Here we go again: with box office numbers for Godzilla films declining and the monster seemingly unable to penetrate the American pop culture fan base any deeper than he has already, Toho Studios placed a capstone on the Godzilla series. The studio announced Godzilla's retirement with great amounts of ballyhoo, and promised that the creature's last film, released in the 50th year of his career, would be a show-stopper. Director Ryuhei Kitamura was named as director, a prodigious menagerie of monsters was promised, and there would be pony rides for everyone who came to see the movie on opening day.
OK, maybe we made up the bit about the pony rides, but you'll have to forgive our skepticism. After all, this isn't the first time Godzilla has retired. G-fans suffered an unheralded hiatus that lasted nearly a decade after Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), and even the monster's bombastic, animatronic return in Godzilla (1984) didn't really get the ball rolling again. It wasn't until 1989 that the Heisei series really gave the Big G his return to the silver screen on a regular basis, and six years after that a certain colossus named Destroyer supposedly put an end to Godzilla for good.
Ultraman jazzercise class.
As the turn of the century approached so did Godzilla, and in 1999 Godzilla 2000 Millennium (just Godzilla 2000 in the States) stomped onto screens, marking the beginning of a new era for Godzilla and his kin. Following the lead of the revolutionary Gamera films of the mid-'90s (and to a lesser extent the much-despised Godzilla '98), Toho brought its giant monsters to life with computer generated imagery as well as the traditional rubber suits. Even when they brought on Shusuke Kaneko (auteur of the engaging and successful modern Gamera movies) for Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), however, Toho could never strike the right balance of human drama and giant-monster action. The newest adventures of Godzilla performed modestly well at the box office and received only occasional theatrical showings and low-profile DVD releases in the U.S.
Proving that they are nothing if not a pragmatic company, Toho decided to see if they could make a box office splash with Godzilla's "final" film. Imbued with a greater budget and a more Hollywood approach to the material, the movie was clearly intended to play widely outside of Japan as well as on its native soil. Toho even went so far as to hold the movie’s world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood on November 29th, 2004.
If Toho was hoping to reap big rewards with this strategy, they were disappointed. The movie bombed in Japan and didn’t sell to other territories. As of this writing, Godzilla: Final Wars is on track for low profile release on video in the U.S. What went wrong?
"This is Mr. Vader's 'before' photo not a pretty sight."
The directorial duties on Final Wars were given to Ryuhei Kitamura, a cult favorite for making movies like the kung fu gangster/zombie movie Versus (2000) and the kung fu alien movie Alive (2002). His hiring could be seen as a concession to American audiences, because Kitamura is more popular with the American B-movie crowd than he is with audiences in Japan, where he’s known more for saying outrageous things than for making successful movies. Even Toho’s press kit seemed to acknowledge this, claiming that Kitamura "is the hottest Japanese filmmaker in Hollywood," a fairly rich statement considering that Kitamura still hasn’t made a movie in Hollywood, let alone done anything to be considered "hotter" than Takashi Shimizu (who directed 2004’s The Grudge) or Hideo Nakata (2005’s The Ring Two).
Under the direction of Kitamura, Godzilla: Final Wars is less of a Godzilla movie than it is the cinematic equivalent of being in the path of Godzilla’s rampage. The experience is thunderously loud, occasionally exciting, very confusing, and most of all messy.
Final Wars features 15 new monster designs (though all but two are closely patterned on classic Toho monsters), two versions of Gotengo (the high-tech flying battleship English audiences know as Atragon), the return of the campy alien invasion motif that hasn’t been seen in Japanese kaiju films since the end of the original Godzilla series, and even a name check of the roving planet Gorath from the 1967 movie of the same name. That’s a lot of stuff to fit into one coherent story, so Kitamura and his three story partners dispense with the "coherent" part.
Gigan really hates Capitol Records
for keeping the Beatles off of iTunes.
The film opens in the 1960s with a vintage version of the Gotengo fighting Godzilla in Antarctica. Unable to defeat the monster directly, the crew of the flying sub settles for trapping Godzilla beneath an avalanche of ice as in Godzilla Raids Again. Jump forward to 2004 when a new Gotengo, commanded by Captain Gordon (Ultimate Fighting Championship star Don Frye), is locked in an underwater fight with the serpentine monster Manda. Thanks to some innovative tactics the sub triumphs and Manda is killed.
