Godzilla vs. TriStar | From Parody to Homage | ... And Back to Parody
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Before I went to see Godzilla 2000, I'd started drafting an essay in which I begged for an end to the Godzilla series.
Don't misunderstand: I've been a fan since childhood, and I have tapes of practically every rubber-suit movie ever made. But I felt that the G franchise had been worked to death, and that the trend in 90's monster film-making had been downright embarrassing. In my opinion, only the new Gamera series had shown any signs of intelligence and respect for its audience, and that series had been (mercifully) retired before decadence set in.
By contrast, movies like Toho's Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla or Mothra II not only featured horrible scripts, but worse, skimped heavily on the special effects -- boasting visible wire work which Eiji Tsuburaya would never have permitted. The "environmental" messages proffered by these movies were simplistic, valueless pap -- particularly in the new Mothra series, where the message seemed to be, "Do whatever you want now, because a God will come and straighten everything out"... a message more in the spirit of James Watt than Ralph Nader. The "what I learned from the monster" speech at the end of Space Godzilla actually had a "scientist" warn about the dangers of polluting space with radiation, as though somehow she were unaware that space is full of colossal radiation sources... [OK, this may only have been in the US dub. I haven't seen this one in Japanese - WTL] Yes, I thought: the time has come for bringing the series to an end.
Now, having seen Godzilla 2000 (even in the badly-dubbed U.S. theatrical release), I have to admit I have some hope for the series after all. If this is the sort of film they're going to make for the new era of Godzilla films, then I believe they have a chance of making up for the last twenty-some years of drivel.
Awkward script, missed opportunities, silly villains and botched special effects notwithstanding, I absolutely LOVE this movie. And what I love most about it is that it doesn't go out of its way to reveal its secrets. It contains a wealth of detail which is totally extraneous to the story, but which builds a sense of real craftsmanship, and makes the film as a whole a very rewarding experience.
|Godzilla vs. TriStar
First and above all, Godzilla 2000 makes fun of the American Godzilla (1998).
The American movie opened with an homage to the Japanese monster films of the sixties and seventies, by using one of the great kaiju klichés: the monster attacking a Japanese fishing boat. Gojira opened that way; so did Gojira 1984, War of the Gargantuas, and... oh, a bunch of others (I'll make a list some day). Godzilla 2000 goes one step beyond. It opens with the other great cliché: the monster comes face to face with a lighthouse. This is actually the motive that started the whole genre, in Ray Bradbury's short story The Foghorn... which inspired The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which in turn provided the inspiration for Gojira. It also featured pretty prominently in the original Gamera. Here, the film makers start out with the lighthouse... and then they give us the fishing ship, too, already in the monster's jaws (The shot in which the boat appears outside the lighthouse windows, seemingly floating in space, is a wonderful moment; but it also reminds me of the scene in the U.S. Godzilla, when the beast passes by the windows of the newsroom)!
The main title sequence follows immediately, superimposed on Godzilla's enormous eye. This is a blatant reference to the "really big eye" ad campaign for the U.S. Godzilla: since the Tatopoulos re-design was supposed to be a big secret (cough, cough -- I'm sure they had their reasons), one of the posters they released in the months prior to the film's opening featured only a huge reptilian eyeball:
The subsequent narrow escape (actually two narrow escapes!) of the lighthouse keeper, as Godzilla-debris falls all around him, is a reference to Hank Azaria's big scene in the American movie, when he ends up right between Godzilla's toes.
Shortly After Godzilla's ememrgence, there is a scene set up exactly like the climax of the American film: a scientist and his obnoxious reporter girlfriend are trapped, in a car, in a tunnel, with the Big G just outside. In the U.S. version, Godzilla can't get into the tunnel -- although he's been shown in previous scenes to be a burrower -- and the heroes escape by suddenly turning on their high beams and driving out while the monster is stunned. This scene, of course, was ridiculous; and the Japanese have fun with it by showing what the REAL Godzilla would do to a car trapped in a tunnel. A sudden flash of light doesn't distract the monster and allow the heroes to escape: it enrages him, and he comes tearing after the car. Naturally he makes short work of the tunnel in his pursuit...
When Godzilla emerges at Tokai, he rises from the water in a scene which is again a restatement of a scene in the Emmerich movie. He rises from the bay in a huge wave, from which his spiky back eventually protrudes...
Godzilla is attacked by military helicopters and airplanes, in a display of aerial prowess which contrasts sharply with the incompetence of the U.S. military presented in Godzilla '98. Special armor-piercing missiles are fired at the creature in groups of four... probably a reference to the two volleys of four rockets which dispatched the American beast [NB: watching this movie again I see I goofed. The missiles aren't fired in groups of four; it simply looks that way because two trucks with two missiles each fit the screen. - WTL ]. These Japanese missiles actually do some grievous (if PG-rated) damage to the monster, but true to form, the real Godzilla recovers quickly.
