Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2004)

29. Godzilla: Final Wars
Gojira: Fainaru Uozu

The Millennium age had failed to reproduce the Heisei era’s success at the box office. So Toho made the decision to bring the Godzilla series to an end, wrapping things up just in time for the famous kaiju’s fiftieth anniversary. The King of the Monsters wouldn’t be lumbering into his umpteenth retirement without one more final hurrah. For this landmark film, Toho brought in a bona fide action auteur, Ryuhei Kitamura, who had earned world-wide acclaim for energetic genre mash-ups like “Versus” and “Azumi.” Kitamura promised to deliver the ultimate Godzilla movie. A record-breaking total of fifteen monsters were packed into the film, many of them fan-favorite characters from the classic period. The movie’s comparatively large budget was in service of an epic sci-fi story that spanned the globe. “Godzilla: Final Wars” ultimately didn’t live up to that promise. However, it did accomplish something. It was the first Godzilla film in quite some time to feel like an event.

The world of “Godzilla: Final Wars” is one that has been consistently ravaged by giant monsters for fifty years. The constant threat has caused humanity to ban together, bringing about global peace in the face of annihilation. A Global Defense Force protects the Earth from the monsters, including the most powerful and feared, Godzilla. Working for the Force is a race of super-human mutants, men and women born with incredible power. As Earth is being troubled by a new kaiju invasion, space aliens appear, seemingly solving the problem. The mutant soldiers of the Defense Force aren’t so sure. Turns out, they were right not to believe the aliens. After winning our trust, the invaders unleash their monster army on the Earth, with the intent to destroy it. Put in a tough spot, the rogue band of human and mutant heroes are forced to awaken the slumbering Godzilla. Now as many times before, Earth’s greatest foe is its only hope.

“Final Wars” is deeply flawed. However, there’s one thing you can’t fault the movie for. “Godzilla: Final Wars” has a scope and energy unlike any other film in the series. Even “Destroy All Monsters,” the feature’s obvious inspiration, wasn’t as big or effects packed as this one. Elaborate action sequences, involving both humans and giant monsters, fill out the run time. Characters leap, run, sail through the air, and kung-fu fight in increasingly complex ways. The story takes place all over the world, skipping from Japan to America, Australia, even Antarctica. The alien invaders of past Toho films have frequently said they imperil the world. However, only “Final Wars” makes that threat feel genuine. The fate of the entire planet is at stake. It’s not a film short on ambitions, is what I’m saying.

Ryuhei Kitamura is a director with a strong, obvious sensibility. His movies are about humans high-kicking through the air in potentially ridiculous ways, leaping and twirling about. His camera swirls about the action, lending frenetic energy to outrageous action. Kitamura doesn’t attempt to adapt his style to the preconceived Godzilla form. Instead, he slams together his high-energy aesthetic with traditional rubber suit monster action. The result is a film that features some of the most outrageous kaiju action since the seventies. The creatures punch, prance, twist, tackle, and body-slam each other, tossed through the air by atomic breath and laser weapons. The director doesn’t limit the over-the-top action to the monsters. “Final Wars” features just as much, if not more, insane fighting among its human cast.

Therein lies the rub. “Final Wars” can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. The film’s second scene is an acrobatic karate fight between two of the Earth Defense Force mutants. The characters kick, chop, and toss each other around in absurd ways. The focus remains on these superhuman heroes even after the monsters start their rampage. While Ebirah tears through Japan’s factory district, a team of mutants shoot the monster with laser guns, swinging around a silo and seemingly flying around the big lobster. The script focuses on a rivalry between empathetic Ozaki and hot-blooded Kazama. After the aliens reveal themselves, the story becomes about the heroes trying to uncover the Xiliens’ nefarious plot. Once the aliens are outed as deadly invaders, the movie kicks into its most ridiculous action scene yet. Kazama, controlled by the extraterrestrials, and Ozaki race on motorcycles, eventually kung-fu fighting on the bikes before using the bikes to kung-fu fight. Kitamura directs these scenes with his trademark exaggerated style, his direction calling attention to the artificiality of the stunts. While not without entertainment value of its own, this isn’t what the audience came for. Moreover, the movie’s constant ridiculously ramping action gets tiresome quickly.

Kitamura’s goal seemed to be to make a Godzilla film that measured up to Hollywood blockbusters. Perhaps he took this goal too literally. “Final Wars” cribs extensively from popular American films. The repeated use of the word “mutant” obviously invokes the “X-Men” franchise, M-Base standing in for X-Genes. A long section in the middle of the film is devoted to the heroes unmasking the aliens. The aliens reveal themselves by never blinking with their cover being blown on national television. The conspiracy-style sleuthing reminds me of “The X-Files” and similar shows. The alien mother ship has its shields blown down when an Earth pilot sacrifices himself, flying straight into the ship’s core, a plot point taken straight from “Independence Day.” The main villain shoots lightning from his fingers while cackling madly, a move that would have made Emperor Palpatine cock an eyebrow. The burnt-out remains of the Statue of Liberty blatantly recalls “Planet of the Apes.” The script is so indebted to other genre films that when the phase “Resistance is futile” is dropped, you can’t help but wonder if its intentionally parodying these classic films.

