Saturday, November 28, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 9: Peepo's Last Chance" (November 4, 1978)

In Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) Chapter 9, “Peepo’s Last Chance,” Dragos (Sid Haig) has repaired his Dragonship and is scouring the universe for signs of Jason. 

On Arcturon, Drago’s minions locate a couple of Star Command droids: Peepo and Wiki.  They are there conducting a defense survey of the world, but Dragos orders them captured.

Jason (Craig Littler) and Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon) take a Star Fire to the planet, but in the mean-time 
Peepo is connected to a dragon terminal and made to reveal top secret information about Star Command and its technology. 

Jason manages to free his friends, but the day is not saved.  Though Jason doesn’t know it, Peepo has been brain-washed and now serves the evil Dragos.

“Peepo’s Last Chance” is not much more than a runaround -- a show with little emotional or narrative depth, concerning instead rescues, escapes, and chases.  In this circumstance, Jason and Nicole must save two diminutive robots, Peepo and Wiki from Dragos.

Wiki spends a great deal of time on the top of Peepo’s computerized head this week, and I could not help but think of Twiki and Dr. Theopolis from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  

But the real antecedents here? 

R2-D2 and C3PO, the beloved droid duo from Star Wars (1977).  Here, Peepo considers Wiki an “annoying kid brother,” according to Jason, and that seems like an attempt to recreate the relationship dynamic of the famous gold protocol droid and his mischief-making astromech pal.

This is the first episode on my re-watch wherein I first felt a sense of creeping sameness or routine.  We’ve seen Dragos’ evil plan before, as well as his capture of Star Command personnel.  We’ve even seen the spaghetti-monster minions and the wasteland planetoid before. And, of course, we’ve seen rescues and escapes galore.

I guess in a large multi-part “serial” like this one, some parts qualify as filler. That’s certainly the case with “Peepo’s Last Chance,” though in fairness the episode does set up, ably, the possibility of future betrayal.  Peepo has been turned!

Next week: “The Disappearing Man.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Planet of Fire" (November 5, 1977)

This week on Space Academy, Tee-Gar Soom (Brian Tochi) experiments with a "cryotron," a device that will ultimately be able to "cool down hot planets."  He demonstrates it for his friends, and for Gampu (Jonathan Harris), and is pleased with his success.

But Tee Gar is also due for a vacation, so he leaves the Academy and doesn't learn that his experimental cryotron device --which looks like a ray gun with a back pack -- posseses a fatal flaw: the frozen objects become unstable and explode.

With Loki and Peepo, the oblivious Tee Gar heads to the asteroid of Daleus to perform further tests on the cryotron, only to see the potential weapon stolen by a strange, solitary giant named Dramon (Don Pedro Colley).

Dramon abducts and then freezes Peepo with the Cryotron, and then needs Tee Gar's help to restore the robot to normal. 

The only thing that can save the diminutive droid is "moist heat."  Fortunately, a hot spring on the planet surface gets the job donem and Peepo is saved.

At the end of the day, Peepo is back to being himself, and Dramon returns to the Academy as a new friend. 

Meanwhile, Tee-Gar promises to continue work on his freezing device.

"All great men have suffered disappointment," advises Commander Gampu "from Galileo to the Wright Brothers..."

"Planet of Fire" is a disappointment, I would assess. It's not that it is a terrible episode, it's that it is pitched a lot lower than earlier episodes.  "Countdown," "Survivors of Zalon" and "The Rocks of Janus" could largely pass muster on a prime time series like Star Trek (1966-1969) or Space:1999 (1975-1977).  The concepts are strong ones, and the execution is pretty good too.

But "Planet of Fire," is, in essence, about the cadets encountering a lonely giant who freezes their robot.  They make friends with him.

And that's it.

This isn't to say that the lesson about friendship is unworthy. It isn't. Dramon is confused that Peepo's buddies risked their lives to rescue him. "Maybe the way you act, you don't deserve them [friends]," Peepo suggests, and so Dramon reforms his anti-social ways.

