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Posts Tagged ‘giant monsters’

Destroy All Kaiju

July 16th, 2013 No comments

I’m just speculating here, but I imagine that the average anxiety level in the production offices of Legendary Pictures has risen a few notches. Here they are, trying to drum up interest in next summer’s Godzilla reboot at the same time that the American public is demonstrating its indifference toward their current giant monster epic, Pacific Rim.

Maybe it was just a scheduling issue, but it did seem odd to me that Godzilla is being produced as the follow-up to Pacific Rim rather than the other way ’round. Godzilla has the name recognition, but it also has (so far as we know at this time) just the one giant monster. (EDIT: Ding dong, I’m wrong. The official description was just released, and say “this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.” So there’s that.) Pacific Rim, on the other hand, has lots of monsters (and robots), but isn’t based on an existing property.* Coming out second, Godzilla risks being seen as the lesser spectacle, a potential problem made worse if Pacific Rim appears to have poisoned the giant monster well.

Unfortunately for Legendary Pictures and Godzilla fans, Pacific Rim isn’t just a mediocre box office performer, it’s a mediocre film.

I’m torn here. I really, really, really, really want to love it. I want to hold it to my bosom and proclaim it as the Second Coming of Spielberg.

And, lest we forget, I am very forgiving when it comes to giant monster movies. I unreservedly love Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, despite production values perhaps 1,000 times lesser than those displayed by Pacific Rim. Hell, recently I voluntarily watched the nadir of the Toho Studios film series, Godzilla vs. Megalon, in its native Japanese.

Now I’m in no way saying that Pacific Rim is inferior to Godzilla vs. Megalon, in that very little that exists in any of the known states of matter is less than Godzilla vs. Megalon. It’s just that, considering both its production budget ($190 million) and pedigree (acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro), I hold Rim to a higher standard.

The main problem for me is the assortment of stock character types with their off-the-shelf backgrounds and motivations. That wouldn’t be a problem if they brought a bit of personality or fun to the party, but the only ones who seem to be having a good time are Ron Perlman as a dealer in monster body parts, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the comedy relief scientists. When the frog-faced guy from Torchwood is the most entertaining member of your ensemble, that’s a concern.

My other major complaint is that, with the exception of a couple of flashbacks, every monster appearance takes place at night, in the rain and/or at the bottom of the ocean. I thought that we were past the point that we needed everything to be dark and rain-streaked to hide the special effects seams.

So, what does Pacific Rim do right? A lot, actually. It’s got a bit of a Top Gun vibe with its international team of pilots. The monster designs–many courtesy Hellboy artist Guy Davis and master alien illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe–are varied and bizarre. A great deal of attention has been paid toward world-building, with such details as a slum built inside the carcass of a dead beast and a misguided attempt at border-security known as the “Wall of Life.”**

It’s far from a disaster, but it’s a definite disappointment coming as it does from del Toro, whose love for this subject matter runs deep.

In light of this, I say good luck, Godzilla. Your long-anticipated comeback just got a bit more difficult.

*And if you doubt the power of intellectual property, look at the many Internet comments declaring Pacific Rim to be a Transformers rip-off, even though what it’s really ripping-off predates the robots-in-disguise by several decades. Furthermore, consider that Transformers: Dark of the Moon made nearly as much on opening day (a Wednesday) as Pacific Rim did in its first weekend.

**It, of course, works here about as well as it does in real-life, never taking into consideration–for example–that the evolving cavalcade of creatures might eventually exhibit the ability to fly.

Draw A (Giant, Prehistoric) Bird Day

April 8th, 2011 No comments

Apparently, Draw a Bird Day is a thing that happens. So here’s Rodan.

Monsters Bail

March 7th, 2011 No comments

Last year I heard a lot about the cheapie independent sci-fi road movie Monsters. Reputed to have been made for under a half-million dollars–with special effects created using off-the-shelf software–it was supposed to be a brave, understated take on the giant monster subgenre, a Cloverfield for the art-house crowd.

