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Posts Tagged ‘monster movie’

‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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You would have to be a real curmudgeon, I submit, to object to the rise of genial Dwayne Johnson to his current position as the most world-bestriding movie star in the business. As it happens, Johnson started his movie career at round about the same time I started sticking my first bits of film-related writing on the internet. There have been a few missteps and quiet patches since the likes of The Scorpion King and The Rundown, of course, but since he joined the Fast and Furious circus in 2011 he really doesn’t seem to have looked back. (I, on the other hand, have steadily progressed from writing humorous film reviews on a fairly obscure website, to writing humorous film reviews on an entirely different and even more obscure website.)

They’re not doing a Fast and Furious film this year, thus freeing up genial Dwayne to make another film instead, and his choice has turned out to be Brad Peyton’s Rampage. While I was buying my ticket for this movie, I noticed one of the ticketeers struggling to deal with a young mother who’d brought her kids to the cinema.

‘I brought them to Peter Rabbit but this one says he’s already seen it,’ she complained, indicating a small child. (Another young life needlessly blighted.) ‘What’s Rampage about?’

Panic glittered in the ticketeer’s eyes. I felt it incumbent upon me to step in. ‘Dwayne Johnson plays a zookeeper,’ I said helpfully. ‘But there’s an accident and the animals get sprayed with magic chemicals that turn them into giant monsters. So he has to fight them all.’

The rictus mask of horror which settled upon the face of the young mum is not something I can easily describe, but I think it’s safe to say that Rampage did not receive her custom. This is a shame, for Rampage is pretty much the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle – big, slightly absurd, but essentially good-natured and very likeable.

I must confess to having simplified the plot a bit when I was pitching the movie to the lady in the cinema. It says something about Rampage that genial Dwayne plays a crack special forces soldier turned brilliant primatologist, and yet this is very far from the most preposterous thing that the film requires you to believe. Well, anyway, the film is predicated on the fact that ‘genetic editing’ technology exists allowing unprincipled scientists to basically mash up different kinds of animal.

Some experiments along these lines have been taking place on a space station, which as a result is experiencing an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (this sequence kind of resembles a gonzo remake of Gravity). Needless to say things go badly and cannisters of the (very vaguely defined) monster-animal-creating jollop fall to Earth in various locations across America.

The principal one of these, from our point of view, is the zoo to which Dr Davis Okoye (genial Dwayne) is attached. Davis likes animals more than people, on the whole, and his special friend is George, an albino gorilla. So he is as cross as two sticks when exposure to the falling space debris results in his pal growing two feet in height in a matter of hours and becoming uncharacteristically violent and aggressive.

Other people have more serious problems. The evil corporate types responsible for the whole mess, the Wydens (played with cartoon gusto by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy), need to get a sample of the jollop in order to shore up their stock price, so they pack a team of mercenaries off to Montana to find another one of the cannisters. But they all end up getting eaten by a wolf the size of a bus.

So, as you would expect from people who think that creating giant mutated near-indestructible monster animals makes good business sense, they hit upon an equally sensible plan B: sending a radio signal from the roof of their skyscraper in Chicago which will attract the monster animals to the city, thus allowing the armed forces to kill them all (and letting the Wydens get their sample).

In the meantime, Davis and a female scientist who is mainly there to be decorative and exposit (Naomie Harris, who is not, perhaps, over-stretched by this role) have been nabbed by the government, along with George the gorilla. Agent in charge Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in scenery-devouring form) would quite like the whole mess clearing up, but with George and the wolf proving uncontainable, and a third even larger beastie swimming up the Chicago river, it’s clear that a lot of things are going to have to explode before it’s all sorted out…

Even by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something fundamentally weird and off-kilter about the premise of Rampage – for example, why a wolf, a gorilla, and a crocodile, exactly? The answer may partly lie in the fact that this is yet another movie based on a computer game – in this case, however, one from the 1980s with minimal plot and depth. The barest essentials of this – monsters vaguely resembling an ape, a wolf and a crocodile tearing down buildings – are at the heart of the movie. (It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that this production was at one point sued by Uwe Boll, director of many terrible video game-based movies – not, as you might expect, for threatening to bring the genre into repute, but because he himself directed a series of movies called Rampage and felt he held the rights to the title.)