There's also a lesson here about tenacity. Tee Gar has failed in his work, making the cryotron safe and functional, but one set-back cannot be the end for a scientist.  He must re-tool, and try again.  Otherwise, nothing of value will ever be invented right.  In some ways, Gampu's speech to Tee Gar about success is absolutely perfect.  It's something a good teacher would say. And it reminds me, absolutely, of moments between Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), particularly in shows such as "Coming of Age."

Still, these lessons for Tee Gar and Dramon feel a bit too preachy, and they are grounded in concepts that aren't that great.  A giant? A freeze ray?  Space Academy often aspires to be more than pulp-branded entertainment, and it's a bit sad to see "Planet of Fire" rely on such hoary ideas.

Next week: "Life Begins at 300."

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972)

One way to comprehend and appreciate the Godzilla movies is to parse them as, essentially, the Japanese monster equivalent of James Bond-styled movie adventures. 

Thus, every Godzilla outing features a different and dynamic antagonist and the same, dependable hero, Godzilla, who faces this new threat or challenge. But in different eras, Godzilla is interpreted differently, not unlike the varying interpretations of 007 by actors Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig.  Sometimes Godzilla is friendlier, sometimes less so.  Sometimes he is silly, and sometimes he is deadly serious.

The monster movies of the 1970s Showa period are a great deal more fanciful in presentation than some. 

They are more aptly fantasy entries than outright horror shows, like the original Gojira.  On a personal note, I admire and love the Godzilla films of the 1970s Showa Era, and their interpretation of Godzilla as a reluctant warrior for mankind, not to mention hero of children everywhere.

One of the very best Godzilla films ever made – of any era -- is Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972), or Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster as it was known in the United States upon release.  The film works as both a compelling Godzilla entry, and also as a science fiction film featuring a meaningful statement about the environment.

Remember, the great kaiju movies, in my opinion, are the ones that create monsters that are avatars for some pressing issue in the human world, often atomic testing, and the notion of Mother Nature’s revolt against that poor behavior. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah creates a great monster, Hedorah, out of the issue of pollution, which was a major component of the 1970s science fiction film.  Efforts from around the world, including No Blade of Grass (1970), and Z.P.G. (1972) imagined worlds in which our soiling of the planet led to catastrophic and apocalyptic futures.

Hedorah possesses a unique and fascinating life-cycle, which means that the monster adopts multiple forms in the sea, on land and in the air, throughout the film, and that fact livens up the battles with Godzilla quite a bit. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah also features at least one major sequence set during blackest night, and so there is a dark aspect to this film that makes it memorable in the canon.  The film also tailors its message of “saving the Earth” so as to be appealing to children, who will recognize that Godzilla -- for all the damage he causes -- is on the side of the planet, and Mother Nature herself.

A beast called Hedorah that arises from “a sticky, dark planet far away” is nurtured in the pollution, sewage, and detritus of Earth’s 20th century civilizations. 

The grotesque, blob-like entity with red eyes develops and grows through three distinct stages -- in the ocean, on the surface, and in the skies -- and soon proves a grave menace to human life, especially in Japan.

When Hedorah flies above that nation’s cities and factories, he excretes deadly sulfuric acid that burns away skin and reduces human bodies to skeletal corpses.

Meanwhile, one boy, Kenny, dreams of his hero, Godzilla, and believes that only the giant atomic lizard can save the world from this terrible new threat.

Fortunately, the giant green dinosaur soon shows up, and engages in a battle to the death with the smog monster.

Going back for a minute to the useful 007 Bond comparison, Godzilla vs. Hedorah opens with a catchy pop tune, a lava-lamp-like introductory montage, and a musical performance by an attractive female singer. 

Similarly, the film also features the obligatory almost stand-alone action set-pieces here…the ones in which the protagonist first confronts the antagonist, and is defeated, and then the climactic encounter, wherein good finally prevails.

Continuing down this road of comparison further, the best way to judge or critique a Bond film, largely, is to categorize the elements in terms of their antecedents and determine whether the ingredients in the current entry stack-up to moments from franchise history.  