I didn’t manage to catch its brief theatrical run, but last night I sat down with it on Netflix Watch Instantly. I’d love to be able to proclaim that Monsters was all that and a bag of popcorn, but I found myself increasingly disappointed as the story unspooled, even moreso on further reflection.

Monsters is pitched as the movie that occurs once the invasion is over. Six years after a space probe crashed in the Mexican jungle, alien lifeforms have sprung up in a so-called “infected zone” bordering the American southwest. Titanic, bioluminescent creatures that appear to be the love children of octopi and giraffes roam by night, occasionally wandering into human-settled areas. The U.S. military conducts regular bombing runs against the beasts*, but for the most part people accept the new normal.

A photojournalist is tasked with escorting the daughter of his magazine’s publisher out of Mexico before the harbors close for good. But when their passports are stolen, they hitch a ride across the infected zone. Love blossoms. Sorta. It’s not so much passion as it is a mutual willingness to momentarily detach themselves from their own self-absorption.

Monsters wants to be the African Queen of kaiju films, but the uninvolving characters and improvised dialogue are an ocean away from Bogart and Hepburn’s romantic banter. It’s a movie that tells you what is happening, as when the photographer declares “the vibe just changed.” (People also ask a lot of questions of the “what’s that?” or “why are they carrying guns?” variety, as if they have forgotten about being surrounded by colossal calamari.)

This would be less damaging if there was more happening on the alien invader front, but the eponymous critters make only occasional, brief appearances. I’ll accept the premise that this was a conscious directorial choice rather than a budgetary mandate, but if so, writer/director Gareth Edwards should’ve spent more time making the humans worth caring about.

The roguish Andrew flirts with the boss’ daughter, but spends the night with a prostitute who steals most of his belongings. Oddly enough, Samantha doesn’t seem all that upset that her idiotic escort lost their passports. This may be because she’s not all that eager to get home to her fiancée, or it just may be that she’s bored. It’s hard to tell. We never find out why she went to Mexico in the first place, or why she spends the movie sporting a bandaged arm. Whatever her motivations, she’s far too willing to risk crossing an alien-overrun land rather than, say, sitting around the U.S. embassy until Daddy Warbucks charters a plane. Monsters or no monsters, are we really expected to believe that the world won’t help a rich, white girl?

Monsters comes with a heaping helping of metaphor. You see, it’s really about the U.S. response to illegal immigration, with glowing space squid filling in for undocumented domestics. And while I’m far from immune to the charms of sledgehammer allegory–I was a big fan of V, after all–this is the sort of movie in which people gaze out at a 100-meter-high concrete border wall and say “It’s different looking at America from the outside.” Point delivered. (Thwack!) And I’m not sure that I buy into the suggestion that the U.S. military are the true antagonists here when we’re shown the extent of the otherworldly infestation. It’s hard to root for an invasive species, especially when the Asian carp in question can topple buildings.

It’s not that I went into Monsters unprepared. I knew that the creatures stayed mostly in the background. I’m fine with menaces that are suggested rather than seen. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with improvised dialogue. I found The Blair Witch Project chilling (the first time, anyway) because its filmmakers suffused their story with a dread of the unknown. In Monsters, we start out with a fairly complete understanding of the aliens’ nature and motivations. Our protragonists knowingly and needlessly put themselves in harm’s way. And yet–aside from the final couple of minutes–there’s no sense of imminent threat. It’s not the lack of monsters that defuses Monsters, it’s the lack of tension.

Then there’s the non-ending. Okay, that’s not completely true: there is sort of a conclusion, if you know where to look for it. But, like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, it seems less of an ambiguity than a case of the movie stopping just when the interesting part is about to happen.

