MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT! MAN IN SUIT! Moriarty Attends The World Premiere Of GODZILLA FINAL WARS In Hollywood!!
Published at: Nov. 30, 2004, 6:59 a.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Holy cow! It’s a giant monster movie! No, wait... it’s an alien invasion movie! No, it’s actually a martial-arts movie! Wait... it might actually be all three!
I’ve been chatting with the fine folks over at Toho recently and also with the charming Vanessa Shimura, assistant extraordinaire to cult favorite filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura. As a result, they offered my wife and I a chance to attend the world premiere of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood earlier tonight. I have to admit... as refined as I like to pretend my taste in film is, there is a part of me that will never outgrow the simple Saturday afternoon double feature pleasure of watching men in monster suits kick the ever-lovin’ shit out of one another. I remember those seemingly endless days when I was seven or eight years old, my friends and I crowded into the living room, going completely mental over every fight sequence and immediately setting up cities made of pillows or cardboard boxes so we could recreate the mayhem ourselves. Just recently, when Playstation released that WAR OF THE MONSTERS game, I went through a phase where any friend who came into the house was challenged to a kaiju rampage, and it never failed... it was always insanely fun. There’s just something pure about the pleasure derived from this particular sub-genre of movie for me.
So it is with great pleasure that I am able to say that Kitamura’s film may well be the single most kinetic, over-the-top, and delightfully unhinged entry in the 28 film series, a worthy way to not only celebrate 50 years of pop culture triumph, but also a fitting final chapter to this particular era of these films. Which isn’t to say that this is a radical reinvention of the formula that has kept the series popular over time, keep in mind. Far from it. This is very much an old-school GODZILLA film. Fans of the series are in for all sorts of in-jokes and guest appearances and knowing winks from the filmmakers, and that’s a big part of what makes it so damn much fun.
The opening of the film throws a lot of information at you right away. First we see a scene in which Godzilla faces down a ship at the South Pole, and they appear to win a decisive victory over him, burying him in a ton of ice. Then we’re hit with this crazy beautiful opening title sequence designed by Kyle Cooper (the mad genius behind SE7EN) that traces the whole history of the series. And then we’re told about the creation of the Earth Defense Forces to handle the ever-increasing monster problem around the globe as well as the rise of mutants, human beings with advanced fighting skills who are part of the special M-Organization, part of the EDF. Oh, but wait... before you say, “Heyyyy... mutants? That sounds familiar,” you should know that Kitamura isn’t borrowing from one film or from two films. He seems to have taken the average DVD shelf of any self-respecting SF/action/comic nerd and dumped the entire thing into a melting pot, then injected it directly into his brain stem before making this movie. This is a virtual “Where’s Waldo” of Hollywood blockbuster references, and the effect isn’t a bad thing at all. Instead, it just becomes overwhelmingly funny. You get this smile on your face first at the audacity of it. Then you start to look forward to the next one. And by the time the film reaches the start of the third act, it’s so completely drunk on itself that only the most cynical viewers... only those bitter grinches who have killed their inner child completely... are going to be able to remain unmoved. Kitamura wants to entertain you. He does everything but hop up in front of the camera and burst into song and dance in this film, and I wouldn’t have put it past him while watching. This is a movie that makes no pretense about being anything besides fun. This past summer, I got really tired of hearing people try to defend VAN HELSING as “just fun,” because it didn’t feel to me while watching it like Stephen Sommers actually had fun making it. It just felt like he had a release date to make and thought that biggerlouderfaster was the way to cover any narrative flaws. Here, you can feel Kitamura giggling behind the camera as he piles up the insanity, and it’s infectious.
Now... having said that... I can tell you that some fans are going to be up in arms about the film, and that’s a shame. It’s just an inevitability, though. As I said recently in the last Jedi Council article, expectation is the enemy, and I think some people heard Kitamura’s name and expected some sort of hard-R bad-ass reimagining.
This is certainly not that movie. One of the things that has always made GODZILLA films so much fun (with the possible exception of the original 1954 movie, which plays much darker and more frightening that I remembered, especially in the restored version we saw released this year) is how these films play to as wide an audience as possible. Up till now, my favorite Kitamura film was actually a short of his called THE MESSENGER. Overall, his films are like fetish dreams. He loves the details, and he’s willing to throw narrative drive to the wind in order to focus on things like the way someone holds a sword or a cool-ass camera move around someone with a gun. He is absolutely a geek director. And things like VERSUS or AZUMI play to a very specific target audience. With GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, he’s made a movie that I would feel perfectly comfortable taking a five-year-old to see, and that means that if you want that mega-violent super-serious bad-ass bloodbath kaiju war movie, you’re not going to get it.