Is the new movie as powerfully vetted as past entries? Does it toss in some surprises to go along with the elements that a devoted audience expects to see?

In terms of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the answers to such questions are universally affirmative.

Hedorah makes for a dangerous, original, and grotesque villain, not merely in terms of his ever-changing appearance, but also in terms of his abilities and proclivities.  When the airborne Hedorah strafes his human prey and sprays a toxic chemical, humans below are dissolved to bone instantly, and it’s a frightening, grotesque effect.  Another image of Hedorah that remains unforgettable sees the beast perching atop a factory smoke-stack, imbibing pollution directly from the pipe, as it were.

It seems to me that both Bond and Godzilla films rise and fall on the basis of the villain’s nature and plans, and Hedorah’s constantly shifting nature, nasty composition, gruesome power, and odd appetite make him an unforgettable antagonist.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah finds some new subtext and social critique material for the long-standing franchise.  Historically, Godzilla has been parsed as an avatar for atomic power. He owes his very existence in the 20th century to human nuclear testing, and so forth.  In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, however, the series gives him a villain who also symbolizes an important element of the disco decade zeitgeist: pollution

As seen in films such as Frogs (1972) and Doomwatch (1976) environmental pollution proved the great bugaboo of the age, and here, the alien seed that is Hedorah sprouts from sewage and garbage strewn into the ocean.  The opening scenes in the film depict smoke stacks, factories, and filthy brown ocean water.  We see, without fakery, examples of how man has destroyed that which Nature has provided.  These moments are powerful because they are real. Man’s technology and industry -- coupled with his propensity to destroy that which he touches – are turning a paradise into a nightmare.

From this hot-house of detritus emerges something unspeakably awful: the crimson-eyed menace from another world.  And when Hedorah sucks smoke out of a factory stack like it’s a giant bong, the film’s powerful point is nailed visually: we’re actually feeding the vehicle of our own destruction when we pollute the Earth.

Commendably, the Godzilla series has adjusted with the times to remain relevant and interesting.  The nature of “the monster” has changed (from nuclear power to rampant pollution and environmental damage), but the overall premise hasn’t been altered at all.  The fact is, state these Japanese films, mankind’s behavior and irresponsibility are jeopardizing everyone on the planet.

What makes Godzilla vs. Hedorah such a charming and worthwhile film, however, is not necessarily the polemical aspects of the drama. Contrarily, the film often adopts the viewpoint of a child, who sees the pollution and wishes for some miracle to stop it. 

That miracle is named Godzilla. 

Godzilla would get really angry if he saw this. He’d do something,” the child, Kenny, declares upon musing over pollution.

In this case, the child seeks an answer to a problem, and hopes for a person (or creature) brave enough and bold enough to take action.  The film actually forges a meaningful link between this boy and Godzilla, suggesting that Godzilla can hear his hopes and thoughts, and thus comes to the rescue of humanity.

Kenny hopes that Godzilla will fix by might that which man chooses not to address. 

Furthering the idea of the film as originating from a child’s viewpoint, Godzilla vs. Hedorah often cuts to a cartoon representation of the sludge monster, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the whimsical aspects of the tale, especially in counter-balance to some of the unexpectedly gruesome special effects. 

Finally, the film even features a great (if idealistic) answer to the problem of pollution: “if everyone pulls together, we can defeat it.

If we can just do that one thing, Godzilla will not gaze down upon us with such disapproval in his eyes, as he does in the coda of this particular outing.

Another real treat here is the fact that Godzilla vs. Hedorah is beautifully-shot.  The compositions make full use of film’s rectangular frame, and some vistas -- even those featuring an obviously mini-metropolis and dueling men-in-suits -- remain visually impressive.  There's a downright lyrical moment near the end of the film when Godzilla stands before a sunset, and the implication seems to be that it is mankind's reign itself that is setting, unless we change our ways.

