Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 21, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1995)

22. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Gojira tai Desutoroia / Godzilla vs. Destroyah

By 1995, the Heisei Godzilla series was beginning to run out of steam. Simultaneously, TriStar Pictures was well into development on a cutting edge, American made Godzilla. Aware of the lesser quality of the last two films and fully expecting the American Godzilla movie to spawn a franchise of its own, Toho made a decision. Godzilla would die. The long running series was being brought to a seemingly permanent end. Fully aware that this was the end of an era, the death of an icon, the studio pulled out all the stops. The 22nd and intended final film, “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah,” had the King of the Monsters facing off against a terrible new enemy and facing an even greater struggle: His own mortality.

Birth Island, where Godzilla and his son have made their home for the last few years, goes up in a volcanic explosion. Absorbing massive energy from the blast, Godzilla’s heart, a natural nuclear reactor, begins to overheat. His eyes glow red, his skin burns like molten lava, and his power reaches unheard of new levels. With the help of the college-age grandson of the original film’s Dr. Yamane, G-Force realizes Godzilla is facing nuclear meltdown. When he reaches his maximum point, the King of the Monsters will explode, taking most of the planet with him. Meanwhile, the scientist Kensaku Ijuin has developed “micro-oxygen,” super-charged oxygen atoms. The doctor believes this is a miracle substance that could save the world but others worry it could be a dangerous new weapon. Those fears come true when microscopic organisms, surviving from the Precambrian period, interact with the micro-oxygen, birthing Destoroyah, a massive, extremely powerful new monster. Godzilla, on the brink of nuclear meltdown, along with the maturing Godzilla Junior, battle this new threat. The Japanese government hopes the monsters will destroy one another, preventing the end of the world.

Well aware of its status as the “final” Godzilla movie, “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” treats its hero with a renewed mythic status. The film opens with a scenic pan of Hong Kong before the peaceful night is interrupted by the monster’s reappearance. A normal night flight halts when Godzilla attacks the plane at take-off. Godzilla’s smoldering skin is, at first, unexplained, adding to the shock. He tears through Hong Kong, exploding several buildings off the bay with his supercharged atomic breath. This opening scene establishes two very important factors. There’s something wrong with Godzilla, he’s incredibly pissed off about it, and that’s making him more powerful then ever before.

The film also goes out of its way to establish a connection with the very first film. Like that original, the opening credits are preceded by the Godzilla’s name, in bold Japanese kanji, filling up the scream, accompanied by the monster’s unforgettable roar. Momoko Kochi, in her final film role, returns as the now-elderly Emiko Yamane, still haunted by Godzilla’s original rampage and Dr. Serizawa’s sacrifice. Her father, Dr. Yamane, was such an important part of that film and is repeatedly referenced here. His grandchildren, Kenichi and Yukari, are several of the main characters. Kenichi, despite just being a college student, might be the most knowledgeable Godzilla expert in the world. His sister, Yukari, is a famous television reporter and motivates part of the plot.

The film very well could have been called “The Death of Godzilla.” Officially dubbed Burning Godzilla, the new design in this film is very effective. The red hot sores on his skin make it apparent how sick he is. His destruction is the most fierce it’s been in a long time. The movie makes it apparent very early on that if Godzilla meltdowns, the resulting explosion would devastate the planet. The movie doesn’t back down from showing what this would look like, all of Tokyo bursting into flames with the monster. When the Japanese military invest in some freezing technology, the film is given a brief hope spot. Godzilla is frozen before consuming a nuclear power planet. However, it doesn’t take him long to thaw out. His temperature continues to rise. Godzilla is going to melt down and there’s no way around it.

Instead of rehashing another old monster, Toho decided Godzilla’s final opponent would be an original creation. Destoroyah, always referred to as “Destroyer” in the film, is directly connected with the original as well. The monster has its origin in ancient soil mutated by Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer. Its evolution is further aided by the micro-oxygen, the modern day equivalent of the fifties’ super weapon. Having Godzilla fight the physical off-spring of the only weapon to kill him sounds gimmicky on paper. It almost makes Destoroyah sound heroic. The monster is anything but. His power is devastating, able to liquefy humans with a single burst. In his final form, he stands taller then Godzilla, his appearance demonic and grotesque. Since he’s made from an amalgam of microscopic organism, he’s very difficult to kill. There’s something symbolic about the monsters’ fight. Godzilla is the son of the atomic bomb while Destoroyah sprang from the next terrible super-weapon. That the two monsters are battling for the fate of the world is appropriate.

It’s a good thing that Destoroyah is a captivating threat. He takes up a lot of screen time. The Oxygen Destroyer’s effect is shown in graphic detail when an aquarium full of fish dissolves on-screen. Destroyah first appears as a ten-foot tall crab-like creature, with a rust-red armor, a crowned head and multiple spindly, crawling legs. Multiple versions of the monsters infest a power plant, forcing the military to go in. A solid amount of time is devoted to the soldiers fighting off the monsters. This portion of the film blatantly recalls “Aliens.” The military force is quickly overwhelmed by the monsters as they burst through the walls and drop through the ceilings. It’s hard to tell if the movie is intentionally referencing James Cameron’s classic or simply ripping it off. The men battle the monsters with flamethrowers. Most damningly, this first form of Destroyer has a second, snapping jaw that extends out of its mouth. Despite the derivative moments, this portion of the film remains effective. The military men have huge holes blown through their chest by the monster’s energy beams. A moment where Yukari is trapped in a car by one of the beast, it tearing at the metal, actually generates some decent suspense.

“Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” in addition to being the final film of the Heisei era, also finishes up a storyline that has been running through the last two films. Godzilla’s son comes of age. Last seen as the overly cute Little Godzilla, the juvenile monster has grown into Godzilla Junior. The teenage kaiju lumbers on-screen looking like a leaner, shorter version of his dad. While Godzilla Senior is on-ice, it’s up to Junior to battle the still evolving Destoroyah. How evil the enemy monster is established when he pins the smaller Godzilla and jabs its extending jaws into the kaiju’s flesh. Blood flies from the wound, a gory effect, and foam bubbles from Junior’s mouth. The younger monster comes out on top though, blasting off Destoroyah’s claws and dropping him, burning, into a building.

However, the film’s villain is far from done. Soon enough, he reemerges in his final form. The mature Destoroyah is a truly intimidating figure. He’s massive, taller and bulkier then Godzilla. His head is decorated with a massive horn, his jaws opening to reveal multiple rows of teeth. His whole body is covered with protruding spikes and horns. His wings are huge and bat-like, lending a truly demonic appearance. My favorite element of Destoroyah is his tail, which ends with a squeezing pincher. The monster can even generate light-saber-like energy slashes from his head horn. The Heisei era featured some fine creature designs but Destroyah is by far my favorite. The crew set out to create Godzilla’s most powerful enemy and I think they succeeded.

“Godzilla vs. Destroyah” generates genuine empathy for its monsters. Godzilla, still ablaze, bordering on meltdown, meets with his son near an airport. Destroyah swoops down, grabbing Junior, lifting him into the air. He drops the smaller monster onto a building, spraying with micro-oxygen blasts. The young monster blinks, his breathing labored. Miki Saegusa, who had watched the little monster grow up and formed a special bond with him, watches him die. The viewer has watched him grow up too. Godzilla approaches his foster son, attempting to breathe some atomic life into him, failing. For a series about giant monster stomping cities and beating the crap out of each other, moments like this resonate on a surprising emotional level.

For its final fight, the stakes have been raised. Now Godzilla’s fight with Destroyah is personal. Maybe it’s suit actors Kenpachiro Satsuma’s performance, maybe this viewer is projecting. Whatever the reason, Godzilla seems especially pissed-off during the final battle. Destroyah grabs him by the neck, dragging him across the city. He slices huge gashes into the Kaiju King’s skin with his horn. Godzilla blasts him with a massive energy wave, chunks blown off the villain’s chest, yellow blood pouring from his mouth. Two of the film’s most memorable moments come from this battle. Destoroyah is seemingly destroyed before a swarm of smaller monsters crawl over Godzilla, forcing the burning monster king to fight them off again. Godzilla burns so hotly, his back spines begin to melt. The fight is fearsome enough that the audience honestly isn’t disappointed that Godzilla doesn’t deliver the killing blow to Destoroyah. The military freezes the monsters with their experimental weapons, the villain shattering apart on the ground.

Originally, Godzilla was to defeat Destroyah when he reached melt-down, taking his enemy with him. However, Toho decided that would distract from Godzilla’s death scene. I believe this was the right decision. Inevitably, Godzilla’s core reaches its breaking point. Even in his dying moments, the King of the Monsters can’t get any rest. As he expires, the military pelts him with freezing rays, attempting to control the meltdown. It doesn’t work. Godzilla’s skin bubbles and flakes, melting off his bones. Akira Ifukube’s score plays out a mournful requiem as the greatest kaiju of all time dies. Humanity looks on bleakly, the end of their world imminent. One character rightfully blames mankind for their own destruction, bringing the series’ moral full-circle.

The final minutes of the film aren’t blankly explained. The radiation levels mysteriously drop, Armageddon held off at the last minute. Out of the smoke emerges a new Godzilla. Silhouetted against the burning ashes, he roars triumphantly. With repeated viewings, I’ve come to realize what’s happening. Godzilla Junior absorbs the radiation from his dying father, reborn as a mature Godzilla, inadvertently saving the world. However, on first viewing, I took this last scene as strictly metaphorical. Before the credits roll, scenes from Godzilla’s forty year history rolls, the immortal Ifukube theme playing over them. Godzilla may die but his legacy is immortal.

Long time fans will find a lot to love about the film. Yet I take issue with one aspect. The script is slightly muddled. The screen-time between the three monsters isn’t evenly distributed. The biggest problem is that there is no clear human protagonist. Yukari Yahame seems to be an important character early on but, after Destoroyah grows to giant size, mostly disappears from film. Her brother Kenichi gets more screen time but spends most of the film furrowing his brow at computer monitors. Takuro Tatsumi gets top billing as Dr. Ijuin. The character is important plot-wise as the inadvertent creator of Destoroyah. However, he too vanishes before the story’s end. The pilot of Super-X3, Major Sho Kuroki, is the most blatantly heroic of the cast, piloting the cool plane and saving the day. Yet he doesn’t have much development in the film’s quieter moment. Miki and less likable new telepath Meru get the most screen time but mostly spend the story panicking, nearly stepped on by the warring monsters. Maybe this was intentional and Godzilla himself is meant to be the main character. The lack of character focus is the sole major flaw in an otherwise effective, serious film.

“Godzilla vs. Destroyah” is one of the best of the Heisei era, shot dramatically by director Takao Okawara, featuring an excellent Akira Ifukube score, notably his last, with excellent special effects. Even back in 1995, I don’t know if fans seriously believed Godzilla was gone forever. However, the film acts as if he is, granting one of the greatest monsters of cinema a fittingly epic and surprisingly emotional send-off. [Grade: A-]

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