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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1984)

16. Godzilla 1985
Gojira / The Return of Godzilla

For nine years, Godzilla slept. Weakening ticket sales brought the classic series to an end in the 1970s. However, the series never officially concluded. For years afterwards, producer and series grandfather Tomoyuki Tanaka kicked around ideas for new Godzilla films. A few of the ideas had Godzilla battling one of the Gargantuas, a giant military-built robot, infamous “lost” monster Bagan, and even a direct remake of the original 1954 film. In 1983, a re-release of the original 15 films revived interest in the franchise. This, combined with the monster’s 30th anniversary, allowed a new script to take hold, production finally beginning. Alternatively known as “Return of Godzilla,” “Godzilla 1985” or simply “Gojira,” the film attempts to re-contextualize Godzilla in the bigger, shiny 1980s.

Like the original ’54 film, “Return of Godzilla” begins with a fishing boat mysteriously being attacked by something huge and inhuman. A Tokyo journalist recovers the derelict boat, discovering several corpses, a giant mutated sea louse, and a shell-shocked survivor. Soon, the survivor confirms that Godzilla, the giant monster that burnt Tokyo to the ground thirty years prior, has returned. The Japanese government tries to keep this under wraps, hoping to avoid a panic. When the new Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine, nearly sparking an international incident, the government is forced to admit Godzilla’s return. The United Nations argue about what to do while Godzilla inevitably surfaces in Tokyo, attacking the city. The journalist, the survivor’s sister, and a scientist, who survived Godzilla’s original attack, scramble to find a way to stop the monster. Will they succeed in time before rival nations drop nuclear bombs on the monster and the city?

1984’s “Gojira” is a very different film from 1954’s “Gojira.” Instead of focusing on the human drama amidst the monster’s attack, “Return of Godzilla” takes a bigger, world-wide view. Japan’s Prime Minister is a central character. The film pays a lot of attention to the hard decisions he’s forced to make, about covering up Godzilla’s return and his eventual admission of the monster’s existence. Japan’s national leader is poised as a reasonable, solid-head man when Russia and the United States demand to use nuclear weapons on the monster. We follow the country’s government as they struggle to contain the monster’s rampage and bring it to an end without sacrificing any human lives. The script’s shift in focus, from everyday heroes to the governments of the world, makes “Godzilla 1985” feel less like a traditional kaiju flick and more like a big budget disaster movie.

Godzilla had, over the years, remained a symbol of nuclear annihilation. Even his silliest adventures at least gave a passing mention to the monster’s roots. “Godzilla 1985” attempts to update this subtext for a new decade. Godzilla becomes correlated with Cold War tensions. The kaiju’s appearance on the global scene sends the world into panic. After devouring a Russian submarine, Godzilla nearly starts World War III. The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union get twitchy fingers, ready to launch nuclear missiles at any minute. The script attempts to generate suspense when the Soviets accidentally fire a nuclear rocket, Japan uncertain if the world can intercept the missile in time. Tying Godzilla in with the politics of the day is a bold decision but one the film can’t quite make work. Godzilla’s attack on Japan remains mostly separate from the world-wide tension and the story never makes much of a point about the Cold War.

Godzilla was updated for the eighties in other ways, too. Special effects had come a long way in nine years. American artists like Stan Winston, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Chris Walas had completely redefined what monster effects were. Toho’s effects master Teruyoshi Nakno isn’t quite up to snuff with those geniuses. However, Godzilla’s look is successfully updated for the new decade. The King of the Monsters is far stockier then ever before, with massive muscled thighs and legs. He’s bigger in general as not to be dwarfed by Japan’s growing cityscape. The acrobatic wrestler of the seventies is no where to be seen. Instead, Godzilla is returned to his roots as a slow, lumbering dinosaur. Animatronic effects allow for far more animation then ever before. Godzilla’s eyes blink, his lips twitch, his heart pumps, his face expressive and active. The monster gains a new mouthful of curving, sharp teeth, and perpetually barred fangs. A shorter snout and wider forehead gives him an almost feline appearance. Godzilla’s new look would continue to be streamlined through the Heisei era but, as far as reappearance goes, this one is fairly successful.

If only the movie’s other special effects were as successful. The movie can be broken up into three major set pieces. Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant, absorbing the site’s radiation. Godzilla’s raid on Tokyo takes place in two parts, the monster being knocked unconscious before waking up to duel with the Japanese military. These attacks are framed in wide angles, robbing Godzilla of most of his scale. He never appears to be a giant monster devastating a city but instead as a man in a suit on miniature sets. The sets look very nice and are fantastically detailed. Yet they wind up defeating their own purpose.

Another problem is that this new Godzilla is kind of a wimp. His raid of a nuclear power plant works all right. He proves rather stealthy for a giant monster, sneaking up on the plant’s guard. There’s plenty of panicking inside of the building as the kaiju attacks. However, the sequence is cut short when Godzilla is distracted by… A flock of birds? That seems out of character. His initial appearance in Tokyo features some good moments. The monster resurfaces rather suddenly. He shoots helicopters and jets out of the sky with ease. His most impressive display of power comes when he ignites a series of missile launchers, on-foot soldiers obliterated by his fiery breath. However, upon setting foot in the city, the monster’s destruction is awfully clean. He navigates around buildings instead of through them. He picks up a subway train, the helpless folk inside screaming in terror. Instead of popping the train into his mouth, he just casually tosses it aside, the scene not building to a proper climax. The destruction is ultimately far too restrained.