If I say they do a pretty good job with some unpromising material (it took four people to write this thing), this is not because I am claiming that Rampage is a film of great moment which will long be remembered as a significant contribution to world cinema. It is not. It is a film about Dwayne Johnson having a fight with a giant albino gorilla, a giant mutated crocodile, and a giant wolf-porcupine-flying-squirrel hybrid. But as such, the movie knows exactly when the audience will probably cut it some slack (yeah, so the monster animals can home in on radio signals…) and when it really has to deliver – namely, in the scenes of the monsters running amok in Chicago and fighting the armed forces.

I don’t know, maybe we’re living through a new golden age of the American monster movie and we didn’t even notice it start – in the last year or so, there’s been Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this, all of which have captured the energy and fun of classic monster movies much more than things from even four or five years ago. The original Rampage game clearly owed a debt to King Kong and Godzilla, of course, so there’s a sense in which the circle is closed here – it also seemed to me that the croc in this movie bears something of a resemblence to a classic Toho monster. The shade of Ishiro Honda would surely approve of the various sequences of urban devastation which make up the bulk of the third act of the movie.

However, I think we are in danger of overlooking the contribution made by the actors to this film. It’s true that the villains are just there as plot devices, and they are essentially ciphers, and it’s equally true that no matter how hard New Line Cinema push for an Oscar nomination for genial Dwayne, he ain’t gonna get one for this movie – but he and Harris and Morgan do an essential job in putting a human face on all the CGI, and giving the film a bit of warmth and humour and even soul (Johnson’s range obviously has its limits, but within those limits he’s a very effective performer). Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, there will be a little moment of knowing humour, just to reassure you that the film is entirely aware of how preposterous it is, and I can’t describe how relaxing this feels.

It’s fair to say that the only award Rampage is likely to win is Popcorniest Popcorn Movie of the Year (emphasis on the corny) – unless they introduce an Oscar for best flying CGI wolf, anyway. I am also very sure that this is the kind of film that many people would run a mile rather than go anywhere near. But as a bonkers monster movie, it is simply a huge amount of fun. It is probably the most ridiculous thing that will appear in cinemas this year – but ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

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Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be because it’s been less than six months since the last one (although the mixed response to last year’s offering may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we’re still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).

It’s nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn’t exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

The film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are als known as jaegers, as I’m sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.

There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?

Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it’s taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure (‘Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim’ – ‘Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast’), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn’t participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur movie, Rinko Kikuchi’s appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a ‘visual consultant’, presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.

In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.

However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I’m not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender’s Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.

You don’t come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)

Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like ‘Activate plasma wrecking ball!’, anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man’s presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.

On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren’t present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there’s one scene concerned with a character’s personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.

Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there’s a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I’m inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success it deserves.

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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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It increasingly seems to me that the process by which major movie awards are decided resembles that by which the Catholic Church creates new saints: every aspect of a prospective candidate’s past and character is meticulously examined for doctrinal and moral purity and correctness. Old skeletons are wont to get dragged out of cupboards like nobody’s business. There was much grumbling last year when Casey Affleck eventually won the Best Actor Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, given some controversies in his past; the same thing seems likely to impact Gary Oldman’s chances in the same category this year. It’s almost as though the gong is handed out not for the work in question, but their personal conduct throughout their lifetime.

This applies to whole films as much as individuals, although in this case the vetting process can get a bit more abstract: one of the key obstacles which can rise up in a movie’s way is that of plagiarism, however you dress it up. Drawing particular flak in this department at the moment is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. There have been allegations from the family of the writer responsible that this film draws unacceptably heavily from the plot of a TV play entitled Let Me Hear You Whisper. The acclaimed French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has also weighed in, complaining that del Toro refuses to admit that the movie reuses elements of his own 1991 film Delicatessen.

This is really par for the course for many films these days. What I do find rather surprising is the fact that no-one is really saying much about the fact that The Shape of Water is essentially, if not a remake of Jack Arnold’s classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, then so heavily indebted to it as to have no significant independent identity of its own. Or perhaps it’s just the case that the homage is so very obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning: del Toro was in the frame to direct a remake of Black Lagoon at one point, and his new ideas for the plot were apparently where the idea of The Shape of Water originated. On the other hand, perhaps it is simply inconceivable for many people that an acclaimed critical darling with thirteen Oscar nominations could have been spawned by what’s still perceived as a trashy monster movie.

