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I know I go on a lot about the various evils of predictable films, lack of new ideas in mainstream cinema, fear of innovation, and so on, and it does occur to me that perhaps I am making just a little bit too much fuss about this. Perhaps there is something to be said after all for movies which don’t set out to up-end expectations, mash genres beyond all recognition, or carve out a bold new niche for themselves. Familiarity isn’t always a necessarily ugly word.

I have been moved to this thought by Daniel Espinosa’s Life, which lends itself more readily than most recent films to the ‘it’s X meets Y’ game (one that I usually try not to play as a point of principle) and its numerous variations. Hey, let’s indulge ourselves for once: it’s The Quatermass Experiment meets Gravity, or The Thing set in low orbit – either of those capsule descriptions strikes me as largely accurate and highly informative as to the kind of movie this is.

Life is set in and around the International Space Station in a fairly near future (the film is intentionally vague about this). The six-person crew is very excited as the first sample of soil samples from Mars are about to arrive, and there are indications that the probe has located something truly exceptional on the Red Planet – preserved microbial life!

Well, work on the Martian cells gets under way, with appropriately strict precautions in place, and soon enough the chief boffin (Ariyon Bakare) has cultured himself a cute little Martian blobby thing. You can almost certainly guess what happens next, but anyway: there is a mishap, resulting in the organism turning aggressively hostile, and before you can say ‘Fendahl Core’ the crew are doing battle with a rapidly-growing lifeform (alien monsters, especially ones you get trapped in a confined space with, are always rapidly-growing, as any fule kno) that has already laid waste to Mars. Can they survive? And, more importantly, can they ensure that the Martian creature never reaches the planet below…?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests that at least half of all SF movies also fall into the horror category, and while I’m not sure Life contains quite enough grisliness to satisfy the most dedicated gorehounds, I suspect there’s quite enough unpleasantness here to make the average person go ‘Ewwww,’ and think about looking away. There’s a gripping sequence illustrating why you should never shake hands with an unknown alien, someone has a very unpleasant experience in a broken space-suit (this appears to have been inspired by a real-life incident from 2013), there are scenes involving flame-throwers and defibrillators (these strike me as being a knowing tip of the hat to some of Life‘s more celebrated progenitors), and so on.

The odd thing about Life is not the fact that, from the very beginning until the very end of the movie, you are never really in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, because this is a well-worn tale, to say the least. The odd thing is that it really doesn’t matter, and in a strange way it may even add to the fun of the film – anyone with a working knowledge of how this kind of movie is structured, and why people get billed in the order they do on movie posters, probably has a very good chance of being able to work out exactly what order the various characters are going to get picked off in.

Quite apart from the gribbly alien horror elements of the story (the Martian ends up looking rather cephalopodic, which, all things considered, probably qualifies this film as being on some level Lovecraftian), the most obvious influence on Life is obviously Gravity. The new movie doesn’t have quite the same breath-taking technical virtuosity, but the fact remains that this is another film set almost entirely in zero-G, using (almost wholly) credible technology – the fact it’s so close to reality is one of the things that makes the film such fun. I’m pretty sure this film wasn’t shot on location on the ISS, but it nevertheless does a good job of first conning you into thinking that it could have been, and then making you take for granted that everyone’s casually floating around. Only at a few key moments does the film get ostentatious about its zero-G effects – at one point someone sheds a tear, and it bobbles off their face and floats away, but to be honest, most of these involve great clusters of globs of blood drifting about the place.

Lest you think this is just reheated splatter on a space station, some proper actors are participating and seem to be having fun doing so. Ryan Reynolds is the mission’s pilot and engineer, and you are reminded what an able and amiable screen presence Reynolds is; hopefully he’s not going to spend half his time playing Deadpool from now on. Rebecca Fergusson is the quarantine officer in charge of keeping the Martian from reaching Earth, although she is British, she is also part of the (US-based) Centre for Disease Control, which struck me as a little odd – alien monsters are admittedly outside the remit of Public Health England, but there’s always the WHO… Playing the station doctor is Jake Gyllenhaal, who gives a typically thought-through performance, although you can’t quite shake the impression he’s only here because his agent said ‘You know what, Jake, it’s time you did something a bit more fun for a change.’

