Sunday, April 20, 2014
Series Report Card: Godzilla (1994)
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla
Gojira tai SupesuGojira
For the twenty-first film in the Godzilla series, Toho brought in a new creative team. Kensho Yamashita, who had previously done second-unit work on “Terror of MechaGodzilla,” was directing only his third film. It was screenwriter Hiroshi Kashiwabara’s first crack at a Godzilla movie while it was the first credit in general of co-writer Kanji Kashiwa. Tellingly, Yamashita and Kashiwa would never work on another film. “Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” is widely considered the worst of the Heisei era and showed that the new wave of Godzilla films was already running out of steam.
On Earth, the UNGCC continues to pursue methods to stop Godzilla. After years of trying unsuccessfully to destroy Godzilla, the scientists hit on a new method. Using an implant shot into his skin and telepathic waves, they seek to control Godzilla. If this doesn’t work, the military has another huge-ass robot waiting in the wings: Moguera, a heavily-armed, drill-nosed machine that can split into two separate vehicles. Miki and the Lieutenants, Koji and Kiyoshi, attempt to hit the giant kaiju with the sub-dermal implant. Major Akira Yuki, on the other hand, wants to destroy the monster, to avenge the death of his friend. Most of these subplots are interrupted when Space Godzilla; a massive, crystal-covered, psychically-powered, clone of Godzilla; drops out of the sky. The evil double kidnaps the growing Little Godzilla, pissing of his adoptive dad, and sets about destroying the Earth.
“Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” suffers from a seriously unfocused script. Compared to the effective A-to-B plot designs of the last few films, the movie feels like a collection of different ideas were tossed together. The central threat of SpaceGodzilla is completely unrelated to the rest of the film’s stories. His appearance has no connection to the other plot threads. You’d expect Project T, the plan to telepathically control Godzilla, to factor into the fight. It doesn’t. You’d expect Major Yuki’s personal grudge against Godzilla to affect the finale. Not really. Little Godzilla is imperiled early on, setting up the battle between the two Godzillas. Yet the immature monster doesn’t appear again until after the fight is over. There is a three-way battle between Moguera and the mutant dinosaurs but that’s the only storyline the movie resolves in a satisfying way.
The movie probably should have focused on one of these plots instead of throwing all of them into one movie. For example, Major Yuki's revenge against Godzilla would have made a fine basis for a film. The dead friend is actually Lieutenant Gondo, the badass who shot a bazooka right into Godzilla’s face in “Godzilla vs. Biollante.” His personal vendetta is egged on by Gondo’s previously unmentioned sister, another underdeveloped character. He’s been living on Birth Island with the monsters, planning to shoot Godzilla with a blood coagulant. His first attempt, shooting the giant monster with tiny bullets from a small gun, fails. He doesn’t try again. Once in the pilot seat of Moguera, he goes off-course to fire at the good monster, the one currently defending the world from his evil clone. His co-pilots tie him up after this but untie him only a few minutes later. After the dust clears, Yuki completely changes his mind about Godzilla for no reason. Perhaps if the film didn’t have seven other storylines going, this change could have been paid more attention. In an already overstuffed film, it’s another subplot competing for screen time.
Then there’s the business of SpaceGodzilla. Godzilla’s fought some pretty ridiculous threats over the years, from upright cockroaches to giant flowers. It’s not the titular threats’ premise that makes him ridiculous. There’s already one evil Godzilla clone running around. Instead, it’s the monster’s origin. Godzilla cells carried into space by Biollante and Mothra pass through a black hole. Somehow, this trip causes the cells to mutate into a giant, evil Godzilla. For some other reason, the cells fused with a crystal organism, causing the finished monster to sprout huge crystals all over its body. For yet another reason, SpaceGodzilla feels compelled to head to Earth, planning to destroy his genetic father and the planet he’s on. Why? Because he’s evil, dude. To make things even more contrived, SpaceGodzilla also has psychic powers, levitating Godzilla into the air.
