Friday, December 19, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla: Final Wars

The end of the Millennium era.

When Toho Studios made Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the plan had been that it would be the last Godzilla movie they'd make until the franchise's 50th anniversary in 2004. After the release of the 1998 American Godzilla film, Toho felt they had to save face and rushed Godzilla 2000 into production. By the time 2004 did come around, an entire third era in the series had played out, and Godzilla's box office numbers were starting to drop. Toho decided it was time for the series to go dormant again for a while, so that next time they made a Godzilla movie it would be an event audiences would turn out to see. But first, they had to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary.

Hired to direct and co-write the 50th anniversary film was Ryûhei Kitamura, who was getting international attention for movies like the zombie action-fest Versus and Aragami, his contribution to the "Duel Project" that also resulted in Yukihiko Tsutsumi's 2LDK. With his frequent collaborator Isao Kiriyama, producer Shogo Tomiyama, and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II/Godzilla 2000/Godzilla vs. Megaguirus/Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla writer Wataru Mimura, Kitamura wrote up an epic monster mash that was seen as the cinematic equivalent to a band releasing a "greatest hits" album. A throwback to the Shōwa era that would be made with the most modern of sensibilities and the largest budget a Toho Godzilla project ever had. $20 million.

Akira Ifukube, the composer who created the iconic Godzilla theme for the 1954 Gojira, had retired as of Destoroyah, and a handful of composers had followed in his footsteps to compose the music for the Millennium films. Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla's Takayuki Hattori provided the score for 2000. Kô Ohtani did the music for Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. The composer who did the most work on the Millenniums was Michiru Ôshima, who held the job on Megaguirus, MechaGodzilla, and Tokyo S.O.S.

Godzilla: Final Wars marks a first for the series' musical department; the first time a westerner was ever brought on to provide music for a Godzilla movie. This gaijin was quite a famous one - British keyboard legend Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Emerson was given two weeks to compose the score, and despite his popularity, a lot of his music was left out in favor of music composed by Kitamura regulars Daisuke Yano and Nobuhiko Morino.

Kitamura's entry into the Godzilla series is set in a 2004 very different from the one we experienced. One in which the world's history of wars and environmental destruction led to repeated attacks over the last fifty years from giant monsters.

Also over recent decades, a mutant race of humans with special physical abilities (think the X-Men) began to emerge. As the global alliance Earth Defense Force was created to battle the giant monsters, mutants were recruited and a special unit formed for the mutant soldiers, the M Organization.

The greatest enemy of the EDF is Godzilla, who first appeared in 1954 and has regularly returned since. Stock footage from past Godzilla films are shown during the title sequence, which was designed by Kyle Cooper - a title designer who has over 200 credits, but may be best known for the title sequence of Se7en. That doesn't mean Final Wars is exactly in continuity with them, however.

The first image we see in Final Wars is a shot of Godzilla, although it's a drawing of him. You don't have to wait much longer to see the big G in the flesh. The movie begins with Godzilla battling EDF military vehicles at the South Pole. The first couple shots of Goji are of him in silhouette, but the full reveal comes within the first minute.

The Godzilla suit for this film was designed to be a mixture of Goji's looks in the Shōwa, Heisei, and Millennium eras, while also make him much leaner so he could move more quickly. The suit worn by performer Tsutomu Kitagawa (who played Godzilla in all of the Millenniuem movies except GMK) in this movie weighed less than 1/3 as much as the suits he wore in the others.

Among the vehicles being used against Godzilla is the drill-tipped flying submarine the Gotengo, which was first introduced in Toho's 1963 film Atragon. Aided by an earthquake, the Gotengo manages to defeat Godzilla by knocking him into a crevice and blasting apart a glacier with its rockets, burying the monster under chunks of ice.

Following the title sequence, the Gotengo is seen doing battle with another kaiju, this time fighting Manda - the dragon previously seen in Atragon and Destroy All Monsters - off the coast of Normandy. Manda gets completely destroyed by the sub.