I don’t want to come down too harshly on Monsters. I respect its do-it-yourself nature. The location shooting is beautiful. And I appreciate its attempt to take a more thoughtful approach to giant monster tropes. But I will say that I’m now kinda worried that Gareth Edwards has been given the keys to the forthcoming American Godzilla reboot. As a filmmaker’s calling card, Monsters achieves impressive results on a micro-budget, but as a romantic thriller, it falls flatter than Tokyo after a rampage.

*Bonus question: why are there so many crashed planes littering the zone? The aliens don’t appear to jump, fly or shoot death rays. Jet fighter vs. land squid would, at first glance, seem an unfair fight.

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

Ebert vs. Monsters vs. Aliens

March 28th, 2009 No comments

If I am occasionally hard on Roger Ebert, it’s because I expect more from him. Unfortunately, his review of Monsters vs. Aliens is what I’ve come to expect from latter-era Ebert, in that he spends half his alloted verbiage railing about something tangential to the film itself. In this case, Roger hates 3-D for being a gimmick that sullies his pristine, silver screen. Oh, no! Movies aren’t made the exact same way they were the first time he saw Lawrence of Arabia! I can imagine a ’40s-era reviewer similarly bitching about these new-fangled moving pictures having color and synchronized sound.

As film gimmicks go, 3-D is nothing new. While not technically the first stereoscopic movie, 1952’s Bwana Devil is credited with kicking off the 3-D boom of the mid-century. It’s come and gone over the years, but the big difference between, say, the original House of Wax* and Monsters vs. Aliens is that nowadays the 3-D effect works really well. Thanks to modern digital projection systems–which Ebert also railed against, even though they seem to have virtually eliminated framing and focus problems at the local multiplex–3-D is now every bit the eye-popping experience the innovation originally promised.

As for the portion of his review which actually addresses the film, I honestly don’t know what movie he saw, but it wasn’t the one that unspooled in front of the audience with which I sat this afternoon. (Actual Ebert line: “I suppose kids will like this movie, especially those below the age of reason.”) Judging by the laughter, both kids and adults found it very entertaining. I know that I laughed hard and often at both the silly sight-gags and the many, knowing winks to sci-fi films of ages past. (Among my favorites was a take on the giant hypodermic needle gag from The Amazing Colossal Man.)

Ebert attempts to make a point about “wit” by trying to be ever so clever, but in his haste to line up his bon mots, incorrectly identifies the film as a Disney product. I doubt Unca Walt (or Unca Spielberg, for that matter) will appreciate that.

Now look, in terms of storytelling, this is by no means a Pixar-level film. (Though I’d argue that it’s easily the equal of Cars.) It just wants to be spectacular and silly, and it succeeds admirably at both. There’s also a welcome dose of Girl Power that so far Pixar has largely overlooked in its male-centric tales.

You won’t encounter many surprises in the plot, but the jokes come fast. Most of the best lines are courtesy of Seth Rogen as the clueless, charming B.O.B., a brainless blob who at one point hits on a dish of Jell-O. I was also very fond of Dr. Cockroach, with his pencil-thin Vincent Price mustache, and the pop-eyed, enormous Insectosaurus.

And 3-D might be a gimmick, but if the reaction of the kids in the audience was any indication, this time it’s here to stay. Every time something blew toward the screen, they ooo-ed, aah-ed, and howled with delight. Just as the movies went widescreen in the ’50s to combat television, the motion picture industry will continue to embrace 3-D and IMAX as experiences that aren’t easily duplicated at home.

*House of Wax gets its own reference in Monsters vs. Aliens, when an early scene duplicates the paddle-ball-in-the-face effect from the old Vincent Price flick.

The X From Human Resources

January 8th, 2009 No comments

Here’s something I never expected to see on a basic cable commercial last night: Guilala, the star of the deservedly obscure Japanese giant monster flick The X from Outer Space, shilling for a job placement company.

Categories: Movies Tags: ,

If Only I’d Brought My Bag Of Holding

August 17th, 2008 No comments

Friday, my peeps and I made the annual pilgrimage to the Mecca that is Gen Con Indianapolis, one of the biggest gaming conventions in the U.S. This time out I was flush with eBay cash and loaded for werebear.

