by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Co. released director Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, an apocalyptic reflection about the dawning of the Atomic Age and the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla certainly didn’t shy away from delivering extended sequences of earth-shaking destruction, but the devastation was measured against absorbing human drama that made the film all the more eternal. In the wake of its release, Godzilla sparked “Kaiju” (Japanese for “giant monster”) fever around the world, leaving audiences with a hankering for more monster mayhem. In 1998, after multiple sequels that grew increasingly campy in quality, director Roland Emmerich decided to revive the king of monsters for American audiences, but the results proved disastrous and sent Godzilla sulking into the deepest depths of the Pacific for sixteen long years. After years of rumors and speculation about a new Godzilla movie in the works, we finally have director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, an old-fashioned blockbuster in the vein of early science-fiction creature features. Taking its sweet time to work up to the monster smashing and bashing, Godzilla 2014 goes the route of Honda’s ’54 original and injects both emotional weight and jittery nuclear paranoia right into the film’s heart. It’s an admiral attempt from a director whose only other directing credit is a low-budget indie movie from 2010 called Monsters. Despite some flailing human drama and more than a few avoidable clichés, Godzilla 2014 is an exhilarating rush that brings the legendary beast back to the silver screen with must-see style.
Godzilla 2014 begins in 1999 in Janjira, Japan, with nuclear physicist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) discovering strange seismic readings surrounding the nuclear power plant he works for. Despite Joe’s warnings to his superiors, work continues as usual at the plant, but when a tremor causes an explosion, the plant crumbles into ruin and sparks a mass exodus from the area. In all the chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandra (played by Juliette Binoche), is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation and is killed. In present day, Joe remains in Japan, convinced that the government is hiding something about that terrible day. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), diffuses bombs for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son. Upon returning home from a tour of duty, Ford is called to Japan to bail Joe out of jail for trespassing in the quarantine zone. Joe presents Ford with startling new information that suggests that the government has indeed been covering something up. The two travel back to Janjira to do a bit more snooping and collect some of Joe’s old data, but local authorities discover them and take them into custody. Joe and Ford are brought to the ruined nuclear plant, which is housing an egg-like sack that is emitting the same seismic readings Joe picked up on in 1999. After the egg hatches and produces a giant winged creature, the Brody’s team up with two scientists, Dr. Serizawa (played by Ken Wantanabe) and Dr. Graham (played by Sally Hawkins), and the military to track the monster down and kill it. As the military rushes to stop the creature before it can claim more lives, another similar beast is discovered in the Nevada desert. With military strikes proving useless against the creatures, only one hope remains to restore order—Godzilla.
For fans of old-fashion summer blockbusters and classic drive-in monster movies, Edwards’ Godzilla is a gift from the cinematic gods. The opening hour puts most of its emphasis on character development and exposition, teasing us from the opening credits with tiny little glimpses of the title beast. Of course, that isn’t to say that the opening hour of Godzilla is completely monster free. As the film’s promotional campaign has stomped on, it’s become increasingly clear that Godzilla isn’t the only beast turning cities to pebbles. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein pit Godzilla against not one, but two eight-legged terrors nicknamed MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. The MUTOs are truly something to behold, and it is best not to reveal all of their secrets here, but just know that these critters are capable of some major carnage. To up the horror level, Edwards cleverly masks the MUTOs before really allowing us a good glimpse of them in broad daylight. The first time we see a MUTO, its concealed in flashing emergency lights as it fights its way out of a containment cage. From there, they are largely left in the dark, with helicopter spotlights and fiery wreckage illuminating their intimidating frame. It’s extreme effective and it keeps us strung along, always wanting just a little bit more of them. Keeping his monsters concealed also allows Edwards room to really deliver a grand finale that is the very definition of incredible.
While the first hour of Godzilla is a bit slower than most mainstream audience members may be used to, Edwards understands why we plunked down our hard earned money for a seat in the theater. The film’s special effects are worth the price of admission alone, as there are some truly epic set pieces that will blow you into the lobby of the theater. The first encounter between one of the MUTOs and Godzilla is something that will give you a sharp chill of excitement, especially as Godzilla belts out a might roar that shakes your every organ. The rest of the encounter plays out mostly on television screens, but it still looks might impressive even at a distance. Some of the other awe-inducing set pieces include Godzilla’s watery arrival that leaves the streets of Honolulu flooded, a devastated Las Vegas that was briefly glimpsed in the trailer, a fiery train track encounter between a group of soldiers and one hungry MUTO, and a terrifying showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge that leaves soldiers gaping in horror at jets tumbling out of the overcast skies. Considering that this is Edwards’ first foray into multi-million dollar blockbuster territory, he handles it like a professional and he uses the moments as wicked teases for a final act that stomps the puny human dramatics. I won’t reveal much about the final royal rumble, but know that it is everything a monster movie aficionado could possibly hope for. It’s a cinematic achievement that truly makes you feel like you’re in the action, darting between the feet of warring gods who are determined to rip each other to ribbons.
