Initial Thoughts on ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’

So, just got back from seeing Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I’ve you’ve followed my blog, you probably know that I am a massive, life-long Godzilla fan, so I was eagerly looking forward to this long-awaited sequel to 2014’s Godzilla (which I liked quite a bit).

So, how’s this film stack up? Well, my immediate reaction is that I really, really liked it! I have a few reservations (which we’ll get to), but for the most part it’s pretty much just what I would want from a modern, big-budget version of the Godzilla mythos. It’s much faster and more action-packed than it’s predecessor, but without sacrificing the sense of awe and grandeur that ought to go along with Godzilla. There are plenty of moments where the characters just stand and stare (some of Mothra’s scenes are particularly good in this regard, and they really do capture the sense of otherworldly beauty that she ought to have).

Of course, one of the big things I wanted to see was how they would handle King Ghidorah, who has been oddly ill-served by most previous films. Well, they give him his due here; he’s not quite as overwhelmingly powerful and evil as I would have liked (e.g. if I were writing the film, Godzilla would have gotten absolutely run into the ground in their first fight), but he’s able to match and even outmatch the Big G while credibly posing an existential threat to the planet, which is as it should be. Don’t really like him walking on his wing tips, but that’s really my only criticism about the design (and they do establish that he’s “not from around here”).

Mothra is also very well played; I like how they present her as having a symbiotic relationship with Godzilla (though one character seems to take their ‘relationship’ as something else), so that she never falls under Ghidorah’s sway, which would have been all kinds of wrong. I wish she had gotten more screen time and more chance to really show what she can do, but she was almost spot on, and hearing an orchestral version of the Mothra Song from theater speakers was fantastic.

Rodan I actually think got a bit of a short shrift, character wise. I always conceive of him as a fiercely independent creature, to the point of being more antagonistic and uncontrollable than Godzilla himself: he can be mind controlled, like most monsters, but I don’t really like the idea of him as a follower. In terms of his presentation, however, he is very impressive; they make good use of his sheer speed and agility in the air, as well as his raw strength.

As for the human plot, it was actually pretty good; the characters divide into three camps. There are the villains who are ecoterrorists intending to use the monsters to wipe out humanity so that the earth can be restored to a more ‘natural’ state, the people who want the monsters to all be destroyed lest they kill more people, and the ‘Monarch’ organization in between, which argues for balance and co-existence. I appreciate that, despite the film’s strong environmentalist message, it actually takes the approach that the Earth is more self-correcting than we give it credit for, and that those who would see humanity removed from the equation not only are monstrous in their ideology, but don’t actually understand the environment they think they’re saving and will only make things worse.

All this is very fitting material for a Godzilla film, which have always been about man’s interactions with nature and the unexpected consequences of violating the natural order. Likewise, things like the hollow Earth myth and ancient lost cities, as well and linking the monsters to the creatures of mythology fit perfectly. The filmmakers very clearly know the Godzilla franchise and love it; there are many, many little nods and allusions, as well as plot points taken directly from the earlier films, and even non-film sources like the Marc Ceresini books. Rodan being found in a volcano and Ghidorah being initially dubbed ‘Monster Zero’ are only a couple examples (some others I can’t go into without spoilers).

The film also continues the strong theme of family from the last film: the characters trying to rebuild the family unit that was destroyed, in this case, by Godzilla himself. Though in this case, it might be beyond saving. There was actually a bit of genuine wisdom in the film, where Dr. Serizawa tells one of the leads that we don’t always understand why something bad happens, and that if we accept that we can grow stronger from adversity, rather than being torn apart (I don’t recall the exact wording, but it struck me as very Job-like).

The matter-of-fact religiosity of the previous film, alas, is mostly gone, though there are one or two nice little moments, mostly amounting to presenting Ghidorah is a demonic light, such as when one of the bad guys, seeing King Ghidorah exclaims “Mother of God!” to which the answer comes “She had nothing to do with this.” There’s also a striking image of Ghidorah, amid the flames of a volcano, being set against a cross, as though he’s challenging Christ Himself. On the other hand, frequent allusions to the idea that the monsters were the ‘original gods’ of mankind are rather ridiculous (there is a qualitative difference between a simply dangerous or powerful creature, however massive, and a creature regarded with numinous awe). Likewise, the attempts to emphasize the animality of the monsters doesn’t really work for me; I prefer it when there is a strange ambivalence about just what they are in the hierarchy of creation.