The real reason, I suspect, SpaceGodzilla was given telekinesis is because the creature’s design gave him tiny, neutered arms and massive, unmovable shoulders. There was no way that suit could believably wrestle with Godzilla, much less toss him through the air. The SpaceGodzilla suit represents the Heisei era’s worse tendencies. He’s freakishly muscled and over-designed. A list of his features: Huge crystals on his shoulders, a horn on his head, tusk at his mouth, a spiked tail, giant star-shaped spines down his back. To top it off, the monster is colored blueberry and burgundy. His superpowers include generating crystals from the ground, launching said crystals like missiles, flight, shooting beams from his mouth and spikes, and the infamous, rarely used telekinesis. SpaceGodzilla is to Godzilla as Venom is to Spider-Man, a beefed-up, overpowered, overrated, evil version of the hero.
The film’s second monster is another awkward design. Like MechaGodzilla, Moguera is an update of an older character. The alien-made giant mecha from “The Mysterians” has become a human-built robotic tank. Like 1993’s MechaGodzilla, Moguera seems designed as a toy first and a workable special effect second. The robot splits into two separate vehicles, a drill-tipped tank and a flying space craft. Moguera’s movement is awkward, the mech more frequently rolling around on treads. Despite being an update, Moguera seems less heavily armed then his predecessor. He’s got laser eyes, a laser cannon in his chest, and drill missiles in his arms. His only melee weapon is the giant drill on the tip of his nose. That isn’t especially useful, as the heroes find out when they try to attack with it. When separate, neither vehicle works very well. Both seem like smaller components of a larger machine which, of course, they are.
None of the film’s original kaiju are well regarded but a lot of scorn has been reserved for Little Godzilla, the evolution of the last film’s Baby. Here my opinion departs from the masses. I actually kind of like Little Godzilla. He’s designed for maximum cuteness, with big anime eyes, shrimp-y little arms, and a chubby belly. Yet I can’t help but like the little guy. He’s curious about everything around him, from the humans to the evil space monster, an instinct that gets him in trouble. When SpaceGodzilla snatched the smaller monster off the ground, I actually worry about him. When he’s returned to safety, he sneezes out a little nuclear breath, Minilla-style. Mostly, I wish the film paid more attention to Little Godzilla’s relationship to his foster dad. I think the two monsters have one scene together despite his disappearance being an important plot point.
The movie’s special effects are also inconsistent. The monster suits, over designed though they might be, work fairly well. SpaceGodzilla’s exposed jaw muscles are about the only thing I like about the design. There’s some fun effects during the final fight, Godzilla psychic-smashed through a building or Moguera exploding the villain’s shoulder crystals. Despite being in hero mode for most of the film, Godzilla still tears through a building upon arriving in Fukuoka City. It’s not very visually appealing but SpaceGodzilla reducing the city to a collection of giant crystal spires is certainly a memorable image.
Yet some of the film’s effects are unforgivable shoddy. When flying, SpaceGodzilla grows a giant cluster of crystals from his back, an odd, ungainly looking design. His crystal spires being fired like missiles is fairly cheesy looking. SpaceGodzilla attack on a NASA space station is unconvincing, actors clearly working in front of a green screen. Miki is visited by the Cosmos and Fairy Mothra, both of which are brought to life through unconvincing puppets and digital effects. Most infamously, Moguera and SpaceGodzilla fight in space. The two kaiju fly about an asteroid field. Giant plastic rocks float among a pitch black space. The cables holding both models up are visible while the asteroids are deeply fake looking. This scene also opens a plot hole. SpaceGodzilla is already established, by this point, as being in Earth’s orbit. Why is he suddenly in an asteroid belt? How can Moguera fly from Earth to the asteroid belt within a day, much less when damaged?
“Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla” is strangely maudlin in its pacing. The final battle seems to drag, the tinny, self-serious score drudging along. The fates of the various pilots are focused on, each one in mortal danger. While cutting between the human drama and the monster fight has been successful in the past, it only hinders the pacing this time. The scenes of city destruction lack any sense of fun, coming across as strangely depressing. The film generally makes me miss the days when an American distributor would have tightened the pacing up by shortening and shifting scenes.