Yet there’s one film “Final Wars” wants to be far more then any other. As the run time spirals down, it becomes clear that Ryuhei Kitamura really wanted to direct “The Matrix.” All of the movie’s extended action scenes are blatantly emulating the Wachowskis' masterpiece. Literal bullet time is featured, with characters dodging bullets in slow motion. The motorcycle chase scene is obviously inspired by “The Matrix Reloaded.” Near the film’s climax, Ozaki realizes he is a special “one” in a million person, more powerful then the others. He blocks a barrage of laser beams by putting out his hand. Even the way the bad guys dress, in frequently swished trench coats, is indicative of the cyber-punk series. Many films ripped-off and emulated the “Matrix” but you’d never expect to see such blatant thievery in a Godzilla movie.

For a movie with his name above the title, “Godzilla: Final Wars” features surprisingly little Godzilla. The King of the Monsters is imprisoned at the beginning before disappearing for a solid hour. This is all the more frustrating since Kitamura is clearly a huge Godzilla fan. Prime spots are written for Showa age wonders like Gigan, Manda, King Caesar, Anguirus, and even the much maligned Minilla and Ebirah. Moreover, the script resurrects concepts from Toho’s sci-fi golden age. Invaders from Planet X, the super-battle sub Gotengo, and rogue planet Gorath are all plot relevant. The movie is packed full of in-jokes, like cutesy cameos from Kumi Mizuno, Akira Takarada, and Kenji Sahara. Hell, the words “Save the Earth!” are even shouted excitedly. When the movie isn’t fucking around with shit nobody cares about, it’s about Godzilla being an unstoppable badass, the one thing all G-Fans want to see.

For a fact, much of the monster action doesn’t feature Godzilla. The opening battle between Manda and the Gotengo is genuinely exciting, showing off how dynamic the rarely used Chinese dragon truly is. When the monsters raid the world, some exciting set pieces are shown. Ebirah wrecking the chemical plant, when it isn’t focused on the human bouncing around, features some satisfying building crushing. The monsters are unleashed on the world during an international montage. King Caesar stomps Okinawa. Kamacuras rockets through Paris, overturning the Eiffel Tower. His supersonic flight shatters glass, a nice image. The movie might even redeem two of the Godzilla-verse’s most maligned films. The TriStar Godzilla, redubbed Zilla, attacks Sydney, wrecking buildings and eating a pair of punk rockers. This sequence actually makes the overgrown iguana seem intimidating, something the 1998 flop never accomplished. Minilla, meanwhile, is featured in a subplot that intentionally recalls “Godzilla’s Revenge.” The man-sized monster befriends a human boy. Though he doesn’t talk, he does change size and blow atomic smoke rings. Minilla is even involved in yuk-fest antics like trying to drive a car.

Once Godzilla does show up, he owns “Final Wars.” The most satisfying stretch of the film is when Godzilla is marching across the globe, destroying a succession of enemy kaiju. He blows off Gigan’s head in Antarctica, the cyborg monster’s grappling hooks back-firing on him. The meme-worthy battle with Zilla is pure fan service, the true Godzilla vanquishing his American counterpart in seconds. Kumonga attempts to ensnare the Monster King in giant web nets but Godzilla swings the spider over a mountain side. A brief scuffle with Kamacuras ends with the giant mantis impaled on a tower. The movie’s action peaks during a four-way battle between Godzilla and Anguirus, Rodan, and King Caesar. Before Mount Fuji, Godzilla battles his former allies. King Caesar, prancing like a kabuki actor, leaps from mountainsides, Godzilla tossing him aside. Anguirus, curled into a spiked ball, is kicked back and forth like a soccer ball. Rodan flies circles around his opponent, trying to daze him. Godzilla eventually beats all three into submission, piling their unconscious bodies in a heap. He roars triumphantly, silhouetted against the iconic mountain. Fuck. Yes.

Even then, there’s something unsatisfying about “Final Wars’” monster action. CGI is used too liberally. Anguirus’ bouncing around as a spiked ball is unconvincing. Many of the monster scenes are derailed by Kitamura’s peculiar sense of humor. While in New York, the film focuses on a cartoonish black pimp, the cop trying to tow his pimp caddy, and a drunken vagrant, who is also black. Needless to say, this moment doesn’t feature the most sophisticated racial politics. You’re real thankful when Rodan flies along, destroying the city and its offensive inhabitants. The monster rampage montage is interrupted by a hyper-active little kid screaming at his TV set. While in Arizona, Kumonga stomps on a redneck starring dumbfounded at the news. These moments are unnecessary, bizarre, and incredibly distracting.