 Perhaps some of the ideas here -- like a peace march to stop pollution -- seem dated in the cold light of the cynical 21st century, but Godzilla vs. Hedorah, with its child-like innocence and focus on a real 1970s “monster”  --pollution -- works just about as poetically and effectively as any Godzilla movie ever made in my opinion.

Cult-Movie Review: Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster (1965)

Godzilla makes the dramatic shift from being a villain and enemy of the human world to a dedicated (if reluctant…) Earth defender in the rip-roaring Toho effort, Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster (1965).  

This film also introduces the world to Godzilla’s key nemesis: the three-headed flying alien dragon known as King Ghidorah.

Ghidorah would return to battle Godzilla in many other films, including the brilliant adventure Monster Zero (1970), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), to name just a few titles.

The enduring charm of Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster, in large part, rests on its fanciful depiction of the monster world and, importantly, the monster viewpoint about that world. 

Specifically, in the film’s delightful and unexpected final act, humanity asks for assistance battling the berserker Ghidrah, and Godzilla and Rodan must consider their priorities. 

Are they man’s enemies, or do these beasts have a basis for cooperation with the human race?

Fortunately for mankind, Mothra is present to talk some sense into the recalcitrant Godzilla…

“These monsters are as stupid as human beings!”
A foreign princess, Selina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is presumed dead after her plane is destroyed  by assassins en route to Japan.

However, Selina soon re-appears in perfect health...but claiming to be a Martian princess. 

In this new identity, Selina warns the people of Earth of an impending crisis, a repeat of the very one that destroyed her advanced home world.

While assassins from her home-land continue to seek to assassinate Selina, the alien princess’s warnings come to pass.  As she forecasts, the fearsome pterodactyl Rodan awakens at Mount Aso, and Godzilla ascends from the sea.

Selina’s protector, Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) and psychiatrist Dr. Tsukamoto (Takashi Shimura) become convinced that Selina is acyually possessed by the spirit of an alien, and she makes a final, dire prediction.  The monster that destroyed her home planet, Mars, in a matter of months, is now on Earth.

This too comes to pass, as King Ghidrah, or Ghidorah -- a three-headed goliath -- emerges from a meteor and lays waste to Japan.

Desperate, authorities make an effort to solicit Mothra’s help on Infant Island, and the giant insect acquiesces. 

However, Mothra alone cannot defeat Ghidorah. So Mothra attempts to convince the quarrelsome Godzilla and Rodan to join forces and vanquish their common enemy, but it is not an easy sell.

When Mothra decides to go it alone, and is savagely attacked -- and ridiculed -- by malevolent Ghidorah, however, Godzilla comes to the rescue, followed by Rodan…

“Godzilla, what terrible language!”

The theme of cooperation, already given voice in Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964) is front and center in Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster. Here, Godzilla and Rodan must stop their bickering -- with the help of a third monster, Mothra -- and defend the Earth from a threat of monumental proportions.

In terms of metaphor, it is not difficult to gaze at the film as a post-Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War Era plea for sanity and cooperation among the argumentative powers of the world.  If we follow it through symbolically, Godzilla may here represent the U.S. (as he is the avatar of American nuclear tests), Rodan the Soviet Union, and Mothra...level-headed, practical Japan.  Only by all three “monsters” (or nations…) working together will the “alien” Ghidorah be defeated.

This theme finds voice in the brilliant finale, as Mothra, Godzilla, and Rodan share a meeting of the minds, or international monster summit of sorts.  Mothra attempts to sway them with reason and logic, but Godzilla and Rodan are too busy kicking rocks into each other’s faces, at least at first, to listen.  Eventually Mothra gets their attention, and then Godzilla and Rodan must consider their options.  

They both hate mankind, and remember, importantly, that mankind hates them.  Why should they help?

Well, as Mothra points out, we all share this Earth together, and so Godzilla and Rodan must put their hatred for man aside and do what is right for the planet.

I absolutely love the imagination and audacity of this film's climactic sequence. Mothra’s tiny princesses translate for the human audience while three monsters gurgle, growl and squeal at one another in serious conversation, determining the fate of the planet in the process.  