We learn that the Gotengo is attached to "The M-Organization," an elite division within the Earth Defense Forces. In this new continuity (the 5th new continuity the Godzilla movies have had since 1999) monsters are commonplace, much like the 1960’s and 1970’s Godzilla movies, but so are mutants. Mutants are humans born with superhuman powers, mostly enhanced strength and speed. These mutants make up the combat corps of The M-Organization, and are humanity’s best defense against the monsters.
The two mutant soldiers who figure most predominantly in the story are Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka) and Kazama (Kane Kosugi). We are introduced to them as they spar in a scene that will look familiar to anyone who hasn’t been living in an unlit soundproof cave since 1999. This sequence and several more in Final Wars are obvious lifts from The Matrix. Unfortunately, blatant theft from the Wachowski brothers has become Kitamura’s most recognizable feature as a director. With the larger budget afforded to him we get even more slow-motion aerial kung fu than in any of his previous films -- and since we're here to watch giant monsters fight, the surfeit is an unwelcome one.
At the end of a hard day of city-stomping,
a sauna is the right way to relax.
Before we can find out much more about the characters than the fact that Ozaki is compassionate and Kazama is not, Ozaki is assigned to protect a pretty molecular biologist named Miyuki Otonashi (Rei Kikukawa). Why precisely molecular biologists need bodyguards is not really explained perhaps Japan has some sort of black market in autoclaves. "You look more like a model," says Ozaki, in an attempt to beat the audience to the punch. Miyuki has been called in to inspect a giant mummified monster that was found in the sea off the coast of Hokkaido.
Miyuki is shocked to discover that the mummified monster is 12,000-years old and contains the same "M-base" amino acid that is found in mutants and most monsters. Moreover, the mummy appears to be a cyborg, suggesting an alien origin. Luckily all is explained in a convenient psychic message from the Cosmos, those tiny twins who hang out with Mothra. The mummified monster is Gigan, and 12,000 years ago it attacked Infant Island before being defeated by Mothra. The Cosmos also take the part of Morpheus and tell Ozaki that he has "the power to decide the path you will choose." Thank you, little fortune cookie women, that helps a bunch.
"So when exactly did you meet
Before Ozaki can try sparring with the Cosmos in a digital dojo, a global crisis breaks out. Monsters appear all over the world -- Rodan dive bombs New York City, Anguirus rolls through Shanghai, King Caesar appears in Okinawa, Kamacuras is all the buzz in Paris, Sidney is attacked by certain familiar looking CGI critter, and Kumonga appears in Arizona. Also a hunter in a Japanese forest encounters a new version of Minilla, the "son of Godzilla" from the Showa series. We're not sure what the deal is with the hunter is (he wears some sort of pelt on his head), nor are we sure why Minilla is only five feet tall, but these two, along with the requisite Kenny (who looks amusingly like Dewey from Malcolm in the Middle), form a bizarre subplot that runs throughout the entire movie without ever developing a connection to anything else.
Ebirah, the wonderfully oxymoronic monster from Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1967), comes ashore near Tokyo, and the Japanese M-Organization leaps into action. Ozaki and Kazama lead mutant soldiers so potent that actually engage the monster on foot! Perhaps even more surprising to longtime fans of the Godzilla series, the mutants actually manage to kill Ebirah with handheld weapons.
"I think it's time for an SUV."
"Let's have fried shrimp for dinner!" cry the successful Ebirah-hunters, but before they can break out the cocktail sauce the monsters disappear, replaced by the floating EPCOT-globe spaceship of the "Xians." The friendly Xians explain that the monsters were merely a preview of the real disaster approaching Earth. Though Xian technology was enough to take care of the monsters, only the combined might of Earth's armed forces can destroy the threat to come: a rogue planetoid called Gorath.
If you've seen any of a number of Godzilla movies, you know what's coming next: the Xians, despite the pretense of friendship, are actually hostile body-snatching invaders. One of the ways to spot an Xian is to notice the fact that they never blink -- and thus an unfortunate side-effect of watching the movie is a preoccupation with watching the actors' eyes to see if they ever slip up and blink when playing an Xian character.
"Oh, I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay..."