On that note, one thing I miss in these latter films was the supernatural element in the earlier Godzilla films. The classic movies thought nothing of including fairies, magic, and mystic energy side-by-side with science-fiction concepts, which both gave them a very distinctive flavor and fit in with the underlying idea that humanity really doesn’t know very much about the world and violates ancient taboos at its peril. Also, the ‘alpha signal’ device, and the idea that Ghidorah can command creatures all around the planet is highly dubious, especially since so much of the film rests on it. I can go with it, but it’s questionable at best.

Then there’s the Oxygen Destroyer, which was, frankly, a disappointment. See, the Oxygen Destroyer is a huge deal in the original films; it appears precisely twice over the whole history of the franchise, and both times it’s a major, major issue; the one weapon that can certainly kill Godzilla, but which also threatens to be far worse than he is. The questions it raises, and the horrific nature of the weapon itself, are big parts of the story and philosophy of the films. Here, it is introduced and set off within the space of maybe two minutes and is never brought up again except in passing. That’s a big waste.

Finally, there’s a matter of Godzilla himself. Now, overall he’s portrayed very well; I completely buy that this is Godzilla, and his power and ferocity are on full display. But the thing is (and this applies to the first film as well), I think that by playing him so overtly heroic, they’ve lost something. One of the things that makes the original series so compelling to me is that Godzilla starts off as a villainous, or at least antagonistic figure. He hates humanity for what they’ve done and continue to do to him. Yet he is ultimately a noble creature, and his arc comes when that nobility leads him to protect the very people he so hates, in the process gradually softening and becoming more heroic as the two sides come to terms with each other. It’s a fairly unique storyline, which appears to have grown up more or less by accident, and I think it’s a fascinating drama. But that isn’t what we have with these new films. Here, Godzilla is characterized much more like Gamera, which isn’t unacceptable, but it is a little disappointing for me (it also means that bringing Gamera into this series would basically be redundant, as the contrast between their characters has been removed).

Those caveats really don’t take away from my sheer enjoyment of this film; they throw so much at us, and the action scenes are so big and so spectacular, and the monsters themselves so well-realized that I thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end, not to mention the sheer joy of hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla Theme in all its glory accompanying the action. I’m definitely looking forward to what they’ll do in the next one. Long live the King indeed!

Presenting my ‘Must See’ List for 2019

A whole lot of trailers dropped this week, but for my part, I only really cared about two.

First, obviously, is Avengers: Endgame

Yeah, this looks pretty fantastic. They’re not showing much yet; this trailer is mostly about letting the audience know that yes, the Avengers are going to keep fighting. Love the logo reassembling at the end. I’d also like to point out that the opening scene of the trailer to this movie, with Tony Stark recording a message for Pepper, is more honestly human than most films these days are in their entirety. Also, the fact that the big moment in the trailer involves Ant-Man just warms my heart. I really hope he gets to play a crucial role in this film.

As I was saying at a friend’s blog, the thing I most want from this movie is for Thanos to receive a ‘Nightmare-on-Elm-Street’-style comeuppance, where he gets to see his mad vision being undone and know that all his sacrifices and all his crimes were for nothing. If they get that right, I’ll allow almost anything else.

The other is the second Godzilla: King of the Monsters trailer.

Wow!

Lots more kaiju action, and it’s clear they’re still holding back most of it. We get clear views of all four monsters this time around, and a lot of King Ghidorah. I said last time that he was the one I was most hoping they’d get right, and from this it looks like they’re absolutely nailing it. I want a Ghidorah who can pound Godzilla into the dirt, and whom the three greatest monsters on Earth – Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan – will be hard pressed to bring down, and that’s pretty much what we seem to be getting. The two scenes of Godzilla and Ghidorah facing off are practically a dream come true (though I might wish they had been done in daylight).