As early reviews of Godzilla have poured in, much has been made about the scripts one-dimensional characters and the phoned-in performances from some respectable names. Leading the pack is Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, who really isn’t given much screen time. He gets a small window to show off that explosive temper his fans have come to know and love, but he also gives Godzilla some misty-eyed heartbreak that leaves you wishing there was more of him. Taylor-Johnson is second in command as Ford, a formulaic action hero who manages to make it out of every single life-threatening moment with a bit of mud on his face, a slight limp, and a bloody nick on his forehead. Together, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson make an appealing on-screen duo, but their partnership is short lived. Olsen is passable as Elle, Ford’s pretty wife who is simply asked to hug her son close, worry about Ford, push a hospital stretcher around, and run in fright from an advancing Godzilla. Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa mostly stands around in amazement of the death and destruction around him, but he is entertaining as he ominously explains Godzilla’s backstory and suggests that the monsters should duke it out. Sally Hawkins is wasted in the background role of Dr. Graham, a character who mostly dashes around after Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz, the cookie-cutter military man in charge of nuking the rampaging abominations into ash.
The biggest question surrounding Edwards’ Godzilla is whether or not American audiences are ready to embrace these towering monsters again. Last year’s Pacific Rim—which was director Guillermo del Toro’s giddy comic book tribute to Toho’s line of legendary kaiju—suggested that they might not be, as it opened to low numbers despite critical acclaim. While Godzilla’s marketing campaign has sparked mysterious intrigue, it stands as a reinvention that remains fiercely loyal to the shadowy agony and radioactive paranoia of the original. Does this Godzilla come with the same complexity and depth as Honda’s original? Well, it re-establishes the big guy’s atomic roots, and it dares to echo recent tragedies such as nuclear meltdowns, earthquakes, and tsunamis. There’s no doubt that this Godzilla is thought provoking, even when it transitions into drive-in mayhem in the second act. As far as Toho’s most loyal fans go, some may be disappointed by the lack of screen time Godzilla receives, but I truly think it works, especially when we look back at Atomic Age classics that concealed their monsters until it was absolutely necessary to show them off. In addition, monster fans will also get a big kick out of the subtle tributes to other Toho Kaiju. (Check out the name of Wantanabe’s character!) Overall, while the character drama may not be especially noteworthy, Godzilla 2014 stands proudly as an extraordinarily grand piece of monster movie making. It is guaranteed to wow audience members of all ages, and send off those with a soft spot for classic monster movies with a nostalgic adrenaline rush.
Mini-Review: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
by Steve Habrat
In the radioactive fallout from Toho Co.’s 1954 smash Godzilla, the famed Kaiju production company slowly began adding several other massive monstrosities to their popular creature feature line. Starting with 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, Toho added the spiked Anguirus, a giant Pterandon called Rodan, the colorful insect called Mothra, legendary Skull Island ape King Kong, and the three-headed space dragon referred to as King Ghidorah aka Monster Zero. After botching their first two face-off flicks—55’s Godzilla Raids Again and 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla—Toho returned to form with 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a smart and satisfying smack down that more than made up for the cheap slugfests that came before it. Later that same year, Toho topped themselves with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a whacked-out B-movie that is probably Toho’s strangest Kaiju film since 1961’s Mothra. Directed by Kaiju kingpin Ishiro Honda, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster features extraterrestrials, handfuls of eccentric assassins, shoot-outs, and FOUR monster engaging in an epic brawl that is sure to tickle diehard fans of Toho’s monster movies. It also introduces us to the rampaging Ghidorah, a dragon from the stars that gives Godzilla a run for his money.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster begins with an aerial assassination attempt made on Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (played by Akiko Wakabayashi) by her uncle (played by Shin Otomo). Seconds before her private jet is blown to bits, the princess sees strange lights in the sky that coax her to jump out of the plane. Meanwhile, a group of scientists led by Professor Murai (played by Hiroshi Koizumi) witness a meteor crash land at the base of a nearby mountain. The group sets out to begin studying the glowing meteor, which also appears to be highly magnetized. Several days after the assassination attempt on the princess, local authorities are stunned to see the princess on television claiming to be a martian from Mars. The princess begins claiming that Rodan and Godzilla will both awaken and launch devastating attacks on nearby cities. The general public scoffs at the predictions, but they are horrified when Rodan and Godzilla both reappear and begin wrecking havoc. Fearing that another assassination attempt may be made on the princess, police detective Naoko Shino (played by Yosuke Natsuki) sets out to find the princess and get her to safety. Things go from bad to worse when Professor Murai witnesses the glowing meteor sudden split open and unleash Ghidorah, a three-headed beast that begins terrorizing nearby cities. Left with no other way to combat the seemingly unstoppable Ghidorah, government officials are forced to turn to the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), tiny fairies that are capable of summoning Mothra from Infant Island. With Mothra on their side, the government encourages the Shobijin to convince Mothra to enlist the help of Godzilla and Rodan to stop the three-headed dragon.
