Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2000)

25. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
Gojira x Megagirasu: G Shōmetsu Sakusen

In the nineties, it took about two films before the series got back on track at the box office. The Heisei experimented by creating a new enemy for Godzilla before audiences demanded the return of his supporting monsters. Despite this object lesson, Toho decided to experiment again in the Millennium era. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” paired the King of the Monsters against a newly invented foe, a mutated, mean-spirited, giant dragon fly. History repeated itself. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” grossed only ten million dollars at the box office, against an eight million dollar budget. Not a bomb but hardly a blockbuster hit, making the film the least successful of the Millennium age. Is the film’s creative quality in line with its financial reception?

The previous film established the rule of the Shinsei Era, that each film is a stand-alone story, unconnected to previous entries. In the alternate universe of “Megaguirus,” Godzilla attacked Japan in 1954, again in 1964, and most recently in 1996. Each time, the monster’s attacks were spurned on by his quest for nuclear energy to consume. Hoping to prevent further Godzilla attacks, the Japanese government outlaws nuclear research, powering the country with clean “plasma” energy. However, the military remains vigilant. A special research sector called the G-Graspers, led by a young officer with a personal grudge against the monster, devises new ways to defend the world from Godzilla. Their latest invention is a cannon that generates miniature black holes, an especially final solution to Japan’s giant monster problem. However, the black hole device rips a hole through time, bringing a deadly species of giant dragon flies into the present. As usual, Godzilla winds up being the world’s only protection from a bigger threat.

“Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” begins with an interesting premise. Freeing the story from previous continuity presents some new opportunities. Godzilla wasn’t killed in 1954 by the Oxygen Destroyer. Instead, as we see in footage from the original film with the new suit edited in, he escaped into the ocean. The film exists in a world were Godzilla’s appearance has completely changed the direction of history. The monster’s attraction to nuclear energy has forced Japan to pursue alternative fuel sources. Thus, the film takes place in a more scientifically advanced world where a crazy black hole generator seems like a plausible invention. However, the script doesn’t explore this alternate history premise any further. Instead, the change in series’ history simply means Godzilla has been around a while. The black hole device is simply a means to create the villain.

Rather, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” focuses on its heroine’s quest for revenge. Kiriko Tsujimori’s hatred for Godzilla is born out of the 1996 attack on Osaka. As just a grunt soldier, she was part of a squadron fighting Godzilla off with handheld rocket launchers. Why this option was pursued instead of, says, tanks and fighter jets, I don’t know. Anyway, Kiriko’s commanding officer was killed in the event, Godzilla dumping some rumble on him. Ever since, she has sworn revenge on the kaiju. Kiriko’s thirst for vengeance drives the story, motivating each of the character’s actions. The script doesn’t comment on the price of vengeance. Kiriko doesn’t come to accept Godzilla as a neutral force of nature. Instead, her revenge is played as fully justified. The character doesn’t grow or change any over the course of the story. The script is one-hundred percent on her side and seems uninterested in exploring her thoughts any deeper. Misato Tanaka’s performance isn’t bad so much as it is uninspired. She’s serviceable but doesn’t elevate the material.

Instead, Kiriko’s development as a character is tied to the film’s other characters. She recruits rogue scientist Hajime Kudo to work on G-Grasper’s projects. Kudo is introduced impressing school kids by tricking them with his nanobots. The script treats him as an important character. However, his contributions to the story are mostly on a surface level. A locating device he gives to Kirko is hardly advanced science while a computer program he invents later in the film, a ridiculous interface involving an anime nurse, is completely implausible. The two characters are obviously meant to be budding romantic partners. However, there’s very little chemistry between Tanaka and the serviceable Shosuke Tanihara. The ending, a reprise of their earlier rice shop encounter, comes of as hilariously shallow. Kiriko bumps Kudo’s broken arm. She’s sympathetic towards him. That’s it. It’s an abrupt, off-tone ending, one that generates unintentional laughter instead of pathos.

Aside from Tsujimori and Kudo, the story also features a little boy. The kid discovers a strange egg after catching a brief glimpse of the giant dragon fly. He seems fascinated by the egg at first but, quickly realizing its trouble, drops it down a sewer pipe. There, the egg grows, producing other, smaller eggs. This is from where the swarms of insect monsters spawn. The boy is even the one who acknowledges the creature as a spin-off of the meganeura, a genuine species of prehistoric giant dragonfly. The kid is obviously lonely and his presence reminds me of classic Showa flicks. However, the character is underutilized, disappearing for large portions of the film. The attempt friendship between the boy and Tsujimori is a narrative dead end, isolated to two whole scenes, not affecting either character much. The movie might have been stronger had it focused on the little boy instead of the military officer.

Even if its human element is weaker then usual, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” features plenty of kaiju action. While editing the modern suit into the black and white footage is slightly awkward, the opening scenes work well. The 1996 march on Osaka is mostly shown from ground level, Godzilla towering over the humans. Godzilla is constantly tracked by the government, his every move observed. Kudo leaps from a helicopter, swimming up next to the giant monster. She climbs onto his back spines, embedding the tracking device into his skin personally. This moment is a rare up-close look at Godzilla, giving us a definitive idea of his scale. When the Meganula swarm attacks Godzila, it’s a new sort of monster fight. For the first time, Godzilla is battling hundreds of smaller creatures. Shaking the bugs off, he sets a portion of them ablaze, an immensely satisfying moment.

