Look out world, Gamera, the giant fire-breathing turtle and perpetual whipping boy of those wits over at Mystery Science Theater 3000, is back and looking to recapture his good name. Of course, the previous Gamera movies, all made between 1965 and 1980, were at best cheesy fun, and were at worst totally unwatchable. While Daiei created Gamera to compete with Godzilla, Gamera never rose above the level of a cheap rip-off of the Big G. Our favorite early Gamera movie has to be the Gamera vs. Guillon (1969), simply because it was so surreally bad.
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe goes a long way towards dispelling our memories of the hours of our lives we wasted watching movies like Super Monster Gamera (1980). With the revitalization of Godzilla at the beginning of the 90′s, someone over at Daiei figured the time was right to resurrect their titanic turtle hero.
Unlike the new series of Godzilla movies, Gamera: Guardian of the Universe starts the Gamera mythos over from ground zero, totally disregarding Gamera’s origin from the original Giant Monster Gamera (1965). Gamera: Guardian of the Universe opens with two ships running aground on a mysterious floating atoll. At the same time, the population of an isolated island of the Japanese archipelago disappears after reporting seeing a new species of bird. A certain Japanese company sends people to investigate both incidents. On the atoll, Yoshinari Yanemori (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a naval officer, and Naoya Kusanagi (Akira Onodera) of the Marine Safety Agency discover a large number of little metal signets shaped like commas and a stone tablet inscribed with runes. When Yanemori touches the tablet ala 2001, it disintegrates and the atoll comes alive.
Meanwhile, young ornithologist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama) goes to the island in search of the new species of bird. Unfortunately, it soon develops that the three reptilian birds are meat eaters, and that they ate all the residents of the island. The Japanese government makes the rather incredible decision to capture the birds for study. With the help of the lovely Nagamine, the Japanese military develops a plan to trap the birds in a stadium and tranquilize them.
The plan works fairly well, though one of the birds escapes, only to be killed by a huge turtle that surfaces from the nearby harbor. The turtle, Gamera, tromps his way to the stadium, apparently intent on killing the other two birds, but they escape. Gamera stuns everyone by taking flight in a sequence that must be seen to be believed. Not so much because it’s anything someone familiar with Gamera hasn’t seen before, but because it’s executed so darn well.
It turns out that the tablet found on Gamera (in his atoll form) tells the story of an ancient civilization that was destroyed by the meat-eating birds, called Gyaos. Gamera was created by the same civilization to destroy the threat of Gyaos. So now that some of the Gyaos have reappeared, Gamera is back again. Moreover, it turns out the pieces of metal found on Gamera’s back allow Kusanagi’s young daughter, Asagi (played by Ayako Fujitani, Steven Seagal’s daughter), to make a psychic connection to Gamera.
The Japanese bureaucracy is slow to react to all of this. In an earlier scene, a government official reminds a military officer that they can not fire on the rampaging Gamera because the Japanese Self Defense Force can only fire on an enemy when fired upon first, and so far Gamera has only stomped buildings flat! So the military tries to destroy Gamera, while still insisting on preserving the rapidly growing Gyaos for study. Of course, this all ends with huge bout between the final Gyaos and Gamera in Tokyo.
OK, so the story is pretty standard. It’s made up of equal parts of Ghidarah The Three Headed Monster (1965), Jurassic Park (1993), and Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), with just a smidgen of Forbidden Planet (1956) thrown in. Also, the characters are not all that interesting, with the notable exception of the teenaged Asagi. But worst of all would be the fact that towards the end of the film, the main characters inexplicably follow the monsters around Tokyo as they fight. In our minds, this always begs the question, why would normal people do this? If monsters were duking it out in Tokyo, we’d be as far from Tokyo as humanly possible. Barcelona sounds good. Monsters never attack Barcelona. And can someone explain to us why the military act as chauffeurs in all these movies?
The acting is about par for the course as well. We would like to point out here that Steven Seagal’s daughter is ten times the actor that her father is, even when all she has to do is look pained and clutch her little Gamera talisman. The idea of someone “connected” to the giant monster in question is a popular one in these movies; we’re glad that someone finally did it right.
What is great about Gamera: Guardian of the Universe is the effects work. Effects artist Shinji Higuchi seems to have totally rethought how one brings giant monsters to the screen, and especially how to make a creature as ludicrous as Gamera look cool if not realistic. Realistic isn’t really an option when you’re talking about Gamera. Gyaos does not fare quite as well, however. Apparently Gyaos was chosen for this movie because he appeared in three of the old Gamera movies, making him Gamera’s most popular supporting monster. Unfortunately, the various Gyaos rarely look like anything other than what they are: hand puppets or marionettes.
What is unsettling for us as Godzilla fans is that Gamera: Guardian of the Universe reminds us that we don’t have to settle for sub-par special effects just because we’re watching a giant monster film. Rather than the more traditional animated ray that Toho uses in the Godzilla films, Gamera blasts out ‘plasma balls’ that are exquisitely animated by computer, and Gyaos’ sonic weapon is also created using a computer. Also, rather than the little firecrackers the Godzilla movies use to simulate missiles, Gamera uses computer-generated missiles that leave computer-generated smoke trails. It would be an understatement to say this movie looks great. It’s just a shame that a Godzilla movie wasn’t the first to utilize extensive CGI. Guess we’ll just have to wait for the coming Godzilla movie from the makers of Independence Day.