Arriving about forty minutes before the dealers’ hall opened, we were dismayed to find that all of the lockers were either long since taken or jammed so full of quarters that they no longer operated. I would eventually come to regret that situation.

When the doors opened, I made an immediate beeline toward the Wizards of the Coast booth with the intention of getting one of the Heroscape promotional figures. I’ve been collecting that particular game since its inception and have all of the previous Gen Con promos, one of which now goes for three figures on eBay.

However, I soon learned that Hasbro/WOTC had decided that they would only issue 250 Heroscape figures per day at their booth. This for a convention which attracts upwards of 25,000 souls. Within five minutes of the hall’s opening, they had completely run out.

I was furious. I despise arbitrary limits that result in “haves” and “have-nots,” especially when such limits are conspicuously short of the likely demand. (Also, when I’m one of the “have-nots.”) As I mentioned, Hasbro’s been giving away similar promos for several years, and as long as one made the effort to arrive in the first hour or two there was no trouble getting one. This year, someone clearly decided that the best way to generate interest in what is admittedly a waning game franchise was to ensure that 99% of attendees went away unhappy. Never mind that this is probably WOTC’s biggest trade event, or that the cheap, plastic figures likely cost pennies apiece to produce.

Seriously, if this cost even a dime, I’d be amazed.

Backed up by a couple of fellow Heroscape fans who clearly believed I was going to get results, I began working through the WOTC employees unlucky enough to get in my way until I reached Toby. He was a genuinely nice guy who pointed out that they also had 250 figures per day at the Heroscape tourney in Exhibit Hall F. If they couldn’t help us, he probably could if I stopped back after lunch. It took a while to find Hall F, and still longer to find someone who knew what we were talking about, but we eventually prevailed. And Toby later delivered on his promise by getting an extra figure for my friend Brian.

In the end, I was still kinda pissed at WOTC, and didn’t come back to their booth until much later in the day. Ironically, one of the main things I’d been looking forward to at this year’s convention was the chance to get fired up about their new 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons releases. But honestly, the WOTC booth seemed rather low-key in comparison to previous years: there were fewer games being demo’ed, and they’d stopped their traditional giveaway in which attendees rolled a giant 20-sided die in hopes of winning one of a huge stack of prizes. Now, I can understand why the booth for Wizkids Games (a competitor which makes Heroclix, etc.) was similarly low-key; they had no new product to show and rumor has it that they just laid off a whole bunch of staff. But WOTC is fat, sassy and just coming off a hugely successful relaunch of D&D, so where was the hype?

My second stop was the Privateer Press booth, which had a sneak preview of their upcoming Monsterpocalypse game. It’s a collectible miniatures game about giant monsters thrashing a city, so it might as well have had “Designed Expressly for David Thiel” on the packaging. I wound up buying a bunch of packs, and I really hope that I can encourage one of the local game stores in Champaign/Urbana to support it when it officially arrives this October. Good fucking luck on that, I know.

Another early release was Fantasy Flight’s Battlestar Galactica boardgame, a semi-cooperative challenge in which the players are in charge of the human fleet fleeing toward the planet Earth. However, one or more of them is secretly a Cylon working against them. In light of the locker situation, I’d resolved not to buy much heavy stuff early in the day, but it was clear this one was going to sell out fast. Into the bag it went!

One that I did wait to buy until near the end of the day was E.T.I.: Estimated Time to Invasion, a surprisingly well-produced small press boardgame in which the players run companies researching high-tech projects in anticipation of staving off an alien attack. Like the aforementioned Galactica game, one of them is secretly an alien prepping for the invasion. It looks like a lot of fun!