Meanwhile, we get a full-view of Mothra this time. She’s definitely been given quite the makeover and resembles her ‘Mothra Leo’ form. I probably would have gone for more traditional designs, but that’s just me; they’re clearly keeping the important points. I like that they’re definitely playing her up as a heroic figure, which is proper.

Similarly, Rodan seems to be exactly in character as well; not strictly evil, but terrifyingly destructive and even more indifferent to mankind than Godzilla. We’re supposed to have a fight between Rodan and Godzilla at one point, but I’m also kind of hoping for one between Mothra and Rodan, since that’s something we’ve never seen before (Rodan and Mothra’s imago form have only shared one film – Final Wars – and they never interacted). Plus, if you have two flying kaiju, it only seems to make sense to make them fight.

I do have to wonder what’s with the scene of something bursting out of the ground. I presume it’s Godzilla, but why is he underground? I suppose we’ll find out (unless they just wanted to go above and beyond the call of duty by giving Anguirus or Baragon a cameo).

So, yeah, I think this looks fantastic. Again, there’s real respect being shown for these characters and this franchise, and in today’s world that’s something to be thankful for.

By the way, look closely at the clouds in the early scene of the devastated Washington.

(And I just found out; apparently, this film will feature Akira Ifukube’s immortal ‘Godzilla March’. Nothing else needs to be said.)

So, basically these two films are at the undisputed summit of my list of things to see next year.

 

Trivia Break: Queen of the Monsters

I’d like to introduce you to actress Mie Hama. She’s a rather interesting person: born during World War II to blue collar parents, her home was destroyed in a bombing raid and she grew up poor. By the age of sixteen, she was working as a fare collector on the bus, and it was there that Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka found her and decided she might make a fine actress.

Mie Hama

Something must’ve caught his attention. Can’t quite put my finger on it…

Anyway, Miss Hama went on to become one of the most popular actresses of the Golden Age of Japanese cinema, and even to have some success outside it (more on that later). But at the height of her career she quit acting to get married and start a family, wanting only a “normal life.” She had four children and later became a popular TV and radio host, authoress, and advocate for traditional Japanese farming.

Now, Miss Hama has a peculiar distinction in the film world. As far as I know (and all things considered, I think I would know), she is the only actress to date who has been menaced by both King Kong and Godzilla, AND romanced by James Bond.

How’s that for a resume?

(To be fair, Akiko Wakabayashi also co-starred in You Only Live Twice – and plays a rather larger role – as well as having a role in King Kong vs. Godzilla, but she never interacts with either of the monsters).

Akiko Wakabayashi. Seems only fair to put her photo up as well.

Miss Hama was one of the stars of 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, during the course of which the train she is riding is wrecked Godzilla, who then briefly (and presumably inadvertently) pursues her into a ravine, where she’s rescued by her boyfriend.

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Hama vs. Godzilla

Later, as she tries to evacuate Tokyo before the approaching King Kong, she boards another train, which unfortunately runs directly across the path of the giant ape, who does what he does. Somewhat fortunately for her, Kong notices her and takes a liking, meaning that she gets to serve as this film’s version of Fay Wray (Kong climbs the Diet Building in this one). Kong is then knocked out by gas bombs and she is rescued before the great ape is airlifted to his showdown with Godzilla.

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Hama vs. King Kong

Some five years after tangling with the two greatest monsters of cinema, Miss Hama was picked to co-star alongside Sean Connery (and fellow King Kong vs. Godzilla alum Akiko Wakabayashi) in You Only Live Twice, the fifth James Bond film. She plays the role of Kissy Suzuki, a Japanese agent assigned to pose as Bond’s wife while he’s undercover as a 6’2″ Japanese fisherman (granted, not the most convincing development in the history of the franchise). Kissy doesn’t really have a lot of screen time (she isn’t even introduced until an hour and a quarter into the two-hour film), but she manages to put what time she has to good use by steadfastly, and amusingly, resisting Bond’s attentions until the very end (“We’re supposed to be married!” “Think again, please; you gave false name to priest.”) and providing some solid back-up for Bond during their reconnaissance of Blofeld’s base. That, and spending about 90% of her time in a bikini.