After returning to the EDF headquarters in Japan, Organization M soldier Shin'ichi Ôzaki is given an assignment that is seen as being below him - to be the bodyguard of a molecular biologist who is coming from the United Nations to examine a mummified monster/cyborg hybrid that has been discovered in Hokkaido. Ôzaki is less disappointed when he discovers that the biologist, Miyuki Otonashi, is an attractive young woman rather than the grumpy old man he expected.

The mummified monster is found to be a 12,000 year old alien... and oddly, it seems to be biologically related to Earth's mutants. Both the monster and the mutants have a component called "M Base" in their genes.

Masami Nagasawa and Chihiro Ohtsuka, who played the Shobijin, Mothra's twin fairy companions, in Tokyo S.O.S., reprise their roles when the fairies telepathically contact Ôzaki, Miyuki, and a Professor Jiguji to inform them that the mummy monster they have in their possession is Gigan (previously seen in Godzilla vs. Gigan and vs. Megalon), who attacked their home Infant Island and battled Mothra 12,000 years ago. The Shobijin confirm that the mutants are part of Gigan's wicked bloodline, but Ôzaki still has free will to decide whether to take a good or evil path in life.

Suddenly, much like in Destroy All Monsters, monsters start attacking cities all around the world. Rodan in New York, the Godzilla from the '98 American film (now simply called Zilla) in Sydney, Anguirus (a beloved Godzilla series regular returning for the first time since Terror of MechaGodzilla in 1975) in Shanghai, King Shîsâ (from 1974's Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla) in Okinawa, Kamacuras (from Son of Godzilla) in Paris, Son of Godzilla's Kumonga in Arizona, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster's sea monster Ebirah in Tokyo... EDF squads scramble to take on these rampaging kaiju.

Differing from the monsters out there causing destruction, Godzilla's son Minya/Minilla/Minira shows up in a forest near Mt. Fuji, as cute and harmless as ever. He's the size of a human most of the time, but is able to grow larger, just like in Godzilla's Revenge. He befriends a young boy who stops his hunter grandfather from shooting him, and the people take him on a quest to be reunited with his father.

Ôzaki and his fellow mutants blast Ebirah to pieces, but the other EDF battles around the globe are interrupted when UFOs appear over the area and zap the monsters with something that makes them disappear. All of these UFOs then gather and form one large UFO that hovers over Tokyo. In fact, right over EDF HQ.

UN Secretary General Daigo, whose plane was destroyed by Rodan while he was flying to New York, is then beamed down from the alien spaceship, alive and well. Daigo assures his fellow humans that these extraterrestrials come in peace.

The aliens, humanoids wearing black outfits and sunglasses because The Matrix was still big around this time, then introduce themselves. They are Xiliens from Planet X (as in Invasion of Astro Monster) and have come to warn us that a huge asteroid called Gorath is on a collision course with our planet and will destroy Earth in 11,736 hours. (There was a 1962 movie called Gorath that was all about trying to stop such an event.)

Daigo suggests now that we have been contacted by intelligent beings from another planet, the United Nations shall become the Space Nations. The Xiliens say the only way to destroy Gorath is to gather all of Earth's armaments in one spot and fire them on the asteroid. Doesn't sound fishy at all, does it? The world governments don't seem to think so.

Some people do distrust Daigo and the Xiliens, however. People like Ôzaki, Miyuki, Jiguji, and newscaster Anna Otonashi. They are able to deduce that Daigo is not himself, he's under the control of the Xiliens, and more people around them are being turned into Xilien puppets to further the alien agenda.

When the Xilien deception is revealed to the world on Anna's television show, a brash young Xilien takes over control of his people with the intention of destroying civilization and harvesting mitochondria from the cells of living humans.

The Xiliens also have M base in their blood, as all mutants are descendants of Xiliens. The Xiliens are able to telepathically manipulate the material, and thus take control of all the Organization M soldiers... except for Ôzaki, who is a Keizer - half mutant, half human, and thus capable of being stronger than both humans and Xiliens.

Then the aliens unleash all of the kaiju they made disappear, which were always under their control, on the planet again. The mummified Gigan is even awoken and revitalized to join in on the destruction as lazer blaster-equipped warships fly around, blasting everything in sight.