Like many geek conventions, Gen Con has expanded well beyond its original mandate, and so I found that while there were a few folks dressed as wizards or the inevitable Imperial Stormtroopers, there were dozens, possibly hundreds, of anime-inspired costumes. At least, I think that’s what they were. I recognized a guy dressed as the main character from Trigun, but I’m not sure who all the women in punky schoolgirl outfits were supposed to be. What I do know is that when you’re tottering around on 10-inch heels while falling out of a tight, red dress, you’ve pretty much passed out of the land of animation and into whoredom.

As the gaming industry has matured, so have the services that have sprung up around it. Case in point: Geek Chic, a company displaying a colossal, wooden gaming table (called, without any hint of irony, the “Sultan”) featuring dozens of built-in storage compartments.

That’s right: $9,650. The booth guy promised me that this is an heirloom-quality piece of furniture that would not live in my basement. (In fact, their slogan is “Emerge ex Hypogaeo,” which allegedly translates to “Come Out of the Basement.”) I assured him that if I did buy one, it would still very much wind up in the basement. (After Vic bashed me in the head with one of its hard rock sugar maple and black walnut drawers, that is.)

I usually don’t buy many games on first sight at Gen Con (or many games at all, to be honest) but I picked up a few on spec this year. One was Yetisburg, a card game which won me over with its theme of the American Civil War being fought with the aid of yetis and mastodons. Love the rulebook, which includes new yeti-centric lyrics for “Dixie,” plus a pitch-perfect parody of the infamous Sullivan Ballou letter featured in Ken Burns’ TV documentary. (“I write with trembling lips that Johnny Reb has ‘skunk apes’ of his own…”)

I also bought Humans!!!, which appears to be a clever inversion of Twilight Creations’ popular Zombies!!! games, and Vineta, in which the players are angry gods out to sink an island civilization. I would’ve felt a whole lot better about that last one if it hadn’t turned out that Brian had also bought it, rendering my copy about as useful as a third nipple on a dude. (Or a second one, come to think of it.) Not his fault; just after I purchased it I’d thought “This seems like the sort of thing Brian would buy.” Ah well, it’s a handsome-looking game anyway.

By the end of the day my bag became ridiculously heavy and awkward to maneuver through the crowded hall, and I was thoroughly fried by the time we trooped back to the car. Still, I had a good time on Friday, and spent most of Saturday reading the rulebooks of my new acquisitions. Can’t wait to play!

Take That, Dean Devlin

January 19th, 2008 No comments

As you might expect, I didn’t waste much time before going to see Cloverfield. A major American studio releases a giant monster movie? Damn skippy I’m there.

In brief, I enjoyed it a lot. It offered no more than the contents listed on the label, but it accomplished what it set out to do. It took the traditional monster rampage down to street level and made it an intense viewing experience.

While it’s accurate to describe Cloverfield in terms of the original Godzilla and The Blair Witch Project, I think that you can throw a few more influences into the mix. As in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, it never strayed from the protagonists’ view of events; we knew only what they learned from direct observation and second-hand chatter. It also reminded me of the cult classic Miracle Mile, which took place over a single night as the main character delayed his escape to safety (in that case, from a purported nuclear holocaust) to go back for his girlfriend.

Most obviously, it was reminiscent of the American Godzilla remake, hence the title of this post. In addition to the New York setting, here too was a giant monster which spawned a horde of ground-level critters to offer a more direct threat to the humans. I don’t know that anyone set out to throw it in the face of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich and show them how to make an effective monster movie, but there it was.

Japanese monster flicks rarely concern themselves with the humans inevitably seen fleeing underfoot. They tend to be about the spectacle of mass destruction and the response of scientists and armies. Giant Japanese monsters (colloquially known as “kaiju”) almost never target their rage on individual people. It’s that aspect of Cloverfield, rather than the “Blair Witch”-cam, that made it unique.

Another welcome aspect of Cloverfield was that it got back to the old idea of the kaiju as metaphor. The first Godzilla was, of course, directly inspired not just by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also by American testing of atomic weapons in the Pacific. The American Godzilla, however, had none of that, and in fact went as far as to blame the big lizard on the French. With Cloverfield, the monster was very much a stand-in for the terror of 9/11, something a great deal closer to our anxieties than French nukes. It ain’t subtle, but neither was Godzilla.