Hama vs. Bond

Miss Hama later told stories of how difficult the experience of being a ‘Bond Girl’ was. Though she was a popular actress in Japan, she was still a fairly normal, down-to-earth person and so found herself overwhelmed by the publicity and pressure of the big Hollywood production. But, she said, Sean Connery – who also had a working class background – was very kind and chivalrous to her, constantly checking to make sure she was okay and looking out for her during the long shoot. Later she commented that her chief regret about the film was that she was too shy to try to get to know him better.

That same year, she tangled with Kong again as the villainous femme fatale Madam Piranha in the delightfully silly US-Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes (which is basically what happens when a King Kong film and a James Bond movie are put through the brundlefly machine together). This time around she’s a bad girl: a spy from an unknown foreign power in league with the villainous ‘Doctor Who,’ who intends to conquer the world with a mechanical copy of Kong (so, yes; it’s a pseudo-Bond film where King Kong battles Doctor Who, a Bond Girl, and MechaKong. Japan, ladies and gentlemen!).

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Be honest; would you accept a drink from this woman?

So, there you have it; the girl who tangled with King Kong, Godzilla, AND James Bond and lived to tell about it. Now that’s a strong woman!

No, this post was not just an excuse to share pictures of a beautiful woman. Not *just*…

Indestructible

The irreplaceable Caroline Furlong of A Song of Joy shares music videos featuring two ear-catching song both titled ‘Indestructible.’ One of the songs I’m well familiar with and used it as the theme of one of my favorite Godzilla characters: the indomitable Anguirus, which I now present for your consideration. Enjoy!

(Apologies for poor video quality: this was before I’d ironed out the video-capture process)

First ‘Godzilla’ Trailer Drops!

After much anticipation, the first trailer for ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ is finally here!

A few thoughts:

-I am very pleased with what I see so far: we get glimpses of all four monsters, and so far they look fantastic.

-They really show off Rodan in the second half of the trailer, and it looks like they’re making full use of him. That overhead shot of him flying over a city, with his shockwave destroying it in his wake, is excellent, as are the brief scenes of him in combat with jets. I also like that he emerges from a volcano; a nice reference that indicates this film will continue the respectful approach to the lore that the previous one adopted.

-On that subject, the trailer has a few bonuses for fans: those who know the Godzilla mythos will recognize what the flashes of yellow light mean and why it’s an ominous sign.

-There’s a brief shot of a soldier crossing himself: does this mean this film will continue the surprisingly matter-of-fact religiosity of its predecessor?

-Mothra is seen the least of the new monsters, though her reveal, with her wings unfolding until we see her iconic ‘eyes’ is incredible. Also, looks like we’re getting her full transformation cycle here. It’ll be interesting to see how she fits into this world, though to be honest I think she ought to have gotten her own movie before showing up here.

-Actually, let’s call it; this looks like a visually gorgeous film, with fantastic use of color.

-As for King Ghidorah, we get a few quick glimpses, including a really awesome final shot of him in silhouette. In addition, there are some shots of what look to be the gravity beams. Ghidorah is really the one I’m most looking forward to seeing, both because he is such an important figure in the Godzilla universe and because he’s been oddly ill-served in most past scripts, so I really want to see him presented in all his glory.

-Godzilla of course looks great; the scene of him firing his ray into the air is cool, though I wonder why he’s doing it.

-In short, I’m really excited for this one: it’s one of my most anticipated films of 2019, with only the next Avengers as a challenge. The Godzilla series is personally my top “fandom:” it’s the one closest to my heart and that I am most invested in, so the prospect of a respectful, high-budget depiction of that world and these characters just thrills me to no end. Can’t wait!

UPDATE: After writing this, I watched the new trailers for Shazam and Aquaman, and I was struck by how classy, impressive, and visually distinct this one was by comparison. It really feels like the makers of this film took it seriously in a way that the others didn’t. I’m so glad that Godzilla of all characters seems to be in the hands of people that truly respect him and his world.