As an apocalyptic scenario plays out, the only hope Earth has is our group of heroes, who are joined by rebellious EDF Colonel Douglas Gordon, and the Gotengo.

Gordon comes up with an idea which Miyuki supports. Go to the South Pole and free Godzilla from his icy prison. The Xiliens control the mutants and the kaiju through the M base component, which Godzilla does not have. The aliens won't be able to control him, and he'll fight their monsters.

Gigan arrives at the South Pole to try to stop the Gotengo, but instead just becomes his first opponent when the submarine blasts Goji out of the ice. 69 minutes into the film, more than an hour after he was buried, Godzilla makes his triumphant return into the picture.

Triumphant is the right word for it, because it is insane how easily Godzilla manages to wipe out the other kaiju in this movie. Monsters that he previously tussled with for large portions of running times are now decimated in seconds. Gigan gets his head blown off by Godzilla's atomic breath. With Canadian band Sum 41 playing on the soundtrack, Godzilla kills Zilla with a swing of his tail and a blast of atomic breath. Kumonga, Kamacuras, toast. Anguirus, Rodan, King Shîsâ, out for the count. Hedorah the Smog Monster shows up just long enough to die. There's even another Ebirah for Godzilla to kill.

Seeing how poorly these monsters are doing against Godzilla, the Xilien Commander calls down another pair of kaiju from outer space - one a more powerful Gigan, the other Monster X. At first this appears to be a brand new creature, a skilled fighter with an energy blast that comes from three different points on its upper body... It might even have three heads... If the name Monster X sounds familiar, you know the twist - this monster does indeed morph into King Ghidorah by the end.

For this climactic battle, Godzilla gets some back-up: Mothra shows up to help him take on Gigan 2 and Monster X/King Ghidorah. Meanwhile, Ôzaki and the other heroes face off against the Xiliens in a confrontation that goes on and on.

King Ghidorah actually comes close to defeating Godzilla, but we all know who the real King of the Monsters is around here.

The first time I watched Godzilla: Final Wars, I did not like it at all, which was a disappointment not only because I had been let down by a Godzilla movie, but also because I had been a fan of Kitamura's Versus and was excited to see him make a Godzilla movie. He made a Godzilla movie that was just not for me. I found the style completely off-putting. The film was too hyper, the picture too manipulated, at 125 minutes it was too long, and there was too much Matrix-esque stuff in there with Ôzaki, the mutants, and the Xiliens.

Final Wars didn't fare much better with Japanese audiences than it did with me. The movie was designed to be a bigger and better Godzilla movie - shot at locations around the world, a whole bunch of monsters and action - and moviegoers didn't turn out for it. It had the highest budget of the series and at the box office it was the least successful Godzilla since Terror of MechaGodzilla. This definitely proved to Toho that they needed to let the franchise rest for a while.

I was so disappointed in Final Wars that watching it for this write-up was only the second time I've sat through it... And this time, I actually enjoyed it. It's goofy and hyper for sure, it's still too long with too many moments influenced by The Matrix, but I had fun watching it. There are a lot of callbacks to the great Godzilla movies and other Toho tokusatsu/kaiju movies to the past; even though the story is told in a very 2004 way, it is a classic Godzilla set-up; and Goji himself is certainly treated with respect. Godzilla is the only thing that can save us in a world being destroyed by monsters that can't stand up to him at all. That's a very honorable take.

Godzilla: Final Wars isn't one of my favorites and it's still not something I could watch on a regular basis, but it's not as bad as I've been thinking it was for the last decade.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Final Wars, and Toho has stuck to the idea of letting the series go dormant. We have now experienced the longest period of time that has ever passed without Toho producing a new Godzilla since the series began 60 years ago. There were seven years between Godzilla Raids Again and King Kong vs. Godzilla. Nine years between Terror of MechaGodzilla and The Return of Godzilla. Four between Return and vs. Biollante, four between Destoryoah and 2000. Ten years since Final Wars and still no new Toho Godzilla. But there are signs that may be changing soon.

It hasn't been all quiet on the Godzilla front since Final Wars. The '98 American film may not have turned out as well as everyone wanted, but the U.S. wasn't done with Goji, and in 2014 they gave Godzilla another try.

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