There’s nothing tremendously exceptional about Life in any department, but it is a thoroughly competent and entertaining film. You could possibly argue that the climax of the story has rather more energy than elegance, but, once again, this hardly spoils the fun at all. If you don’t like space movies, or horror movies, or indeed horror movies set in space, then this is definitely not one for you. If this sort of thing is your cup of tea, on the other hand, this is a safe bet for a solid trip to the movies. A worthy addition to an honourable tradition.

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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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The late Gerry Anderson was quite unapologetic about the fact that his TV shows and movies, made by a British producer, using mostly-British writers and crews, in British studios and locations, almost always concerned American characters and settings, portrayed by American lead actors. If international sales are really that important to you, was his thinking, better to go down that route than to make an ostensibly British show with a single imported American star (he was particularly dismissive of Dempsey and Makepeace, as I recall). Not sure I see the distinction myself, but anyway.

Now, when it comes to the giant monster movie genre, there is a long and distinguished (well, about as distinguished as you can get when making traditionally cheap-assed movies about silly-looking monsters treading on toy tanks) tradition of the International Version, where a whole new alternate version of a movie is assembled for foreign sales purposes. This goes back, effectively, to the very birth of the genre – the version of the original Godzilla which went on release in the USA featured new scenes in which an American journalist (played by Raymond Burr, of all people) basically looks out of the window and relates what’s going on down a phone line. (Imported American stars are also quite common in the original version of a lot of 60s Toho movies, too.)

But at what point does this sort of sales-related re-editing produce something which is essentially a whole new movie? The thought occurred to me after watching Shim Hyung-Rae’s Yonggary, which is ostensibly a South Korean kaiju movie from 1999. The thing is, however, that Yonggary apparently underwent extensive re-editing and re-shoots in order to be released in the USA in 2001, under the title Reptilian, and this is the only version of the film which is widely available.

yonggary

The story goes as follows: hostile aliens, who appear to be played by glove puppets, turn up aboard a so-so looking spaceship, intent on conquering the world. Nobody notices this at first, and the story instead concerns the palaeontological dig of the sinister and arrogant Dr Campbell (Richard B Livingston). It’s never actually referred to as a palaeontological site, by the way (and it does indeed resemble a building site more than anything else), but this may be because none of the writers knew how to spell it. Also hanging around is a photojournalist (Brad Sergi) and the doc’s comely young assistant Holly (Donna Philipson). Campbell is intent on digging up a giant dinosaur skeleton, ‘fifty times bigger than a t-rex’, and isn’t about to let a string of mysterious deaths stop him.

However, who should turn up but Campbell’s old mentor Dr Hughes (Harrison Young), making wild claims that this will bring about the end of the world, for the beast (which he calls Yonggary) will soon come back to life and devastate the planet. His source for all this is some ancient hieroglyphics which he discovered in a rather confusing prologue (perhaps that should be ‘especially confusing prologue’, for – as you may have guessed – narrative coherence is not Yonggary‘s strong suit).

Naturally, everyone assumes Hughes has gone off the deep end, but then the aliens launch their scheme and the dinosaur skeleton transforms into a living, breathing Yonggary, who promptly treads on Dr Campbell. The aliens start teleporting Yonggary all over the place, attacking Los Angeles, a nuclear reactor, and so on, and making it quite tricky for the armed forces, who have finally figured out what’s going on, to send in the troops to fight him. So it goes sometimes…

The kaiju genre was in fairly rude good health in the late 90s, when Yonggary was originally conceived and produced: Toho were knocking out a not-bad Godzilla movie every year, Shusuke Kaneko’s awesome Gamera trilogy was coming to a conclusion, and the Sony-Centropolis American remake of Godzilla had been a pretty big hit the year before. I think you can detect the influence of all of these things on Yonggary to some degree or other – there’s a sequence where a squadron of helicopter gunships takes on Yonggary which seems particularly indebted to the Emmerich movie, for instance (not to mention a bit where someone says of Yonggary, ‘Godzilla is a pussy compared to this guy!’). And this is, by any rational assessment, a plot assembled from fairly classic kaiju movie tropes: alien invasion, alarmed and impotent military, monster with a heart of gold, third-act evil monster, and so on. The film even comes up with some innovations which sit quite comfortably in this kind of movie – at one point special forces soldiers with jetpacks and ray-guns are deployed to fight Yonggary, and it’s a fairly cool scene.