While both films pretended to be “found footage” from a discarded camcorder, one advantage that Cloverfield had over The Blair Witch Project was that there’s deliberate planning behind-the-scenes. The camera might’ve been whipping around, but it wasn’t just capturing random, improvised footage. You saw what you needed to follow the plot.

Granted, it wasn’t all that challenging a story. There’s just enough of a boy-longs-for-girl thing to provide a reason to care about the characters. Still, I liked the way in which the romantic angle was worked into the film, with the narrative abruptly cutting away to brief flashes of the couple in happier times. (The in-movie reason for this was that the camcorder was taping over footage of a previous date to Coney Island, and bits of the old video can be seen when the camera was stopped and restarted.)

The monsters were effective, and for the most part the filmmakers wisely adopted a less-is-more take: there were only a handful of shots in which we got a good look at them. The main creature was some sort of anorexic, bipedal lizard (hmmm, like the American Godzilla?), and its parasites were nasty, screechy bugs.

Assuming that Cloverfield does as well as its opening night box office take suggests, I think it would be fun to see a “sequel” in which we get a more traditional take on the same events. While that might sound like just another kaiju flick, I think it would have the advantage that we, the audience, would know that even while we’re watching the destruction on the macro level, down on the micro level there are individual people we’ve already met fighting to survive.


September 19th, 2007 No comments

Those born in the days of $200 million blockbuster movies brimming with front-to-back CGI spectacle may be unaware that once there was a time when fantasy flicks delivered much less than promised. I’m not talking about such niceties as a solid plot, witty dialogue or sharp acting; plenty of modern epics fail on those terms. But you can go to the likes of Transformers and be certain that you’ll get all the ear-popping, eye-wrenching action you can handle. Not so much in the ’50s and ’60s, when sci-fi and horror were largely ghetto genres. Budgets were slim, and ambitions were scaled back on these “B” pictures. If a trailer promised destruction on a grand scale, it was very likely that it would be confined to the final reel. The 70 minutes leading up to that fiery, monster-ridden climax would be a lot of talk…talky, talky, talk.

I found myself thinking in those terms after watching Dragon Wars, the American release title for the South Korean hit monster movie D-War. As I previously noted, Dragon Wars has one of the most ass-kicking trailers I’ve seen, promising massive monster-on-military action. And while I think it largely succeeded on that level, it reminded me very much of the early Ray Harryhausen films, which saved most of their thrills (and therefore their scant budgets) for the final third.

Dragon Wars is an odd duck for an Asian monster flick; aside from an expository sequence set in ancient Korea, the majority of it is an English-language picture with an American cast. Not an especially good American cast mind you: for the most part they manage little more than to hit their marks and spew their admittedly atrocious dialogue. Jason Behr, whom I understand was a regular on Roswell, was supposed to be a top reporter for a CNN-like TV news outfit, but came off more like The Daily Show‘s Demetri Martin doing one of his “Trendspotting” riffs. (I was amused both by the small cubicle farm used to represent a major news organization, and by the fact that their ace reporter would be allowed to go on the air with a huge mystical pendant constantly hanging midway down his chest.) Robert Forster, who’s been in approximately one million movies and TV shows, at least looked like he was having a good time as the reincarnated shaman who kept showing up just long enough to keep Demetri Jason from being eaten.

The first third of the film was spent explaining the semi-coherent plot. We were told that every 500 years, a great serpent is rewarded with the power to become a celestial dragon. (I was not sure how the serpents choose which one is so anointed. I presume rock-paper-scissors would not be a viable option.) A girl born with a draconic tattoo carries within her some sort of mystical hoohah that the serpent swallows when she turns twenty. Unfortunately, back in 1507, the evil serpent Buraki sent his army against the village in which she lived, in hopes of gaining ultimate power. Furthermore, the young hero meant to protect her long enough to take her to the place of sacrifice falls in love instead, and the twosome forsake their destiny, instead falling to their deaths when Buraki chases them over a cliff. In the present-day, both the lovers and their wise mentor have been reincarnated in Los Angeles, but Buraki has arisen to claim its prize.

