Thursday, May 15, 2014

Godzilla Week: Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

The last Godzilla movie leading up to the new Gareth Edwards movie of 2014 is the 2004 50th anniversary celebration, Godzilla: Final Wars.  

Even ten years after its release, this film from director Ryuhei Kitamura retains a reputation for being…highly divisive. The controversial nature of the film is due, in large part, to the movie’s schizophrenic storytelling approach. There are actually two movies here, fighting one another for supremacy. 

One movie is a down-to-the-angles, down-to-the-casting remake of The Matrix (1999) with (friendly) mutants battling deadly, evil Exilliens.  The compositions which reflect, specifically, The Matrix, occur in the last act. One mutant, Shinichi (Masahiro Matsuoka) self-actualizes in battle as a one-in-a-million super-being.  In doing so, he can stop laser blasts with his hand.  And in battle he can anticipate and defeat the moves of his opponents while putting up almost no effort.

It's impossible not to recognize these "tributes" to The Matrix. I don't necessarily object to them on grounds of homage, but rather than the grounds that these scenes have little business being in a Godzilla movie.  We don't see Godzilla movies to see super-powered humans and aliens in martial arts, wire-work action scenes.

The other movie in Final Wars is a good old-fashioned monster stomp that revives with affection the feel and personalities of the Showa Age. 

Alas, the film’s balance is often way off, and the human/mutant screen-time far out-paces Godzilla’s screen time. The scenes here in which the Kwisatz Haderach of mutants (imbued with the “M” gene) battles the Exillien leader in his spaceship control room (pictured above) seem to go on interminably. Meanwhile, poor Godzilla spends most of the film, alas, frozen in arctic ice, until awakened by a new version of the Atragon.

I have read that many long-time Godzilla fans, in addition to strongly disliking the film’s mutant/human story, disliked the (surprising…) return to Showa Era monsters, ethos, and fights. 

Personally, I found this aspect of the movie a delight, and when Joel and I first watched Final Wars together he practically jumped out of his seat in joy each time an old friend appeared on screen the first time.  

This movie -- a thinly-veiled re-working of the Destroy All Monsters narrative, resurrects Manda (the water dragon), King Caesar, Rodan, Minya, Mothra, Anguirus, Hedorah, Ebirah (The sea monster…) and even the giant spider, Kumonga and the preying mantis, Kamacurras of Godzilla’s Revenge (1969). 

Also, Gigan gets a fearsome, impressive new upgrade in Final Wars as an incredible state-of-the-art cyborg.  Quite frankly, this monster has never looked better or more terrifying  And after Godzilla decapitates Gigan once, he even returns a second time…equipped with chainsaw-extensions on his arms.

Also, as much as I disliked the American Godzilla film of 1998, I believe it a confident and gracious touch on Toho's part that Final Wars incorporates the character, now re-dubbed Zilla, into the  film's proceedings. 

As a character separate from Godzilla and his traditions, I don’t mind the giant, fast-moving iguana at all.

I also don’t mind seeing Godzilla kick his ass with one whip of his tail.

The final battle here, which features Godzilla vs. Monster X/Ghidorah, was also pretty thrilling in terms of the monster’s unexpected transformation.  There seem to be many different origins for King Ghidorah in the Godzilla franchise, but I didn’t’ expect for him to go from humanoid to lizard, Transformer-style.

Godzilla: Final Wars’ editing approach is sledge-hammer in style, and there is positively zero nuance in the film in terms of the cuts, the performances, even the color palette. Everything is just constant rock’em sock’em in your face action, and it’s a bit overwhelming, and finally, dull. If everything happens at warp speed, after a while, nothing seems to be happening at warp speed.

But again, there’s a double impact to discuss in terms of the approach. I happily admit that I loved the super-kinetic monster fights, and simultaneously hated the human-scaled martial arts battles, though the motorcycle duel could just go down in history as the most ridiculous, over-the-top fight scene in history. 

 But in terms of the monsters, I loved seeing Rodan wreak massive special effects havoc with his sonic waves, and also loved Anguirus’s depiction as a flying, ricocheting ball of spikes. Manda's attack on a human Atragon ship/sub also shows him in fine monster form.

In terms of Godzilla’s development, Final Wars posits the idea that Godzilla hates mankind (something we remember from such Showa Era efforts as Ghidorah The Three Headed Monster). Final Wars tells us that Godzilla can’t forgive mankind because the human race has harmed so much of the planet Earth.  

But Minya, finally, helps Godzilla to forgive us all in the film’s final moments.  Godzilla’s choice to forgive is oddly affecting, and one of the few moments of “genuine” not-hyped up emotions in the entire film.  I also like the fact that the moment is not hyped for super-schmaltzy super-sentimentality. 

Many Godzilla fans simply hate, hate, hate Final Wars, but I can’t quite bring myself to go there. A lot of the movie is subtlety-free nonsense, edited to within an inch of its life, but I cannot deny the pure sense of joy Final Wars evokes when it brings the entire Godzilla “gang” back to the screen for the first time in decades, only with better special effects than those that were available in the old days.

This wasn’t the 50th anniversary movie many Godzilla admirers hoped for, understandably, but Godzilla: Final Wars certainly has its moments of wacky inspiration. If the movie didn’t fall so low at points in terms of its humanity, its over-the-top heights might be better appreciated today.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I hate Final Wars. I feel Tokyo SOS should have been the series ender. I do however like the big, final battle. Well with one exception, Kaiser Ghidorah. For me the worst Ghidorah design ever. You can do pantomime horse monsters, the final monster in Ultraman Gaia is done panto style. And it's a huge, fearsome creature out of a nightmare. Kaiser Ghidorah is too stiff. I guess it could have been worse, but I also feel it could have been so much better.


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