Before long Gorath is revealed as a mere hologram and the threat of the invaders must be faced, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the Xians can control all the mutant soldiers of M-Organization, with the exception of Ozaki. This leads to a desperate bid to revive Godzilla as a potential defender of the Earth. Captain Gordon and Ozaki fight their way through the Xian and mutant forces to get to Godzilla's icy prison, only to be met by the newly revived Gigan. Luckily Godzilla is freed just in time to kill the cyborg monster.
Gordon uses the Gotengo to lead Godzilla back to Tokyo. The Xian commander teleports all the monsters we've seen up to this time (and Hedorah, who we hadn't seen before) directly into Godzilla's path. Godzilla quickly tears through all the monsters and arrives in Tokyo. As Ozaki and Gordon take the battle to the interior of the Xian ship to get in a few more Matrix rip-offs, Godzilla faces off with the Xian's back-up plan. What is that plan? A subtle biological weapon? Some sort of large-scale environmental change? Nope, it's a giant critter, Monster X. Monster X initially appears as a dinosaur that appears to be wearing its skeleton on the outside, but later transforms into a much more familiar form…
The monster scenes are generally well done, if a bit faster-paced than in recent films. It's a bit of a shock to see Godzilla pull a few kung-fu moves out of his bag of tricks, but the coolness factor of watching a pack of monsters clobber one another simply cannot be argued. The scene where the super-powered mutants attack Ebirah is one guaranteed to set the hearts of kaiju fans racing, but these are rare gems in a movie that is otherwise a dark mine shaft of anti-entertainment.
It's a shame that Kitamaura couldn't choose a tone for the film, instead shifting the movie's mood wildly from scene to scene. After the very tense scenes Godzilla and Manda early on, the next monster to appear is Rodan in what would be one of the most effective city-destroying scenes since Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. Would have been, that is, if it weren't led into by a horribly embarrassing vignette in which a New York City cop confronts a flamboyant pimp-from-the-future about his choice of parking spaces. While there's something almost heartwarming about the fact that there is anybody in this world who would think that a NYC cop's first reaction to having a gun pulled on him by a pimp would be to say "Oh, c'mon, put the gun down," the movie would be stronger without this bit. It also doesn't help that when Rodan interrupts the scene everyone's hats go flying off with a Three Stooges sound effect.
"I picked up this move from
Kitamura loves to add frantic action that doesn't mean much. In the aforementioned Ebirah scene the giant shrimp is beating the heck out of some buildings with his claws, as would be expected. Yet as the mutant soldiers approach the monster things keep exploding and SUVs keep crashing even though the monster isn't anywhere near them. There's also a scene where our heroes escape the Xians, though the alien-controlled Kazama finds them. He's on a motorcycle, so Ozaki produces a motorcycle too (from where?), and for some reason he just races off and Kazama follows to initiate a motorcycle-fu fight. But there's no indication of where Ozaki is racing off to or why it matters so much that Kazama would follow.
The film's incoherence doesn't end there. Take the explanation of how the Xians can control monsters and mutants. We're told they all contain the mutant gene, which is apparently derived from the Xians, perhaps seeded by Gigan all those years ago. Godzilla doesn't have the mutant gene (why?), and neither does Mothra, presumably because she's a ancient god. Yet the aliens can control King Caesar, who as far as we know is also an ancient god. The aliens can't control Ozaki, even though he's a mutant. This has something to do with him being a "Kaiser," but it's never clear what this means or what it has to do with Godzilla. And let's not forget Minilla, who figures prominently in the film's finale without a word of explanation.
"Is it too late to chip in for Godzilla's
Kitamura's treatment of some monsters borders on the bizarre. After going through all the trouble of giving Gigan a cool facelift that's halfway between Giger and GWAR, the cyborg monster is subjected to not one but two undignified deaths that are the result of its own stupidity. Hedorah is another monster brought back from obscurity, but it appears the scene that establishes him in Final Wars was cut, so he only appears for a few seconds in a confusing scene late in the movie.
Another disappointment in this particular flick comes from the many scenes in which the outcome of the plot is dependent more upon the actions of the puny humans as opposed to the actions of the giant monsters. However, since people are cheaper to film than lumbering beasts and they can recite expository lines of dialogue as well, it is not all that surprising.
Is Godzilla officially over the hill? How long will the current series hiatus last? Did Godzilla: Final Wars do what four different iterations of Ghidorah couldn't and finally kill Godzilla off? We suspect that Godzilla the franchise is much like Godzilla the monster -- it can be driven off to deep dark places, but it's always there, waiting for the next chance to rise again.