Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1965)

6. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero
Kaiju daisenso / Invasion of Astro-Monster

For many years, it was common practice for hardcore Godzilla fans to be dismissive of the latter half of the Showa Eiga. Godzilla had started life as a grim metaphor for nuclear annihilation. By 1965, his transformation into a goofy reptilian superhero, defending Earth from an increasingly absurd rogue gallery of enemy monsters, was just about complete. At one point in history, to be a true Godzilla fan, you had to turn your noses up at these sillier, later flicks, accepting only the serious Godzilla as legitimate. Luckily, mass opinion has shifted, making it okay for G-fans to appreciate a movie as goofily endearing and purely entertaining as “Godzilla vs. Monster Zero.”

The franchise was changing in other ways by ’65, too. “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” introduced aliens into the Godzilla lexicon. However, extraterrestrials were ultimately kept off-screen, giant monsters being the sole suspension of disbelief. “Monster Zero” changes all that by boldly moving the series into outer space, adding aliens, flying saucers, astronauts, and other planets to the program.

The plot concerns a space exploration to Planet X, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter. Upon landing, the American and Japanese astronauts Glenn and Fuji are introduced to a race of aliens. Seems Planet X has a problem with a giant monster, King Ghidorah making his sophomore appearance. In exchange for borrowing Godzilla and Rodan as their defenders, the Xians promise to give Earth a cure for cancer. Despite Glenn and Fuji having their suspicions, Earth takes the aliens up on this deal, loosing two city destroying monsters and gaining a miracle cure. Naturally, they should have trusted their instincts. The Xians plan on taking over Earth, turning the monsters back on us, and stealing our precious water. The extraterrestrial plot extends to Japanese industries, quickly scooping up Fuji’s sister Haruno, her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo, and Glenn’s new girlfriend Namikawa.

The sci-fi concept injects freshness into the execution, considering these are the same monsters we saw in “Ghidorah,” minus one. The opening sequence of a rocket landing on Planet X are handled extremely way, conveying proper isolation and a strange sense of grandeur. When a doorway extends out of the rocky terrain, prompting Fuji to pull a laser gun, the audience realizes what kind of movie they’re in for. The interior of Planet X has a distinct look to it. The hallways are long and white, almost glowing. The underground is filled with large golden stalagmites. The Xians’ designs are incredibly memorable. Their pointy hats, high collars, skin-tight latex outfits, and wrap-around visor sunglasses are campy and immediately recognizable. I suspect Devo and a few other New Wave bands were inspired by this flick. Moreover, the aliens act alien, speaking in a flat monotone and worshiping a logic-dictating computer.

The most impressive special effect, besides the monsters anyway, are the movie’s trademark flying saucers. Eiji Tsuburaya doesn’t stray too far outside of the recognizable look of a UFO while putting his own unique spin on it. The models look a bit like an old lawnmower motor, round with compartments on either end. Like the hallways on Planet X, they are pure white with a subtle glow. When emerging out of a lake or shaking through the sky, they make a particularly memorable image. Tsuburaya’s model work is typically excellent. Boats and tanks explode instantly, an effect both dynamic and humorous. Futuristic laser cannons would soon become a hallmark of Godzilla flicks. They get trotted out here but, comically, are exploded before they can be used. The soon-to-be-destroyed cityscapes are incredibly detailed, as you’ve come to expect from Tsuburaya.

Compared to the crowded screenplay of “Ghidorah,” “Monster Zero” is smoothly constructed. Future Godzilla flicks would follow a similar outline. Probably because it gets all the plot pieces in line easily. Aliens control the monsters for their own nefarious purposes, humans sabotage the aliens’ plot, monster turn on their masters. Glenn and Fuji prove to be likable human leads. Glenn’s love story with Namikawa, though a little underdeveloped, winds up adding an emotional heart to the film. The romance pays off quite nicely, helping the heroes out a bit. Another human element involves Fuji, his sister, and her boyfriend. Tetsuo has yet to prove himself successful as an inventor so Fuji, naturally, doesn’t approve of the union. Turns out, the Xians are suppressing Tetsuo’s invention, a hyper-sonic alarm system, strictly because high-pitch noise is their weakness. Is a supporting character holding the key to the hero’s intergalactic victory contrived? Eh, a little. The movie makes it work. Every plot element leads into the next, creating a smooth, satisfying pace.