This sequence conveys some important information, too. The first thing is that man, in his arrogance, presumes that he controls the planet and its future. Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster reveals him “humbled” before the monsters.  If man is to survive, and not suffer the same fate as the Martians, he will have to put his trust into beings -- monsters -- he considers enemies.

Secondly, the monsters dislike man as much as man dislikes them, apparently. More is made of this notion throughout the Godzilla franchise, actually.  In Godzilla: Final Wars, for instance, we learn that Godzilla hates man -- and can’t forgive him -- because of his misuse of the planet, and because of all the “fires” (wars?) man has started.

Third, and finally, Godzilla, we learn here, seems to possess both a grumpy attitude (and the vocabulary of a sailor…) but also a strong moral barometer.  He cusses and uses bad language when talking to Mothra, and that’s a funny moment.  But more importantly, Godzilla refuses to fight until he sees what a total bastard Ghidrah really is.  Ghidrah mocks and plays with poor Mothra and that action offends Godzilla’s sense of honor, even though Mothra has, in the past, defeated him.

Mothra is quite the smart creature too. No doubt, Mothra goes it alone intentionally, hoping that Godzilla will detect the level of the danger, and be drawn into the battle to save the planet. That seems to be precisely what happens.

Indeed, what seems to separate good monsters from bad monsters in this thoroughly enjoyable film is a sense of justice or honor. 

Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan all demonstrate the capacity not merely for growth, but for cooperation. They are able to rally to a cause greater than themselves, in other words.  

By contrast, King Ghidorah is really a berserker with no value system beyond destruction.

I suppose that the question that must be reckoned with involving Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster involves changed premises or changed assumptions in the Godzilla franchise.  Are audiences willing to embrace Godzilla the hero, over Godzilla the avatar of nuclear destruction? 

And if so, is it a corruption of the franchise’s original idea?

Although on an artistic front, I do prefer the purity of the nuclear metaphor in Godzilla (1954), I must confess that on an emotional level, I love the idea of Godzilla as Earth’s (grumpy) defender.  I love the big green monster as a hero, and as a friend to the human race.  It may be a corruption of the original premise, but I do find Godzilla in these Showa "versus" films to be an appealing combination of innocent, tragic, and lovable.

One further quality of Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster that may keep it from being a corruption of the original franchise intent and rather an evolution of key concepts is the example of Mars.  The alien princess reports: Centuries ago, the monster appeared in the skies of Mars. Within a month, the culture of Mars had been wiped out completely. The civilization on my planet had reached a stage of development which you people will not achieve for a long time…Today, because of the space monster, it is a dead world…dead and unpopulated.

Encoded there is a direct corollary to the warning in Godzilla (1954).  

Man has and will continue to achieve advances in terms of his technology, and his capacity for war. But if he brutalizes nature in that evolution, nature will have its revenge, and man will, in that conflict, lose. 

Ghidorah, in essence, here takes on the role of Godzilla from the first film.  He is Out-of-Whack Nature Personified: a threat that can’t be reckoned with in terms of technology or conventional war.

Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster is such an imaginative and entertaining film not only because it features lovable and idiosyncratic monsters, but because it endows its monsters with a point of view that is not human-centric, and allows them -- in their  own destructive way -- to settles matters based on those points of view.  

To some, this approach of giving the monsters human personalities may seem silly or childish, but in a way, this creative choice perfectly expresses the childish nature of the Cold War conflict.

Are we really going to destroy the world because we can’t get along with each other? Can we stop kicking sand in each other's faces long enough to see that the planet needs our help?

Cult-Movie Review: Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964)

Godzilla movies can often be quite blunt in presentation, so -- in honor of that trait -- allow me to be blunt about Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964).

It is, basically, a superior, artistically-coherent version of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). 

This movie dramatizes a very similar tale, but Godzilla vs. The Thing ties all the familiar elements together into a caustic and effective critique of Big Business.