Del Toro’s movie is set, we are invited to infer, in the early 60s, and primarily concerns the doings of a lonely, mute woman named Elisa (she is played by Sally Hawkins). Her closest friends are the unfulfilled artist in the next apartment (Richard Jenkins) and her work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She seems very ordinary, and only her startling behaviour in the bathtub while waiting for her boiled egg suggests she is a woman of deep passions. (I have to say that even as the opening scenes of the film were sketching in the details of her life, my companion – who was unaware of the whole plagiarism kerfuffle – was saying, ‘Ooh, this is like Amelie‘ – a well-received film directed by, you guessed it, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.)

Elisa is a cleaner at a government science facility, and one which shortly embarks on an unusual new research project: a new specimen arrives, captured in the Amazon by relentless intelligence officer Strickland (Michael Shannon) – an aquatic humanoid creature, basically a kind of gill-man (the creature is played by Doug Jones). The gill-man is brutally treated by Strickland and his team, who believe its unique properties can give the US an edge in the space race, but Elisa manages to make a more personal connection with him. When she learns that the gill-man’s life will shortly be put in danger by the demands of the project, Elisa finds she has to take steps to protect him…

Guillermo del Toro is one of those people whose career has shown sporadic flashes of utter brilliance ever since his first film, Cronos, appeared in the middle of the 1990s. Cronos was an iconoclastic vampire movie; he has gone on to make several brilliant superhero-horror movie fusions, the historical fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, and the aspiring Japanese-culture blockbuster Pacific Rim. Even the films he hasn’t made sound unusually enticing: for a long time he was slated to direct the Hobbit trilogy, while his efforts to realise a big-budget adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness were ultimately scuppered by the appearance of the similarly-themed Prometheus. Could this be the moment where it all comes together and he produces the classic fantasy movie he has long been threatening to, and receives the accolades he surely deserves?

Well, maybe. There are certainly elements of The Shape of Water that recall earlier films del Toro has worked on: Doug Jones played a broadly similar gill-man character in the two Hellboy films, for instance, while anyone familiar with the wider canon of Lovecraftian horror-fantasy may find certain elements of the new film’s plot are telegraphed just a little too obviously. And if anything other than the homage/plagiarism fuss impacts on The Shape of Water‘s chances of Oscar success, then it’s that this is still very recognisably a genre picture of sorts, unashamedly featuring tropes from horror, fantasy, and monster movies.

Nevertheless, this is still a breathtakingly accomplished film, beautiful to look at, involving in its storytelling, and uniformly superbly acted. Del Toro’s ability to blend different flavours is notable: the general thrust of the advertising for The Shape of Water suggests this is essentially a lushly imagined romantic fantasy, and it certainly functions as such. But on the other hand, I would be very careful about who I took to see this film – the nudity and explicit sexual content is somewhat stronger than you might expect, while the horror element has a much harder, gorier edge than any of the publicity suggests. There are some properly grisly, uncomfortable-to-watch moments as the story progresses.

This is partly a result of the film’s ambitions to be more than just an escapist fantasy film, of course. We are back in Unique Cultural Moment territory here, and it is notable that the film’s main villain is Shannon’s straight-arrow by-the-book career army man, who would probably be the hero of a 50s B-movie. Here, of course, the focus is on the way he insists on dominating anyone around him who is less of a WASP-ish alpha male, and his casual brutality is set in opposition to the general sensitivity and decency of the characters who end up opposing him. The role is written and performed with just enough subtlety for Strickland not to come across as an absolute one-dimensional cut-out, but it remains the case that for me The Shape of Water‘s disparaged-minorities-unite-to-stick-it-to-The-Man subtext is just a little too on the nose. (I’m not sure the musical number in the third act entirely works, either.)

Nevertheless, this is still a tremendously accomplished and highly distinctive film. To tell the truth, I suspect this film may just be a little too far out there, and not overtly political enough, to really succeed with awards jurors in the current atmosphere, but I think it will be very well remembered in years to come. And, given the terrible troubles that Universal have been having, trying to get their monster-based franchise started, I suspect that people there will be seriously regretting not giving del Toro more freedom when he was working on movie ideas for them: it’s certainly difficult to imagine anyone daring to attempt another remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon for many years to come, let alone being so successful.

 

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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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