The biggest indignity comes when Godzilla is knocked unconscious by a single missile. Sure, it’s fired from the Super X, a high-tech new jet that can withstand Godzilla’s breath weapon. Yet I can’t imagine any proper version of Godzilla falling to one projectile. The monster is awoken when some nuclear missile go off in the upper atmosphere, which is an effective moment. His renewed rampage is more successful, blasting straight through a building, igniting a series of silos, a car-packed bridge, and eventually dropping a skyscraper on that pesky Super X. Just as the rampage really gets going, Godzilla is called away from Tokyo by another plot device. The movie never conveys a real sense of panic. We see some crowds fleeing from Godzilla’s giant foot as he smashes bridge and cars. However, compared to the stark, horrifying original that successfully burned down the whole city, the destruction here seems somewhat tame. That’s not something you’d expect from a big budget reboot of a series famous for its collateral damage.

Godzilla’s sudden bad ass decay is most obvious in the way he’s defeated. Scientists realize early on that the monster is uncontrollably drawn to magnetic signals. He is lured away from Tokyo when the heroes whip up a high tech radio dish that puts off said signals. Godzilla ultimately stumbles into an active volcano, buried under the lava and rock. It makes the mighty king of the monsters seem more like a dumb animal, easily manipulated by smarter humans. Walking into a volcano of his own accord certainly isn’t as dramatic as being reduced to a giant pile of bones by the Oxygen Destroyer.

The monster is treated not as a symbol of nuclear war but as a neutral force of nature. Recalling “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” some of the monster’s damage is accidental. He steps into a subway tube, falling into a building. Later, his tail brushes against a tower as he turns around. The film’s heroic scientist, Professor Hayashida, can’t help but be sympathetic towards Godzilla. He repeatedly insists the monster is a side effect of man’s cruelty towards the world. Godzilla’s defeat is played as high tragedy. The professor and the prime minister nearly shed a tear as the monster sinks into a newly reactivated volcano. Reijiro Koroku’s score is overly flowery and melodramatic throughout. The score’s overdone tone peaks during that finale. As Godzilla sinks beneath the lava, crying out one last time, a weepy, maudlin requiem plays on the soundtrack. The original movie manages to create pathos towards the King of the Monsters but only after establishing him as an uncontrollable destructive force. Here, the script courts the audience’s sympathy to the point of neutering the proud monster. To add insult to injury, a love ballad plays over the end credits. The lyrics actually contain the words, “Take care now, Godzilla, my old friend!” Truly, it has to be heard to be believed.

By focusing on international affairs, the movie’s human cast ultimately takes a backseat. Hero reporter Goro Maki never gets much development. The movie teases a romance between him and Naoko, the sister. However, actors Ken Tanaka and Tasuko Sawaguchi have very little romantic chemistry. Naoko’s brother Hiroshi appears to be an important character at first but, ultimately, disappears before the end. Because Godzilla’s rampage ultimately seems minor, we never fear for these character’s lives. The trio are trapped inside a building that, despite suffering major damage, never feels like it’s about to collapse. Yosuke Natsuki and Keiju Kobayashi’s performances as the professor and the prime minister are on the same melodramatic level as the rest of the screenplay. The script’s strangest decision is to have a homeless person encounter the monster several times. Instead of running in panic like you’d expect, he brushes the monster off with quippy one-liners!

The Cold War elements never amount to as much as you’d expect. The whole tension about whether or not one government or another will drop a nuke on Japan merely sets up the second act turn. The missile is defused before reaching Tokyo, the fall-out reviving Godzilla. A lot of attention is paid to a brave Russian captain who tries to stop the launch, as well as tension between the US and Russia. Ultimately, after doing their duty of waking the monster back up, neither super power is heard from again.

“The Return of Godzilla” is historical as the start of a new Godzilla era. It’s also historical as the last film in the series to be drastically re-edited upon release in America. Roger Corman’s New World Picture released the film stateside, under the catchy title of “Godzilla 1985.” To further establish a connection to the original film, Raymond Burr was brought back to reprise his role as reporter Steve Martin. It’s a clever idea on paper but, in execution, is less successful. Martin never interacts with the Japanese cast, staying completely state-side. He spends the whole film in a Pentagon bunker, watching Godzilla’s rampage on a TV monitor, never in danger. Burr delivers some grave dialogue about the monster’s invulnerability and man’s hubris in the face of nature. The actors playing the US generals and soldiers around him are far too flippant, making pithy comments about the destruction on the screen. There’s nothing especially campy about the original movie which makes the English version’s attempt to yuck it up rather condescending. This is a shame since the American cut is, otherwise, leaner, faster paced, and better edited then the dragging Japanese original. (It also recuts the film to present the heroic Soviet general as a villain, a change so xenophobic it’s almost hilarious.)

Neither version of 1984’s “Gojira” is as successful as it sets out to be. Godzilla himself is impressive but the movie treats him with kids’ gloves, downplaying his destructive power. The characters are too thin and the script is unbalanced. I admire some of the things “Godzilla 1985” sets out to do but the Heisei era, as it would come to be known, got off to a rough start. [Grade: C+]

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