Accordingly, this film feels far more direct and meaningful than its predecessor did.  In fact, I would agree with critics who state Godzilla vs. The Thing is one of the all-time best Showa Godzilla films.  

In particular, it is noteworthy how Godzilla vs. The Thing forges a link between irresponsible Big Business and environmental and manmade catastrophes. Even Godzilla himself is contextualized in light of this nexus.

In man’s blazing desire to profit from things that aren’t his to profit from, says the film, he risks total apocalypse, even if that apocalypse is unintentional.

But Godzilla vs. The Thing doesn’t desire to be a polemic, either, and also comments meaningfully on man’s connection not just with nature, but with his fellow man.

The great Mothra -- who has seen her island devastated by atom bombs -- could refuse to help civilized Japan in its hour of desperate need.  But, as the film states, “we must learn to help one another,” or we’ll all go down, if not to rampaging Kaiju then to some other dire threat.

Agree or disagree with its premise about reckless capitalism, Godzilla vs. The Thing really works splendidly, and the battle scenes are fantastic too, featuring more cut-ins and extreme close-shots so the fighting monsters seem even more vicious than before.

“Money, that’s all they’re interested in….”
Following a dangerous typhoon, a reporter, Ichiro (Akira Takarada), and his new photographer, Junko (Yuriko Hoshi) survey the damage to the shore-line. They uncover a giant reptile scale, but that discovery pales in comparison to another.
A giant, colorful egg has been seen in the shallow waters of the coast.
This colossal egg is brought ashore by the poor locals, and studied by scientists, including Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) until a businessman named Mr. Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tojima) brazenly explains that the egg is his property. He has just purchased it from the desperate locals, who have endured the typhoon damage. He plans to sell it to the head of Happy Enterprises, with the express purpose of creating an amusement park attraction based on it. 
Soon work is under-way to incubate the egg in a large structure…
Before long, the Shobijin -- two tiny fairy women -- appear in Japan, and ask the businessmen for the return of the egg to its home on Infant Island.,The egg belongs to their deity, a giant old creature called Mothra. Their pleas are ridiculed and ignored, however and the small women face capture themselves.  They escape from custody and return to Infant Island.
Meaenwhile, Godzilla rears his head in Japan again, this time near the beach where he washed ashore (and lost his scale…) in the hurricane.  Godzilla promptly begins to cause great damage to Japanese industry and property, prompting Ichiro and Junko to visit Infant Island and beg Mothra’s help to defeat him.
On the island, Mothra’s help is solicited, even though the island has been ravaged by atomic testing, and civilized man refused to return the giant monster’s egg. Still, Mothra agrees to help…but the monster is aged, and may not be able to defeat Godzilla.
When Mothra dies in a fierce battle with the giant radioactive lizard, her egg finally hatches, and two Mothra grubs continue the fight, for all mankind.

“I’m sure they hate us for what happened here.”                                     

If the angle about a pharmaceutical company and its CEO was played largely for laughs in King Kong vs. Godzilla, a similar plot-line gets more serious treatment in Godzilla vs. The Thing. Here, a company takes possession of an egg it clearly didn’t hatch, and offers to let scientists study it…for a price.

The “entrepreneurs” that turn this egg into a commodity hope to mint a fortune by making it the center of a tourist attraction. In short, they seek to exploit that which is not theirs. An egg is a symbol for nature, and for life, but these men see it as a golden egg, a path to personal wealth.

Then, when the fairies -- speaking on Mothra’s behalf -- ask for the return of the egg, the company people all but laugh at them. The egg is the company’s asset now, and they have extended themselves with some expense to build an incubator, and so forth.

There’s no way the company is giving it back.

Uniquely, the company’s representatives see the egg exclusively as property. They purchase it from a previous (illegitimate…) owner, the locals whose land it came to rest on.  But now, because payment was made, it is a resource that belongs to the company for reasons of exploitation.