While we did get one special-effects-laden flashback sequence set in 16th-century Korea in which the sinister forces, resembling nothing less than the Gungan Grand Army of The Phantom Menace, storm the village, most of the first hour of the running time was spent listening to a lot of earnest, boring talk about prophecy and mystical hoohahs. Every once in a while Buraki put in a brief appearance, but it’s surprising just how few people noticed or cared that there was a 100-foot snake zipping around L.A.

Once the film’s final third kicked in, the thing really started to cook. It was still impossible to actually give a shit about any of the characters, but damn, Dragon Wars actually delivered its share of monstrous mayhem. There were perhaps ten full minutes of dragonettes and helicopters dueling in the skies while tanks squared off against missile-toting lizards and soldiers mounted on velociraptors.

Buraki was a pretty nifty beast, particularly in a couple of money shots. In one, the colossal serpent slithered down a packed city street, explosively sluicing through traffic. In another, it wound its way around a skyscraper in pursuit of our heroes, only to be chopped off the building in a fusillade of firepower. There have been few giant snakes in giant monsterdom; the only one that comes to mind is Toho Studio’s Manda*, itself something of a traditional Asian dragon. Buraki was a worthy entry, even if he did rather patiently wait for his prey to escape most of the time.

There’s a lot of silliness, both intentional and otherwise in Dragon Wars. For example, I had to laugh when the grand army of evil issued forth from the infamous Bronson Canyon, the L.A. County location used by every low-budget film in need of a cave mouth. (I once spent some time there myself.) It was, by no objective means, a good film. But for the final reel, it fulfilled its own destiny as an entertaining throwback to the B-movies of old.

*Update: My friend Mark points out that I was remiss to leave out Reptilicus, Denmark’s most famous movie monster. I feel chagrined, as that film is a favorite guilty pleasure.

Go, Godzilla!

December 15th, 2005 No comments

This week saw the US DVD release of what is alleged to be the final entry in the Godzilla series, 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. I consider it “alleged” because we’ve heard this one before, most recently after Godzilla’s fatal meltdown in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. (They’ve made six Godzilla films since then, not including the disastrous American remake.)

Like most of the post-Destoroyah films, Godzilla: Final Wars reboots previous continuity. Godzilla has made numerous attacks since his first appearance in ’54, but hasn’t been seen since he was buried in polar ice in a battle with the flying submarine Atragon. (In addition to numerous nods to past Godzilla episodes, Final Wars includes elements from the ’60s Toho Studios sci-fi stories Atragon and Gorath.)

Meanwhile, a variety of mutants, both human and monster, have cropped up. The human mutations have banded into a fighting force against the giant horrors that continue to threaten mankind. This allows for a lot of X-Men meets The Matrix martial arts action that’s strange to find in a Godzila film, but leads to a fun sequence in which humans battle hand-to-claw with the oversized lobster Ebirah.

If anything, Final Wars most resembles the magnum opus of the ’60s Godzilla series, Destroy All Monsters. Both films open with a worldwide series of attacks by an entire menagerie of Toho’s classic kaiju. However, this time humanity is saved by the intervention of aliens from Planet X. Soon, the Xiliens have ingratiated themselves upon the Earthlings, and the UN is redubbed “The Space Nations.” Of course, it wouldn’t be a Godzilla film if their intentions were truly peaceful…

This film is a loopy love letter to the ’60s/’70s Toho monster fests, and much of the action recalls the rubber-suit wrestling matches common to them. One of the highlights is a four-way scrap in which Godzilla, Rodan and King Seesar use the armadillo-like Anguirus as a makeshift soccer ball.