Of course, it would be a bit cooler if the special effects of the movie were better, because – for all that this was apparently the most expensive movie in South Korean history – it does look cheap compared to Godzilla 2000, very cheap compared to Gamera: Incomplete Struggle, and incredibly cheap compared to the Centropolis Godzilla. The CGI of Yonggary and Cycor (the enemy monster) looks only marginally competent, although to be fair the monster designs themselves are dull and unengaging.

I suspect many viewers may not even have made it to the monster fights in Yonggary, for the first third of the movie is also its weakest part. There is, as I mentioned, an unengagingly baffling prologue, followed by a long section in which the main characters are Campbell and the photographer. Neither of these people appear after the first act of the film, which suggests a script which was just being written as it went along. The shockingly poor standard of the writing and much of the acting doesn’t help much, either.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Yonggary is the fact that this was a huge production by South Korean standards, a remake of a 60s South Korean kaiju film (Yongary: Monster from the Deep, in case you were wondering), directed by a South Korean film-maker, and yet you could watch the whole thing and remain blissfully ignorant of any of this. There are no prominent Korean actors, the film has been made in English, and it is supposedly set in California. What gives?

Then again, I did watch the 2001 version of Yonggary (aka Reptilian), which – as noted – was extensively modified for its international release. How much of the original version has survived? Was the South Korean Yonggary a bit more accomplished? To be honest, I kind of doubt it: the CGI would still have been bad, the plot would still have been silly-verging-on-the-stupid. Director Shim Hyung-Rae seems to specialise in this sort of thing – a few years ago I came across his 2007 movie Dragon Wars, in which the CGI was actually quite impressive, but the plot still baffling gibberish – and that while that one did contain some distinctively Korean bits, they felt odd and incongruous given the American milieu of the film.

Anyway: hats off to South Korea for having a go at making a proper giant monster movie, even if they didn’t quite manage it in the end. This is a pretty bad movie by any reasonable standard – even if you are a very keen follower of kaiju movies, you may find it only really passes the time, at best.

 

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Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.

However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.

dragonslayer

Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).

Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…

The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).

However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)

Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.

Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)

Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.

There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.

 

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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).

invasion_of_astro-monster_poster_a

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:

xiliens

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 Fuij, 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 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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As I have said before, the thing about the main characters of very long-running franchises is that they inevitably change over time, the trick being to balance keeping the stuff about them which is essential and iconic while updating the peripheral bits and pieces to keep up with changing public tastes and also maybe shifts in social attitudes. And generally, that’s a good and interesting thing, especially for those of us who spend far too much of our time thinking about pop culture. On the other hand, there’s always the question of how much change is too much.

I must confess this was something which was on my mind when details of the plot of Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Gojira started to emerge, for they did seem to promise a very radical reinvention of Japan’s biggest movie star. The English title for this movie is Godzilla: Resurgence, which is not quite an exact translation of the original – Shin means New, but can also be translated as True and even God. The use of the word is doubtless partly due to the existence of the latest American Godzilla movie, but also reflects some of the significant innovations introduced in the new movie.

shingojira

This is the first Japanese Godzilla movie not to function even implicitly as a sequel to the original 1954 movie, being a genuine remake instead. The film’s willingness to break with the established grammar and conventions of monster movies becomes apparent almost at once, as the traditional very long wait for the beast to show up is discarded, and everyday business in Tokyo Bay is suddenly disrupted – the water explodes into steam, a tunnel under the bay is breached, and so on. This happens at a fairly hectic pace and there’s a lot of found footage of the travails of the ordinary people caught up in it, intercut with the response of the government’s senior figures (which perhaps leaves quite a lot to be desired).

