Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Series Report Card: Godzilla (1989)
Godzilla vs. Biollante
Gojira tai Biorante
How popular “Godzilla 1985” was upon release in Japan isn’t well known. Wikipedia says the film was a “reasonable” success, which I somehow suspect was under Toho’s expectations. Another sign that the studio wasn’t hugely happy with the revival film’s performance is that a sequel wasn’t immediately green lit. Nearly five years passed before another Godzilla film made it out. “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” based off a story idea from a contest winner/dentist, goes about correcting the previous film’s flaws while creating a Godzilla film not quite like any other.
The film opens in the wake of Godzilla’s ’84 rampage. While Tokyo lies in ruin, scientists attempt to collect skin samples the monster left behind. These G-cells are promptly stolen by a group of American mercenary before the mercenaries are shot to death by a Middle Eastern assassin. Some time later, a scientist named Dr. Shiragami, along with his daughter Erika, is working with a Middle Eastern genetics company to turn the desert into a fruitful oasis. However, those plans are squashed when a rival genetics company bombs the lab, killing Shiragami’s daughter. Five years later, volcanic activity at Mt. Mihara has made the Japanese government paranoid that Godzilla might return. Dr. Shiragami, obsessed with his daughter’s death (and, oddly, roses), is contracted to work on Godzilla’s cell to create a special bacteria, a super-bug designed to destroy radiation. From the doctor’s research springs Biollante, a massive rose-like monster, partially made from Godzilla’s DNA. A hodgepodge of human intrigue, all of it centering on the Anti-Nuclear Bacteria, climaxes when Godzilla is released, inevitably bringing him in to conflict with new monster on the block, Biollante.
One of the things I most like about “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is that it shows a Japan prepared for Godzilla’s return. In the five year period after his last defeat, the country’s military has thrown together all sorts of novel counteractions against the monster. Most of the plot revolves around the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria. Though inelegantly made, this plot device presents an interesting opportunity. By the late eighties, the cold war was defusing. Nuclear destruction, which Godzilla’s is a persistent symbol of, suddenly seemed less likely. Toho’s screenwriters accurately predicted that biological warfare would be the super-weapon buzzword of the future. A mega-germ that could eats radiation? Unlikely. However, placing Godzilla and Biollante at opposite ends of a super-weapon ideology remains a smart decision.
Miki who can talk to flowers and accurately realizes that Godzilla is still alive under the volcano. However, Miki is just one of a whole school of young espers utilized by the Japanese government. One of the movie’s best scenes involves the female protagonist asking a whole classroom of budding young psychics to draw their dreams. Each one of the kids holds up a bold, colorful crayon sketch of Godzilla.
The Super X, the supercharged flying tank, proved an underwhelming weapon last time. Its upgrade, the Super X2, is a little more interesting. In addition to missiles and machine guns, the hovercraft is outfitted with a giant mirror that can reflect Godzilla’s heat ray back at him. Naturally, this only holds the Big G back temporarily. He eventually melts the reflective surface but, at least, it’s a fresh idea. The Anti-Nuclear germ, once it’s retrieve from another subplot, is fired at Godzilla with bazookas. That makes for a fun image, soldiers shooting handheld rockets that immediately drill into the monster’s skin. The movie, in its last act, pulls an even crazier idea out of nowhere. Apparently, at some point, the military set up a device to generate lightning. Gee whiz, why didn’t they try that earlier? Godzilla has an (inconsistent) history of being weak against electricity, after all.
The movie handles its fantastic content with a great deal of creativity. If only the screenplay was constructed in as clever a manner. The movie has a number of subplots all competing for screen time. The story concerning Dr. Shiragami takes up most of film’s first half. With Godzilla’s emergence, the doctor fades into the background, not becoming important again until the very end. Large portions of the film are concerned with the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria. An evil American company and the sinister Arabians are pursuing the weapon, both after it for presumably nefarious reasons. Japan, meanwhile, wants to hold onto the MacGuffin in order to defend against Godzilla and, as the businessman who owns it repeatedly says, to make a lot of money. These competing factions mostly manifest themselves are shady men in cars watching people. American toughs speaking heavily accented English show up from time to time to throw a monkey wrench into the plot. Occasionally, they serve a deeper purpose, like releasing Godzilla with a bomb, being Biollante’s first victims, or showing up to clip a dangling plot line. However, all the rushing around proves mostly fruitless. The super-germ winds up not affecting Godzilla much at all and the ANEBs aren’t brought up in any of the further sequels. The script probably didn’t need a story this ambitious and complicated.