Godzilla: Monster Planet

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Cool, huh? Too bad that’s basically all he does.

Being the huge Godzilla fan that I am, I of course had to check out Netflix’s Godzilla: Monster Planet anime, supposedly the first in a trilogy. And…yeah, I didn’t care for it.

The story is that humanity has been driven off the planet by Godzilla and the other monsters, but have failed to find a suitable alternative world, despite the help of two alien races (who are basically the Xillians and the Black Hole aliens from the original series: a cool touch). After searching for twenty years, with their resources depleting rapidly, they decide to return to Earth – which due to relativity has been abandoned for 20,000 years, to see whether they can return.

It’s a pretty cool set-up: a ‘what if?’ scenario for the world of Godzilla that posits a not-unthinkable consequence of the established elements. But there are problems. Big problems.

In the first place, the animation is not very good. Oh, there’s a lot of detail, the characters look nice, and the designs are very good, but it’s too dark. Almost all the scenes are in heavy shadow or fog, so that not only is it hard to see what’s going on, but keeping track of the characters or even telling one from another is next to impossible. Plus the characters all move in a stiff, stop-motiony kind of way, as if they were semi-articular action figures.

There are plot holes too. The idea of Godzilla driving humanity off the planet isn’t a bad one, but it kind of requires some explanation: dangerous as he is, Godzilla can only be in one place at a time. So, why is it whenever humanity has anything important to do, they seem to be doing it right next to him? When they arrive back on Earth, a probe quickly tells them where Godzilla is. So why would they land in the same location? Even if their plan is to confront and kill him, wouldn’t it make more sense to set up somewhere it would take him a few days to get to, so they could be well prepared? I mean, they have the entire planet to choose from here.

And it’s slow-moving. And there’s a lot of repetition in the script: explaining the same things over and over. And things that don’t make sense or are established, but don’t pay off (for instance, it’s explained that a certain plant is as sharp as steel and can puncture a spacesuit. This never comes into play again).

But the biggest problem is Godzilla himself. Hoo, boy, let’s try to explain this:

In the first place, they changed his backstory and basically the entire concept of what he is. That’s not too bad in itself; this isn’t Godzilla the character, but kind of a variation on the idea of Godzilla. I can go along with that, even if I prefer the original. The trouble is, again, the animation. Oh, my goodness, what were they thinking?!

If the human characters look like semi-articular action figures, Godzilla looks like a non-articulate figure. As in, he doesn’t move. At all. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. He’s incredibly stiff and moves extremely slowly, so that half the time it looks like they just have a still image of him that they’re shifting about the screen. I cannot tell you what a disappointment this is.

It seems to me the whole point of doing an animated version of Godzilla is to make him more alive, more natural, more energized; to free the artists to show the full extent of his power and ferocity. Why turn him into basically a statue that occasionally shoots off an atomic ray? Heck, Talos from Jason and the Argonauts – an actual metal statue – was more mobile and seemed more alive than this!

That’s the problem: he doesn’t seem alive. In the live action films, whatever else he is, Godzilla always seems alive, because for the most part, he is. That’s the glory of suitimation; the character is really on screen and really moving the way a living thing should. Even at his stiffest, even when the effects were at their worst, Godzilla always at least felt alive (though I haven’t seen Shin Godzilla yet). Heck, even when he was literally a demonic zombie, he still moved more and had more character than this!

It’s awful, that’s all I can say; the way they portray Godzilla here is awful.

It’s not a waste of time, and I am glad I saw it. The action is kind of cool, the ideas are somewhat interesting, and there are some nice scenes. I especially like when they first arrive back over the Earth and everyone rushes to the windows to exclaim over the sight, especially the people who had been born in space who are seeing the planet for the first time. Then there’s a very interesting and kind of touching conceit involving the ruins of cities.

I suspect I’ll watch the next two films when they come out, since I am interested to see where they go from here. But I’ll go in with lowered expectations: I’m much more looking forward to the second Legendary Godzilla film.