As Godzilla marches towards Tokyo, “Final Wars” lumbers into its belabored last act. Earlier in the film, Gorath, the careening rogue planet, was dismissed as a hoax. Yet it shows up at the end anyway, Godzilla blasting it out of the sky. Beneath the Xilien mother ship, Godzilla battles the mysterious Monster X, an original kaiju inspired by H.R. Giger’s Alien. The combat is satisfying, featuring plenty of punching, tackling, and monster wrestling. However, the film’s climatic moment is constantly interrupted by other scenes. Mothra has to put in her required appearance, fighting Gigan to the death, her fairies reduced to cameos. The battle between Godzilla and Monster X cuts away to the action on the mother ship. The human heroes battle the invaders, via martial arts and laser guns. These scenes distract from the more-exciting kaiju fight while also draining the latter of most of its energy. The Xiliens are defeated but the movie’s not done yet. Monster X still has to transform into the newest version of King Ghidorah, the massive Keizer Ghidorah. By the time this last fight blows in, the viewer is exhausted. “Final Wars’” run time extends to 125 minutes, longer then any previous Godzilla film. It’s about a half-hour too long, the script’s frantic energy not being able to sustain itself for that long.

“Final Wars” has an extensive creature cast, necessitating numerous new suits. Godzilla is leaner with longer arms and less muscle, befitting the boxer persona he uses here. He regains his cat-like ears and extended fangs, looking more demonic then ever. Obviously a favorite of the director, Gigan gets a badass make-over. The Cyborg Space Chicken’s sillier aspect are ejected for grittier elements. The claws, visor, fins, and buzz saw make his cybernetic origin more obvious. The kaiju is overall far more intimidating then he’s ever been. Rodan is red and armored, Anguirus is squat and pig-like, King Caesar has a new pug nose but maintains his floppy ears. Each kaiju look like themselves while being upgraded by modern effects. Even the doughy Minilla gets a solid upgrade, suddenly looking like a son Godzilla could actually have. Monster X is a slightly uninspired monster but the quadrupedal Keizer Ghidorah is a decent addition to Godzilla’s rogues gallery. “Final Wars” shows Toho’s effects expert at their best, featuring some of the most impressive monster suit and miniature sets ever put to film.

Since they take up so much screen time, you’d think I’d have more to say about the film’s human cast. Masahiro Matsuoka is serviceable as Ozaki. The character is too thin to provide the actor much meat but at least Matsuoko is never annoying. Kazuki Kitamura plays the leader of Planet X, an evil pretty boy with spiky hair. Kitamura goes gleefully over-the-top, finding a decent balance between humorous theatrics and cartoon super-villain menace. The female supporting cast is given little to do besides look nice in mini-skirts, not even flirting with the strangely asexual male heroes. The character that receives the most attention is American Captain Gordon. The bulky Gordon has a Freddie Mercury mustache. He disobeys his superior officers, wields a katana, and seems very willing to engage in physical conflict. The script works so hard to make Gordon a fan-favorite badass that you’re a little put off by him. He’s a cartoon action hero and, when he’s besting alien super-beings with his fists, it gets ridiculous. Don Frye’s performance, however, is just gruff enough to make the character interesting, if not convincing.

Maybe the most distracting thing about “Final Wars” is its awful musical score. Keith Emerson, prog-rock superstar, provided the music. The tinny electronic score swings between several different modes. Its heroic theme sounds like the theme song to an eighties Saturday morning cartoon. And not a good one. The score frequently lapses into techno-disco nonsense, which makes the action scenes difficult to take seriously. Emerson’s score sounds like it was composed on a single synthesizer, lacking any depth or resonance, coming off as extremely cheap. Adding to the indignity, once-sort-of-popular emo band Sum 41 contributes an original song. No matter how entertaining some of the action is, it’s embarrassing to watch Godzilla fight monsters to bad punk music. Ifukube’s original theme was so scandalized by the rest of the music that it only put in a single appearance at the very beginning.

“Godzilla: Final Wars” was supposed to be the ultimate Godzilla movie, an even bigger version of “Destroy All Monsters.” Unfortunately, it falls short of that goal. A derivative screenplay, a divided story line, cheesy acting, terrible music, an overlong run time, and uneven special effects sink the film. Yet those awesome monster fights can’t be ignored. Ryuhei Kitamure definitely put his own stamp on the Godzilla series, even if “Final Wars" bombed financially. Like the Millennium series overall, “Final Wars” never lives up to its potential, only delivering occasional moments of pure awesome. [Grade: C+]

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