Judging from the lengthy plot overview, it isn’t difficult to realize that there is quite a bit going on within Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. There are an abundance of characters, sub-plots, and epic set pieces that suggest Toho spared no expense with this project. Yet Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa manage to keep a firm grip on the story, and more importantly, unite these four warring beasts in a surprisingly satisfying manner. With four towering monsters stomping their way through an measly hour and thirty minute B-movie, it’s natural to worry that there may be one too many beasts lumbering their way through the stunning miniature cities. However, after watching the four iconic monsters converge for their epic confrontation, you couldn’t imagine this fight playing out any other way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is the sequence in which Mothra attempts to convince Rodan and Godzilla to join forces with her to banish the space dragon. It’s a humorous little stretch that finds the monsters calling one another names and lecturing each other on their duties to defend earth from this cosmic invader.
Ducking, dodging, and prophesizing their way through the debris are a number of characters that stand out in the flurry of destruction. Wakabayashi’s possessed princess gives dazed warnings about the threats from underneath our feet and high above our heads. Natsuki’s Shino is our valiant hero who protects the princess from Malness, a pulpy assassin who is always sporting a pair of menacing sunglasses. And then we have The Peanuts, who charm their way through their pint-sized roles as the Shobijin. While the acting, writing, and directing are all top notch, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster’s downfall ends up being its lack of anything substantial to say. Where Toho’s previous Kaiju films reflected deeply upon a world gripped in atomic paranoia, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster shamelessly turns its attention towards light-hearted comic book spectacle. Overall, while it really should have been an overstuffed catastrophe, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster turns out to be a monster movie just crazy enough to work. It may not have much to say, but this all-star monster mash makes it essential viewing for anyone who loves drive-in B-movies or the Godzilla series.
by Steve Habrat
In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Studios sparked a giant monster craze with their brooding epic Godzilla. While there was plenty of emphasis on stomping and smashing, Godzilla also took time to focus on a likable group of a characters, and dared to reflect upon a nation still coming to terms with the devastation of the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the Kaiju craze in full effect, Toho quickly got busy working on a follow-up to Godzilla. Replacing original director Ishiro Honda with Motoyoshi Oda, Toho’s Godzilla Raids Again was a step backwards for the radioactive beast, as a good majority of the film was interested in cheap cardboard destruction and monster-on-monster brawls that resembled an unintentionally hilarious slapping match. Godzilla Raids Again was a success for Toho, but reaction from audiences and critics was far from positive, sending Godzilla off on an extended hiatus. Despite Godzilla showing signs of fatigue, Toho was still busy cooking up another beast of the Atomic Age. In 1956, audiences were introduced to Rodan, the first color effort from Toho Studios. At an hour and fifteen minutes, the short-but-sweet Rodan is an aerial thrill ride that still shudders over thoughts of the bomb, but also taps into the UFO paranoia sweeping across the globe.
Rodan picks up in a small mining community of Kitamatsu, where two miners, Yoshi and Goro, have recently gone missing after a freak flood. When a rescue party led by Shigeru Kwamura (played by Kenji Sahara) begins searching the mineshafts, they discover Yoshi, barely clinging to life after apparently being slashed by an extremely sharp object. With no signs of Goro anywhere inside the mine, the local authorities believe he may have had something to do with Yoshi’s injuries. Believing Goro is on the run, authorities are placed around entrances and exits of the mine, but it doesn’t take long for several more men to turn up with the same injuries as Yoshi. One evening, Shigeru visits Kiyo (played by Yumi Shirakawa), Goro’s grief-stricken sister, in an attempt to console her about the accusations aimed at her brother. During the meeting, Shigeru and Kiyo are suddenly and viciously attacked by a giant larva-like creature called a Meganulon. Local authorities arrive just in time to scare the creature off, and they pursue it back to the mines where it is revealed that there are countless more of the creatures. While the locals scramble to kill off the Meganulon, another threat quickly reveals itself in the form of Rodan, an enormous winged pteranodon that can fly at breakneck speeds and is capable of massive amounts of destruction.