In contrast, the fairies make an argument based not on property, but on the common good.  They are afraid that the egg could hatch, and inadvertently cause tremendous destruction.  The fairies, in other words, are looking out for all mankind, while the company just cares about its own profits.

The fear that a hatched egg could inadvertently cause tremendous damage is significant in Godzilla vs. The Thing and we see that fear realized visually with Godzilla. He begins a reign of destruction in Japan, but notice that in this case, his destruction doesn’t seem at all intentional.

For example, his tail gets caught in a tower, and the tower falls down on him. 

Moments later, Godzilla actually slips on a stretch of land. He loses his balance, and falls into another building.  Then, trying to stand-up and re-balance himself, he further damages the building.

This is not the behavior of angry animal pulping a city. This is a natural force doing what natural forces always do: inadvertently causing great damage in man’s world. There is not malicious intent, but damage is nonetheless caused.

The commentary about big business in Godzilla vs. The Thing also extends to journalism.

Journalism is supposed to be a beacon of hope, exposing corruption and danger and keeping the public informed in a timely fashion.  But as one character notes “a newspaper has a limited capacity to reach people. It can’t enforce the law.”

By implication, the government – in bed with big business – should be the one enforcing the law, but it isn’t doing so. 

Again, Godzilla vs. The Thing forges its critique of laissez-faire capitalist practices.  The government and military in vain try to stop Godzilla’s reign of terror, when a route of diplomacy -- with the fairies – has been neglected.

The general idea applies to Mothra’s island, as well.

Look what the countries of the so-called First World have done here, with their fearsome, high-tech military-industrial complex. Such forces have destroyed a once-beautiful island, leaving it an environmental wreck.  Only one small area is still green, and the rest of the island is barren, littered with skeletons. 

The land -- representing nature itself -- was used as man’s property (much like the egg is treated as property…), by people unconcerned with the common good, focused instead on ideological or material profit.

But Godzilla vs. The Thing isn’t cynical or pessimistic about such matters, which is one reason why I love it so much.  Instead, the film is actually hopeful, and shows that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Mothra and her people were treated rudely by the new owners of the Egg, and their needs and desires were never taken into account. It would be easy to treat the people of imperiled Japan the same way now.

The people of the island could have reciprocated cruelty with cruelty. They could have stuck to their “we will not help” line, when assistance was requested. 

Instead, the fairies see how bad judgment should not be repaid with bad judgment.  A line of dialogue in the film notes that “as humans, we are responsible for each other,” and that’s the film’s positive message. 

If we can help each other in a time of crisis, we must do so.  This is true even in times when there is nothing for us to “gain” or “earn.”  That’s the behavior Mothra models.  The giant creature is weak and infirm, and has no “vested” interest in fighting Godzilla.  But Mothra goes into battle for the common good, putting selfish concerns aside. 

It’s true that Godzilla vs. The Thing moves along some familiar story lines and plot points. As was the case in King Kong vs. Godzilla, we here visit the native island and meet a culture that worships another monster.  In both cases, that “other” monster is recruited to battle a rampaging Godzilla. 

And also as in King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla apparently goes down in the last round, and the victor (Kong or the Mothra grubs…) begins the long trek back to an island home. 

In this case, the two closing shots are practically identical.

But if you put aside the familiarity of this narrative’s overall structure, you can begin to see how there is (red) meat on this Godzilla film’s bones, and how the filmmakers have found a way to again explore aspects of man’s world, and his short-sighted misdeeds. 

The best Godzilla films are ones in which the creatures represent some force or aspect of human life beyond themselves. They become, instead, avatars of atomic war, avarice, or even pollution.

Here, sweet Mothra is a shining symbol of hope, and selflessness, representing the capacity for man to do the right thing, even if there are personal consequences.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Review: War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching.

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. Until last week, I had not seen The War of the Gargantuas since a holiday in the early 1990s when I introduced the film to my wife, Kathryn. We were at my grandparents’ house in Tom’s River, N.J. for the Thanksgiving weekend, so the film may have been playing on basic cable.

The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself.

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

His failure, one might say, is only human.