certainly a much more nimble and straightforwardly entertaining movie than Gareth Evans’ Godzilla, to which it is technically a prequel. In fact, in terms of technical accomplishment, dramatic success, and ability to channel the spirit of the original film, I would say this movie gets closer to the original King Kong than any other featuring the character. An unashamedly big, crazy, fun monster movie, and a very pleasant surprise.

 

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In the Earth Year 1965, Toho Pictures were on a bit of a roll with their loosely-connected series of mostly-knockabout, usually-underbudgeted SF and fantasy films. What had started off with a heartfelt and very serious film about the tribulations of Japan in the closing stages of the Second World War had by this point transmogrified into something with much more of a focus on pure entertainment, with a strong element of comedy often in the mix. A tendency to go a little bit crazy was always inherent in these movies, but it was to become much more apparent as time went on, and you could argue that it is particularly in evidence in Ishiro Honda’s entry in the series from that year, Invasion of Astro-Monster (also variously known as Monster Zero and Godzilla on Planet X).

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As things get under way, we are informed that scientists of the near future have been startled by the discovery of Planet X, a mysterious new world which is a satellite of Jupiter. Packed off to check the place out is rocketship P-1, piloted by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams, imported to help with getting an American release). Planet X turns out to be a grim and unattractive place, with constant bad weather (suspiciously familiar-looking golden lightning crackles across the sky). Much to the Earth men’s surprise, however, Planet X turns out to be inhabited by aliens possessing strange unearthly powers and even stranger and more unearthly ideas about fashion:

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But the folk of Planet X (lore ascribes them the name ‘Xiliens’, though this isn’t used on screen in any of the versions I’ve seen) have a problem – their civilisation is constantly being raided by the three-headed space monster King Ghidorah, who they refer to as Monster Zero (‘Here on Planet X, we use numbers, not names,’ says the alien Commandant, helpfully, and no-one points out to him that ‘Planet X’ itself is actually a name). The Xiliens (oh, go on, it’s convenient) want to do a deal with Earth whereby they ‘borrow’ nuclear sea-dragon Godzilla and supersonic pterodactyl Rodan and use them to drive Ghidorah off, the pair of them having form in this department. In return they will provide humanity with a cure for cancer.

The lure of this to a 1960s world where everyone smokes like a chimney is sufficient to make everyone on Earth overlook how ridiculous and illogical the Xilien plan is, and at a meeting of the World Council not only the medical representative but the spokeswoman for the globe’s housewives are both all for loaning out the Earth monsters to Planet X.

While all this is going on, there are some slightly soapy goings on between Fuji, his sister, and her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo (Akira Kubo, a personable young actor who plays various roles in this series). He has invented what he calls the ‘Lady Guard’, which is basically a rape alarm, but is concerned that the corporation who has bought the rights to his gizmo isn’t doing anything with it. His main contract, the beautiful and enigmatic Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), is also the girlfriend of astronaut Glenn, which in any other film would count as an outrageous plot contrivance. Different priorities apply here, of course.

Fuji and Glenn grow increasingly suspicious of the Xiliens’ intentions, but not to the point of actually telling anyone or doing much about it, and the transfer of Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X goes off without a hitch. Ghidorah is sent packing with his tails between his legs (Godzilla appears to do the Highland Fling to celebrate his victory) and everyone can celebrate!

Or can they? It turns out that all the women on Planet X are clones, and they look just like Glenn’s chick Namikawa! Why are the Xiliens so interested in suppressing Tetsuo’s rape alarm widget? And what are they going to do with Godzilla and Rodan now they’re on Planet X? Well, it may not come as a total surprise if I tell you that the Xiliens are planning on taking over Earth and enslaving everyone, and if the Earthlings don’t do as they’re told, King Ghidorah (who was secretly under their control all along), Godzilla, and Rodan will be unleashed on the hapless planet…

It is customary to refer to Invasion of Astro-Monster as part of the main sequence of Toho’s Godzilla movies (as opposed to movies like Mothra and King Kong Escapes, which appear to take place in the same continuity but obviously aren’t Godzilla movies per se), but I think this is really one of those benefit-of-hindsight things. If you watch this movie expecting a proper kaiju movie, I suspect you will be rather disappointed – the three monsters get very little active screen-time and the scrapping between them is commensurately abbreviated. I think it makes rather more sense to view this movie as part of the flying saucer alien invasion genre, which just happens to include extended cameos from various members of the Toho monster stable.

Not that this actually makes the film better, or more logical, of course. Even while you’re watching it, the various incongruities of the plot leap out at you and you’re constantly going ‘What? Hang on a minute… Surely…?’ The plot of Invasion of Astro-Monster disintegrates as soon as you breathe on it, even if you don’t have nuclear rays or gravity lightning coming out of your mouth, and the film-makers seem to be under the impression that if they keep things rattling along at a fairly decent pace then no-one is going to complain too much.

Maybe they have a point, for this is a hard film to really dislike, for all of its rampant eccentricities and unanswered questions. Two things keep Invasion of Astro-Monster from becoming the hallucinogenic fever-dream of a movie it often feels like it’s turning into – first, the fact that things like cancer cures and rape alarms – both with all manner of rather downbeat real-world associations – are central to the plot, and second, Ishiro Honda’s inability to completely shake off the ‘proper’ sci-fi tone the film starts with. (The model work and special effects in this movie are fairly decent in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way.)

I used to think of Invasion of Astro-Monster as a sort of mid-range entry in the Toho monster  series, and it is an influential movie in its own way (the ‘aliens use monsters as invasion weapon’ idea was endlessly recycled in movies all the way up to Final Wars, where the Xiliens also appear). But looking at it again now, the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and its multiple inadequacies, mean I think this is a film you really can only view as an extended, unintentional piece of deadpan comedy. And as such it’s a bit of a triumph.

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