Which brings me to the movie’s enemy monster. The creatures first appear as the larva-like Meganulon, named after and inspired by a similar monster from the original “Rodan.” The crawling man-sized insects roam the streets, picking off unsuspecting human victims. Scenes of the Meganulon hanging over a pair of clueless construction workers is surprisingly sinister. Later, the huge insect devours a pair of teenage lovers in an alley-way. This moment, with its human-focused chaos and unexpected blood, pushes the film into harder horror. It recalls both “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” and any number of American monster movies. Had the film followed that off-beat energy, the rest of the movie would have been more interesting.

Instead, the Meganulon sprout wings, becoming the near identical Meganula. The growing number of insects destroy the city’s plumbing and dam system, flooding parts of Tokyo. The movie surprisingly brushes off this plot development. Even though we see huge buildings drowned in water, no mention is made of the human lives invariably lost during such an event. The water logged city isn't paid much attention, the plot instead rushing towards the next development. A few memorable images come out of this section, such as Godzilla sleeping among the submerged structures or a skyscraper covered with Meganula, waiting to attack. Perhaps the shadow of the 2012 earthquake makes the sight of a flooded Japan far more ominous then it was back in 2000. Either way, it’s another undeveloped element of the script.

Though patterned after dragonflies, the Meganula are also a lot like mosquitoes. Aside from covering Godzilla like pest, the insect can also drain his energy with stingers on their tails. Even if the giant reptile ignites most of the bugs, enough survive to return to their nest. They pump Godzilla’s blood into a giant egg. The cocoon quickly hatches, the titular Megaguirus finally making her entrance. Megaguirus is one of the rare times cool factor trumps logic. The kaiju’s triangular head, hinged jaw, and red eyes make it look more like a regular dragon then a dragon fly. It’s massive, pinching claws brings to mind a winged scorpion while the stinging tail reminds one of a wasp. Logic be damned because Megaguirus looks pretty bitchin’. The purple color scheme is unique while the jagged, spiked armor is intimidating. From a design level, the new monster is a major success.

In execution, however, the creature goes wrong. The special effects in “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” have not aged the best. Throughout the film, but especially when it rises from the flooded city, cables are seen holding the Megaguirus puppet up. Some of the digital matting effects are rickety. The giant bug doesn’t always appear to be in the same scene as its rival monster. It makes sense for the monster’s wings to beat at super-sonic speed. However, the model’s actual wings making way for digitally vibrating versions isn’t convincing looking. During the big fight with Godzilla, the massive dragonfly frequently zips around the big dinosaur. The computer-aided flight only looks awkward and cartoonish now. The movie’s underwhelming box office was actually blamed on the subpar special effects. Which isn’t very fair but, no doubt, the effects are distracting.

However, somethings are easier to forgive then others. In its latter half, “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” finally starts to function smoothly. Godzilla and Megaguirus’ battle has a long prologue, where the dragonfly zips circles around the Monster King. POV shots from the giant insects’ point of view are used throughout, giving us a shaky, almost-bullet time like look at the battle. The flying insect has the upper hand at first, knocking Godzilla about and dropping a building on his head. The flying creature stabs his enemy with his stinger, slowly draining his strength. When this happens, it looks like Megaguirus has speared Godzilla in the groin which is somewhat… Embarrassing. A close-quarter scuffle, where the insect starts clawing and biting, is more successful. One of my favorite bits involves Godzilla ducking just in time, clipping one of Megaguirus’ claws with his back spines. The most notorious moment in the film, and its most giddy, is when Godzilla stabs the other kaiju’s stinger into the ground. Pinned, the rotund dinosaur king actually leaps into the air, performing a delirious body-slam on the giant bug. It’s a hilariously silly moment, one recalling the series’ sixties heyday, and also a lot of fun.

The fun continues as Godzilla and Megaguirus have surprisingly expressive faces. When the bug escapes him, Godzilla glances back and forth, in confusion. Right before Godzilla body slams him, Megaguirus’ eyes grow wide in shock. Apparently, the giant dragon fly was as surprised as this viewer was. The battle concludes when Godzilla chomps off Megaguirus’ stinger, regaining his stolen life force, and delivers a massive fire blast to the enemy monster. This is a slightly lackluster conclusion but the climatic battle remains the best part of “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.” The suit from “Godzilla 2000” was reused here and actually works even better this time around, the reptilian posture and jagged spines coming off as extra-distinctive.

The Dimension Tide black hole cannon, Godzilla’s sudden reappearance, and Kiriko’s revenge are all hastily wrapped up in the film’s final minutes. The script treats Godzilla more as a simple animal then a natural force, one that’s motivated by his hungers and little else. The reveal that the Japanese government hasn’t stopped nuclear experimentation is interesting but not focused on. There could be a theme here about how weapons always only lead to chaos. The Atom Bomb produced Godzilla and now Japan’s latest super weapon, the black hole cannon, has created the Megaguirus. However, the script ultimately can’t support this potential theme, more concerned with its unambitious characters.

Two films in and Godzilla’s Millennium era has yet to hit it out of the park. “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus” introduces an interesting new kaiju threat and features some delightfully energetic monster fights. However, its dull characters and uneven special effects wind up hampering the film. It’s not as good as “Godzilla 2000” which wasn’t quite great to begin with. The new series seemed content to try what worked before instead of doing something daring. [Grade: B-]

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