It’s a good thing the human plot proves so entertaining, as “Monster Zero” is a bit stingy with the kaiju, at least at first. They look great, of course. Godzilla’s head gets a more personable redesign, looking more like a muppet with every progressing film. Rodan is a little less comical, moving more swiftly. Ghidorah gets an establishing moment early on, splintering Planet X’s surface with his lightening breath. Yet Godzilla and Rodan don’t appear until the forty minute mark, when the aliens finally air-lift them out. Their battle with Ghidorah on Planet X is very brief, lasting about two minutes. After that, the monsters stay off-screen for a long time. At least until the final thirty minutes, when a tidal wave of kaiju destruction is unleashed. Godzilla and Rodan wreck havoc on the Japanese countryside. The Big G sets fire to the near-by forest while Rodan overturn bridges and blows cars around with his wings. A particularly amusing special effect involves a giant prop of Godzilla’s foot. Repeatedly we see the foot swing through and stomp down on buildings, debris tossed everywhere. Boy, is that fun to watch. 

“Fun” is the word of the day. “Monster Zero” cemented the tonal shift that “Ghidorah” started. This movie is full of ridiculous shit. Upon awakening on Planet X, Godzilla stretches and yawns. He dodges behind a rock, avoiding Ghidorah’s energy blasts. Rodan drops big ass boulders on the villain’s heads. When the alien’s controlling signaled is interrupted, all three monsters fall to the ground, giant monsters having giant seizures. Giant monster seizures! The final battle is immensely entertaining. Godzilla punches at the dragon’s swinging heads like an old-timey boxer. For the final blow, Rodan grabs Godzilla’s back, lifts him up, the two combing their strength. Yes, the kaiju are goofier then ever. Yet the movie’s tone of goofy fun is infectious. The most infamous moment, Godzilla’s jaunty victory dance, conveys that the best. Who doesn’t love a giant dinosaur doing the Safety Dance? Even the actors get in on the fun, a choking Xian sticking his tongue out or Tetsuo falling through a ridiculous trap-door.

The cast helps too. This was one of three films fading American star Nick Adams did with Toho. Adams’ cocksure attitude is well-suited to his all-American hero, his charm going a long way. Akira Takarada’s Fuji is a different character compared to his previous Godzilla roles, the straight man to Adams’ romantic lead. Yoshio Tsuchiya is excellent as the commander of Planet X, speaking in a flat monotone, punctuating his statements with indecipherable hand gestures. Tsuchiya frequently brings a dry comedy to his dialogue, adding to the movie’s enjoyment. Kumi Mizuno is stunningly beautiful as Namikawa, wearing the alien neck brace with grace. Overall, the players are in on the fun.

Even among the light material, Ishiro Honda still has time to sneak in his pet theme of world unity. It’s notable that, upon landing on Planet X, the astronauts put down a flagpole adorn with a U.N. flag first, Japanese and American flags second. Earth is united against the alien threat, every country contributing to the effort. They are, ultimately, small moments. Yet they add to the movie’s light-hearted appeal, showing a brighter future where man and monster works together.

“Godzilla vs. Monster Zero,” or “Invasion of Astro-Monster” as Toho prefers you call it these days, might be my favorite Godzilla movie. It’s funny, swift, and a lot of fun, with enough giant monster action and sci-fi shenanigans to speak to anyone’s inner monster kid. The story concludes with the heroes laughing together, a perfectly amusing end to a purely entertaining flick. [Grade: A]

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