Of the three major Kaiju films released by Toho between 1954 and 1956, Rodan is the effort with the least amount of character development. It doesn’t boast the rich love triangle that we clung to in Godzilla, and it doesn’t feature the complex buddy formula that kept Godzilla Raids Again from being a total disaster. While you’d think the light approach to the characters would set Rodan up for failure, director Ishiro Honda makes sure to keep the adrenaline flowing. It’s a non-stop rush of excitement that refuses to let up. The aerial battle between JASDF and Rodan are all appropriately high-octane, even if there are a few instances where the dated special effects take you out of the action. Where Rodan really shines is in the final stretch of the film, where the winged behemoth hovers over Fukuoka and levels buildings with each flap of its wings. The detailed miniature work in this sequence is undeniably remarkable as buildings crumble into dust, cars roll through the streets, and debris tumbles down into a waiting river. While this sequence features quite a bit to admire, Honda is also capable of infusing these sequences of destruction with a goosebump-inducing shiver that works its way up and down your spine. It may lack the darkened, air raid-like attacks in the original Godzilla, but the whistling fallout wind kicked up by the monster’s wings is evocative enough to make your arm hair stand on end.
There is no denying that the epic levels of destruction keep the film’s entertainment level high, but the main attraction of any Toho Kaiju film are the monstrous abominations that kick up the mayhem. After the addition of the somewhat dull Anguirus in Godzilla Raids Again, Toho redeems themselves with not one, but two Rodans and an army of shrieking and slithering Meganulon. Predating the enormous caterpillar that wormed its way through Mothra, the Meganulon are bug-eyed monstrosities that emit ear-piercing calls and attack with a flesh-tearing savagery that really makes up for their cartoonish appearance. While the Meganulon’s are a fun little appetizer, the main course are the Rodans that glide mightily through the skies. With their leathery wings, pointed beaks, and sleek horns that protrude from their heads, the Rodans are a spooky addition to Toho’s famous line of monsters. What makes them even creepier are what they are meant to reflect. Much like Godzilla was created as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, Rodan was created in response to the UFO paranoia of the 1950s. From a distance, the Rodans resemble an unidentified flying object darting through the clouds, as skittish jet pilots frantically try to make sense of what they are seeing. In the middle of the film, a montage of scenes featuring terrified Japanese citizens staring towards the sky and pointing in awe are smartly tuned in to the reports of saucer-like objects descending from the heavens and quietly revealing themselves. When Rodan lands in the middle of a city and begins a reign of terror, the famed Kaiju seems to take the baton from Godzilla and subtly mirrors the fear of the H-bomb.
While Rodan finds Toho getting their Kaiju line back on the right track, the film isn’t without a few flaws. Some of the scenes of Rodan gliding over the heads of curious civilians are simply stock footage filler of jets leaving contrails in the bright blue sky. With all the time and money clearly put into the film, you’d think that Honda would have refused the distracting stock footage contrails for something a bit more inventive and eye-catching. Another complaint would have to be the final minutes of the film, which are essentially a montage of explosions and rockets being fired into a volcano. It becomes increasingly clear that this fiery sequence is Honda’s way of filling out the runtime of the film. However, the explosions fail to turn our empathy for the suffering Rodans to ash, and it does send you away feeling sorry for the poor creatures despite the amount of death and destruction they brought in their wake. Overall, the colorful Rodan may not be quite as somber as the original Godzilla, but the pop art action and the thoughtfulness put into the script makes this one of the more terrifying monster movies to emerge from the mushroom cloud. A minor Kaiju classic!
Rodan is available on DVD.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
by Steve Habrat
Two years after the abysmal King Kong vs. Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda returned to the giant monster genre with yet another installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Enter 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a massively entertaining and thoroughly satisfying monster fight that more than makes up for what Honda delivered in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Once again, the emphasis in Mothra vs. Godzilla is on the earth shaking action and the epic showdown, but Honda dares to let his this film be a bit more thoughtful than the last two Godzilla efforts. With this offering, Honda is attacking big business greed, but he does it in the most colorful and exciting way possible. Thankfully, Honda never forgets why we are watching Mothra vs. Godzilla and this time around, he really makes sparks fly. Unlike the odd-couple pairing of King Kong and Godzilla, this effort actually seems a bit more plausible, mostly because these two hideous titans are coming from the same monster family rather than two separate cinematic universes. No, these are abominations of the bomb, two radioactive gods who mean to dish out some serious hurt and not simply toss boulders at each other while doing the twist.