In other respects, Final Wars is something entirely new to the series, with its rock-music soundtrack, fast-paced editing and Adam Ant alien leader (Kazuki Kitamura in one of the great scenery-chewing performances). And for the first time, Toho ventures outside Japan with brief location sequences in Sydney and New York.

The monster roll call is a treat for old-school kaiju fans, with nearly the entire roster of classic Godzilla friends and foes: Minya, Godzilla’s offspring; Rodan the supersonic pterodactyl; Mothra the (what else?) giant moth; the aforementioned Anguirus and King Seesar (the latter a humanoid foo-dog last seen in ’74’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla); Manda the sea serpent (from Atragon); the crustacean Ebirah (Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster); cyborg whatzit Gigan (who once teamed with the cockroach-like Megalon); Hedorah, the walking pile of sludge (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster); Kumonga the spider and Kamacuras the mantis (both from Son of Godzilla).

The most amusing inclusion is that of the American Godzilla, now downgraded to another Xilien pawn and renamed “Zilla.” The fight between Godzilla and the pretender to his throne is kept deliberately short.

One of the most common complaints is that the majority of Godzilla’s opponents are dispatched too quickly, but given that there are seven distinct battles, not to mention numerous other scenes of mayhem, it’s probably for the best that they weren’t dragged out. After all, the real showdown is the final four-way tag team match with Godzilla and Mothra against Gigan and the mysterious Monster X.

It’s all giddy, nonsensical fun, not to be taken seriously for even a moment.

I Love You, Godzilla

November 11th, 2004 No comments

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Godzilla, king of the movie monsters. Through 27 feature films–with the 28th, Godzilla Final Wars due later this year–the reptilian titan stomped his way across Japan and straight into my heart.

My love affair with Godzilla began as an outgrowth of my early interest in prehistoric animals. By the time I’d reached kindergarten, I’d memorized many dinosaur names and already had plans of becoming a paleontologist. So, what could be better to a young fan than the biggest dinosaur of them all?

In addition, there was certainly an appeal to the notion of putting on a rubber reptile suit and stamping through a model of Tokyo. Even back then, I was aware that there was a sweaty Japanese man inside Godzilla, but that didn’t diminish my infatuation.

It was difficult being a young Godzilla fan back in the ’70s. In the days before VCRs, I had to depend upon the vagaries of Chicago UHF TV station schedules to catch Japanese monster movies, sometimes well after bedtime. Other times, I had to convince my dad to take me to a drive-in or a kiddie matinee. (I have to admit a certain grown-up guilt over forcing him to watch so many lousy movies.)

Furthermore, information about Godzilla wasn’t readily available. Sci-fi film books tended to be dismissive of the Japanese efforts, and even the groundbreaking fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland offered maddeningly incomplete or inaccurate articles.

Things have largely improved as I’ve grown up. Numerous books, magazines and websites have fully detailed the history of Godzilla’s friends and foes. Vinyl toys of virtually the entire Toho Studios bestiary have been imported to U.S. specialty stores, finally satisfying the frustrated eight-year-old within me.

On the other hand, the movies themselves rarely show up on TV anymore, and usually only on obscure cable channels I don’t receive. DVD releases have been spotty; many Japanese monster films are still MIA and others have been produced as low-quality discs.

Thankfully, there’s been some improvement on that latter front. Sony recently released three of the ’70s Godzilla flicks on DVD, and more are coming soon.

Watching Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) again last month took me back 30 years. As an adult Godzilla fan, I’ve tended to look down on the period in which the Big G–who began as a clear metaphor for the destructive power of the atom bomb–served as a kid-friendly defender of humanity. However, I have to admit that there’s something very compelling about this kinder, gentler monster who rises from the ocean depths to combat the menace of pollution.

Last week brought the release of Godzilla: Save the Earth for the Playstation 2, allowing me at last to stage my own fantasy match-ups between (for example) Megalon and Megaguirus, Jet Jaguar and MechaGodzilla 3.

My inner eight-year-old approves.