The only human characters in the film I like are Miki and bit-player Lieutenant Gondo. Goro Gondo is, as the kids say, epic. First, he successfully shoots Godzilla with a rocket launcher. The massive beast standing outside of the window, he faces him down, firing another missile into the monster’s mouth. Godzilla kills him after that but looking the King of the Monsters in the face and launching a missile down his throat is still amazingly bad ass. Introducing psychics specially chosen to communicate with kaiju is a surprisingly clever idea. Miki is a character of few words, observing far more then acting. In a movie where the military has thrown together all sorts of gimmicks to stop Godzilla, having Miki mind meld with him is perhaps the most memorable. It doesn’t work but I like it anyway. Megumi Odaka gives a mystical performance and is especially intriguing. The Goji-verse was apparently waiting for someone like her too, as the actress and the character returned for the next five sequels.
The most obvious way “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is superior to its predecessor is in its treatment of the monsters. Godzilla enters the film around the forty-four minute mark. The kaiju king’s look for “Godzilla 1985” was workable but slightly awkward. He is given an impressive redesign for his second Heisei outing. The suit is even bulkier with a brawny chest and hugely muscled legs. The tail is longer and the back spines bigger. Godzilla gains a longer neck and snout, looking taller and more reptilian. A more streamlined face gives the King of the Monsters a more intimidating, perpetually pissed-off look. Godzilla regains his glowing spines and even a few new superpowers. He can now project nuclear energy from his whole body!
The movie also cooked up a creative, bizarre opponent for Godzilla to fight, his strangest this side of the Smog Monster. Biollante seems inspired by Audrey II, Mario’s Piranha Plant, and other giant carnivorous monster plants. You wouldn’t think a giant rose would be an especially effective enemy for such a powerful monster. The movie makes it work though. A giant towering rose, vines ending in razor-toothed flytraps, makes for a memorable image. The snapping teeth in the center of the bud and the pregnant, yellow pouch provide some interesting, Freudian imagery. Biollante tangles Godzilla up in her vines, distracting him momentarily, before getting blasted to bits. This proves a temporary victory though. Just in time for the final act rumble, Biollante returns from space in a powerful new form. Biollante Mk. 2 makes a startling re-entrance, exploding out of the Earth. The flower-monster gains a huge mouth lined with giant teeth, Godzilla’s narrow eyes, slouching posture, and dinosaurian armor. The killer plant holds its own, moving surprisingly fast, vomiting yellow slime into Godzilla’s face, and even impaling his limbs with his fearsome thorns. The dramatically filmed, special effects-heavy fight would set the standard for future entries.
The last two paragraphs might undersell how odd parts of this movie are. You see, Biollante isn’t just a giant monster made from the combined DNA of Godzilla and a rose. The female kaiju gains its gender from, get this, possessing the soul of Dr. Shiragami’s daughter. How exactly this came about isn’t expounded on. Having a human soul doesn’t affect the monster’s behavior much. Absurdly, upon being defeated, we actually see the late Erika Shiragami’s face floating out of the monster’s remains. Biollante’s pollen floats into space and then turns into a giant a rose blossom that orbits the Earth. “Godzilla vs. Biollante” mostly avoids the campy highlights of the late Showa period but oddball touches like these certainly don’t go unnoticed.
Sweeping John Williams-style adventure music fills out most of the score. Occasionally, rocking guitars are heard, seemingly meant to punctuate the movie’s gun violence. Bizarrely, Sugiyama even throws in Danny Elfman style brass which is really distracting, especially when set against action sequences. Sugiyama at least has the brains to use Ifukube’s classic Godzilla theme and military march, which are truly appreciated when they show up. It’s not a bad score but certainly an unusual one.
Compared to the uncertain “Godzilla 1985,” “Godzilla vs. Biollante” is a more fun, creative, and self-assured film. The script is too ambitious, throwing in too many characters and subplots. However, when the movie focuses on its kaiju, it’s an entertaining, at-times innovative action romp. Considering how much more successful it is then its predecessor, it’s not surprising that the rest of the Heisei age would model itself after this film. [Grade: B]