On the other hand, if you want a Godzilla film that finally figures out what to do with the humans for once so they’re not just standing around doing reaction shots, and you have a sense of humor about your kaiju, and you can appreciate some sly camp, then you’re going to basically roll around in this movie, smile on your face. We get a little time after that slam-bang opening to get to know some human characters. There’s Masahiro Matsuoka as Shinichi, one of the mutants, a nice guy who always hesitates in a fight because he still hasn’t learned the killer instinct. There’s Rei Kikukawa as “UN Molecular Biologist Miyuki Otonashi,” who just happens to be incredibly cute. She and Shinichi are assigned to work together, which naturally leads to flirtation-disguised-as-hostility as they go to look at a monster that has just been unearthed, the mummified remains of Gigan. As they investigate it, they learn that the monster may have come from another planet, and they also learn that it may be tied to the origin of the mutants, thanks to the mysterious “M-base” compound present in both. As they dig a little further into the mysteries of the creature, they find themselves transported to Infant Island, where they encounter two tiny li’l ladies who will be instantly familiar to Toho fans. They talk about how Mothra defeated Gigan once before, and warn Shinichi that he has the power to choose what he wants to be.
About that time, you’ll be looking at your watch and saying, “Hey, I heard they had some giant monsters in this film.” Well, hold on, ‘cause someone ordered a whole shitload of creature carnage and it’s right around this point that the delivery arrives. Here’s where you can start playing the game of shouting out the names of the creatures as they arrive in various locations around the world. Rodan terrorizes New York. Angilus runs amuck in Shanghai. The Kamakiras attacks Paris. And at Mount Fuji, a little boy and his grandfather are forced to face down the most terrifying creature of all... Minilla! Or, as most fans know him, Minya. Baby Godzilla. Aw, yeah, that’s right. He’s back. Little blue smoke rings and all. And this time, he actually tries to drive a car!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The monsters kick a little ass, tear down some landmarks... basically, it’s a Pistons game on a global scale. And then, just as suddenly as they all appeared, they’re gone again, and a big funky UFO appears over the headquarters of the Earth Defense Force. The Secretary General of the U.N., who vanished during the attacks, reappears in a beam of light to explain that he was rescued by the aliens, and they were the ones who made the monsters disappear. Longtime Godzilla fans will recognize Akira Takarada from his appearances in ‘92’s GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA as well as GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER, GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, the original GODZILLA VS. MOTHRA, and, yes, the very first GODZILLA back in 1954. This guy’s got history with the series, and there were a lot of cheers when he showed up in the movie. He introduces us to the aliens, who are called Xilians. They say they have come to Earth to warn us about a planet that is on a collision course with ours, and if we want to stop it, we are going to have to gather all of our weapons and focus them on one spot at one time and fire them.
Yeah, right. The five year old sitting behind me saw through that plan right away, proclaiming loudly, “That guy’s a LIAR!” And our heroes don’t fall for it. They set out to prove that the Xilians aren’t as benevolent as they appear, and they enlist the help of Captain Gordon, an improbably cartoonish military man played by Don Frye, a popular martial artist who happens to be an American with a huge Asian following.
When they do unmask the Xilians, they do it on live television, and the Xilians don’t really take it well. They bring every single monster back, unleash them again, kill millions, and level most modern civilization. The leader of the Xilians is played by Kazuki Kitamura, who you’ll probably recognize as one of the Crazy 88’s from KILL BILL. He has more fun than any other actor in the film, chewing the scenery with vigor, and he’s a hilarious bad guy. He’s pretty sure he’s made his point, but he isn’t counting on Captain Gordon and Shinichi, who decide to go to the South Pole to wake up Godzilla. After all, he’s one of the few monsters who doesn’t have the M-base compound in him, and if anything can stop the destruction of the planet, it’s him.
Of course, they’re not exactly sure what they’ll do when they need to stop him again, but that seems like the least of their problems.
From the moment Godzilla wakes up to the end of the movie, Kitamura kicks out the jams and just bombards you with one fight after another. Some of them are frustratingly brief, like when he butts heads with the miserable American Godzilla in Sydney Harbor. Just about the time the real deals holds down the pale imitation and starts recreating a scene from DELIVERANCE, the sequence is over. Other fights pick up in the middle, like when we see Godzilla whup up on Hedorah, who was actually one of the toughest monsters to fight in the original series. These are minor nitpicks, though. There’s something like an hour of sustained monster action, intercut with kung-fu and spaceship dogfights and a kamikaze STAR WARS scene and did I mention that Minilla drives a car? Seriously. And he wears a seatbelt. It’s gloriously batshit, and I loved it all.
Look... you and I both know that as long as there is a Toho Studios, there will be new Godzilla films. This is a celebration of a milestone. Not many pop culture figures of any sort last 50 years. New generations continue to enjoy these films, and one of the reasons is because of the sheer elasticity of the concept. You can do anything with the human stories in these films as long as you deliver the goods where it matters, and this film does in spades. I’ve seen a lot of truly great films this year... movies like THE INCREDIBLES or ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND or KINSEY or THE LIFE AQUATIC or SILMIDO or SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING or BEFORE SUNSET. Those are lasting works of art, powerful films that say something about the human condition. And not one of them features Baby Godzilla driving a goddamn car. And that’s why GODZILLA: FINAL WARS earns a special place in my heart. It’s fun. Pure lunatic fun, every frame. Thank you, Toho. Thank you, Ryuhei Kitamura. Thank you, Tsutomo Kitigawa and Shogo Tomiyama and Eiichi Asada and Shinichi Wakasa. Thank you for taking me back to those Saturday afternoons where I first fell in love with these movies. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go build a city out of cardboard boxes. I have some buildings to stomp.