After a typhoon washes a giant egg onto a Japanese beach, the local citizens descend upon the beach to marvel at its exotic beauty. Among the admirers is news reporter Ichiro Sakai (played by Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (played by Yuriko Hoshi), who are both determined to get some answers about the big blue wonder from Professor Miura (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), who has arrived to study the egg. It doesn’t take long for local businessman Kumayama (played by Yoshifumi Tajima), a bigwig at Happy Enterprises, to show up and declare that he has purchased the egg. Pretty soon, Kumayama meets with Happy Enterprises CEO Jiro Torahata (played by Kenji Sahara) to draw up plans to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. During the meeting, the two businessmen are visited by the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), two pint sized twin girls who claim to be from Infant Island. The Shobijin explain that the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and that they wish to take the egg back to their island. Kumayama and Torahata ignore the Shobijin’s pleas and try to capture them in an attempt to exploit the tiny girls. The Shobijin narrowly escape the attack and they soon bump into Sakai, Nakanishi, and Professor Miura, who agree to help the girls get their egg back. Meanwhile, it appears that the egg wasn’t the only thing washed to shore. To the horror of the locals, Godzilla has re-emerged and is on the rampage. As Godzilla nears the egg and threatens to destroy it, the aging Mothra arrives to protect her what belongs to her.
While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bring RKO’s King Kong and Toho’s Godzilla together, the film had a hard time making this viewer buy into the fact that those two giant beasts were mortal enemies. It’s easy to see why Honda and Toho thought it might be a good idea to have these legends meet up (Kong battled dinosaurs in his first solo outing), but the two behemoths were from drastically different cinematic universes that didn’t compliment each other in the slightest. Thankfully, Mothra vs. Godzilla more than makes up for that slapdash effort with solid special effects and a completely plausible union, even for a genre film such as this. The appeal of the Toho monster movies is their tacky special effects, but King Kong vs. Godzilla really pushed it to the limit. Anyone who calls themselves a fan of “kaiju” movies knows to expect some cheese but that effort delivered moldy cheese that had been left out in the hot sun for weeks. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, Honda smartly pulls his monsters out of Japanese cities and has their battle take place largely in the scenic countryside. Godzilla still attacks a military base and he can’t resist crushing a few small villages, but widespread destruction remains on the sidelines. It’s a nice change of pace for the series that has relied on the gimmick of the radioactive dinosaur trudging his way into a crowded metropolis and smashing everything to pebbles.
Another major slip-up in King Kong vs. Godzilla were the monsters themselves, which look like they were done up by a distracted ten year old boy. Kong’s face looked like a swirl of brown and red and the rest of costume looked like it was a crewmember’s old Halloween costume complete with cardboard claws. Here, we have nothing that comes remotely close to that eyesore. Mothra looks spectacular as she soars around Godzilla’s head and grabs at his tail, a ferocious lioness protecting her young cubs. Even the first glimpse we get of her here is pretty chilling, which is surprising because she had a hard time making an impression in her first solo outing. When Mothra’s slimy young come slithering out of their big blue egg, the clash really gets good as they splash their way towards Godzilla, who has stomped off to feast on a handful of terrified school children stuck on an island. They nip on his tail and strategically spit their silk spray on the roaring giant to freeze him in place. As far as Godzilla himself goes, the big guy hasn’t looked this menacing and nasty since we first saw him in his shadowy black and white debut. When he descends upon the scattering villagers, he is welcomed by menacing horns that could easily have influenced the legendary score of Jaws. He is a force to be reckoned with, one that is out to cause serious pain, which allows us to really root for Mothra to put this radioactive abomination in his place.
Just when you think that Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t get any better, Honda decides to neatly tuck a very human story inside all that gloves-off fury. The characters here are very similar to those found in Mothra, but there doesn’t seem to be a bumbling one is sight. Takarada and Hoshi have plenty of chemistry as our two warm and surprisingly heroic leads. They team up with Koizumi’s wise Professor Miura on an exotic detour to Infant Island, which allows Honda to reflect a bit more on the atomic testing. Tajima and Sahara are perfect as the cartoonish money-hungry businessmen, who see a disaster as a quick way to make a buck. Watching them mistreat the pitiful Shobijin really pierces your heart, especially when they try to capture the girls and put them on display. It appears that sometimes, greedy humans can be even more monstrous than any radioactive giant with fire breath. Overall, while it wouldn’t have taken much to really make up for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla goes above and beyond to erase all the bad memories of that film from the viewer’s mind. It is well-paced, intelligent, action packed, vibrant, moody, ornate, and carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. This is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla sequel.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.