It soon becomes apparent that a giant aquatic life form is responsible for all of this, but before the government can decide what to do about it the creature has made its way up a river and then, to the astonishment of every scientific observer, goes ashore, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. But it is not recognisably the Godzilla we have all come to know and love: instead it is a gilled, goggle-eyed, reddish-brown crawling thing, with vestigial limbs. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the creature has a bizarre power of adaptive mutation, adopting the ideal form for whatever environment it enters. Nuclear powered, the monster is forced to return to the sea in order to cool itself down, leaving the government to ponder what to do next.

Handling part of the government’s response is ambitious young politico Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), who heads up his own task force working on a possible solution – rather than shooting at the creature, could it be possible to shut down its unique metabolism using scientific means? Help comes from an unexpected source with the appearance of one of his American counterparts (Satomi Ishihara), who has information on the creature’s origins – which, not entirely surprisingly, involve the dumping of nuclear waste going back to the 1950s. The American Department of Energy has been aware of the monster’s existence for some time, and already have their own code name for it: Godzilla…

So, I suppose the question is, do they get the balance right between the classic Godzilla elements and their own new ideas? I must confess to feeling rather unsure early in the film, especially during the sequence with the bizarre proto-Godzilla, but once the Big G evolves into something rather closer to his ‘classic’ form and commences rampaging through the city, most of my concerns were very much allayed. The traditional sequence where the JSDF is deployed against a looming kaiju and proceeds to have no effect on it whatsoever is very much present and correct; the special effects are generally superb and there is a neat little touch where (on the version I saw) the specifications of each new weapon being brought into play flash up on a caption. It’s a small thing but it really grounds the film in reality. And the actual rampage itself is as good as anything elsewhere in the series: the new Godzilla wreaks utter devastation on the city, radioactive beams and flaming breath erupting in all directions – it’s depicted as being rather akin to an actual nuclear attack on the city. (This is, of course, still a sensitive topic in Japan, but it’s one the film doesn’t shy away from.) The one thing that keeps it from having the same kind of visceral impact as the parallel sequence in the 1954 film is the fact it is presented almost solely in terms of property damage, rather than the impact on the people of the city. The film makes it clear that people are killed, but it happens at a remove; you never really feel it.

The only other film in the franchise which Shin Gojira genuinely seems to have much in common with is Godzilla 1984 (aka The Return of Godzilla). Partly this is because these are the only Japanese films concerned solely with a lone, antagonistic Godzilla, but also because there is a political element to both films. In both cases, foreign powers get involved with the situation, coming up with the slightly alarming solution of letting off thermonuclear weapons in Japan to kill Godzilla outright. In Shin Gojira it’s the Americans who are responsible, and a major theme of the last act of the film is, basically, the issue of Japanese self-determination – should they just roll over and do whatever Uncle Sam decrees, or stand up for their rights as an independent nation? The resonance of the USA wanting to use nuclear weapons in Japan is not overlooked – the bombing of Hiroshima is explicitly referenced (it’s actually perhaps a little bit too explicitly referenced, feeling intrusively on-the-nose, but then Japanese audiences would doubtless have a different attitude).

Elsewhere the film has other, reasonably topical concerns, particularly in its early stages. The Japanese government and particularly its response to a major national disaster is presented in an extremely critical manner – none of the senior officials seem to really have a clue what to do, and seem more concerned about how they’ll appear in the media and hang onto their jobs than in showing any real leadership. The film seems to be making some fairly trenchant comments on the handling of the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and especially the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and it seems to me that a Godzilla movie is a virtually perfect platform in which to do something like this. Allegorical social commentary is in some ways at the heart of this series, after all.

So on the whole Shin Gojira very much won me over by the time it concluded – there are still elements of it I’m not sure about (for instance, there seems to be a weird obsession with Godzilla’s tail, which does all kinds of new and peculiar things in this movie), and these films are always more fun with a monster battle in them at some point. I’m also not sure how long the rather austere and utterly serious tone of this movie can be sustained for, if Toho opt to make direct sequels to it. But on the whole this is perhaps the most interesting Godzilla film since the original; certainly the most intelligent.

 

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