Several scenes involving the huge flying saucer seem to be jokes at the expense of Roland Emmerich's other cinematic disaster, Independence Day. The UFO in this film turns the tables on Emmerich's film by having the aliens sneak their way into the earthlings' Mac computers, rather than the other way around! Of course, this is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 'Millennium Bug'.
Then there's the eventual shape assumed by Orga, who wants to be Godzilla but can't quite manage it [hah!]... he looks like a grotesque parody of the American Godzilla, more and more so as his transformation proceeds:
|From Parody to Homage
The movie also makes several explicit references to the original movie Gojira (1954), especially in the opening attack sequence. First of all, when the beast destroys the electrical tower by the lighthouse, it echoes Godzilla's destruction of a similar tower in his first movie... the scene is so dark it might as well be in black and white, and the sparks of electricity play eerie shadows across the monster's leathery skin. This scene, like many others in the movie and most of the similar sequences in Ishiro Honda's original, is shot from a human's-eye point of view, giving a real sense of the monster's colossal bulk.
A scene slightly later in the same attack shows Godzilla towering over Nemuro, a town in North Japan where the buildings are mostly small and low to the ground... like Tokyo was in 1954. A fire engine rushes past, bringing to mind a similar truck destroyed in the first film... then we see Godzilla's massive form tearing through a grid of power wires, in a moment literally repeated from the original. The movie captures a sense of awe and terror at the monster's appearance, which has been missing from almost all the sequels.
|... And Back to Parody
Not only does the movie take the stuffing out of the American Godzilla, it does a nice, subtle job of making fun of the Heisei Godzilla movies, too. What makes this all the more remarkable is that the director of Godzilla 2000 also directed several of the more successful Heisei films, as well as other fantasy films in a similar vein. Takao Okawara here shows a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Remember G-Force? That huge, over-budgeted multinational task force that squandered billions of dollars on ineffective, increasingly ludicrous super-weapons? The group that built huge, un-aerodynamic flying robots and "freeze lasers", none of which did much good? Well, in this movie, the "G-Force" consists of two rival entities: one a small, struggling private enterprise, led by a scientist and his 10-year-old daughter, which gets funding by selling Godzilla prediction data for use in business and insurance decisions; and the other a massive, government-funded supercorporation that doesn't have a clue (don't we all know a few of those!).
Dr. Shinoda's small operation has its headquarters in an attic. Actually, it's over his family's distilling company -- a charming detail which is never mentioned in the script; you really have to stay alert to pick up on it. His tiny band is known as the "Godzilla Prediction Network", and I'd be very surprised if that isn't a dig at the awful "psychic" sub-plots of the Heisei Godzilla movies. Shinoda is that rarity in sci-fi movies, a believeable scientist. It's true, he has a habit of taking his initial results at face value, and he likes to make snap judgments before all the facts are in, but that's just a dramatic device to speed up the action. We almost always see him working. He has to struggle for funds to keep his outfit going, and does all the leg-work himself. Sure, the "science" he's working with is pretty shaky, but at least he's doing something, and not just babbling about life forces and pyramids.
The offensively overstated "message"of the Heisei movies was:
quasi-occult pseudoscience goooood.
(They also had a distinct animosity towards big corporations, just like American movies, and while that may be a justifiable attitude in many ways, it's more than a little hypocritical coming from the monolithic Japanese entertainment industry). Godzilla 2000 has a much worthier moral, one which gives a modern spin to the message of the original Gojira, namely: that scientific progress carries with it a price in human terms, and it's far better to proceed cautiously while considering the ethical implications, than to charge ahead looking for short-term profit.
However, in establishing that message, Godzilla 2000 goes further into character than any movie in the series since the original. The ethical Dr. Shinoda isn't exempt from the commercial pressures of modern science; nor does he hesitate to cheat the large corporation when he needs its assistance. What's more, though he's clearly given the Godzilla matter much consideration, he may be wrong: as his arch-rival, Katagiri, points out, attempting to understand and cope with Godzilla rather than destroying him could mean tremendous loss of life. The ambiguity of the issue is good; real problems such as the problem of nuclear technology are complex and many-sided, so if we are to read the movie symbolically, it's good that the symbols aren't drawn too clearly for us.
Shinoda's counterpart at the Godzilla Sciences Corporation... er, no: the Crisis Center, isn't a bad guy; he's presented as being too naive and too focused on the practical aspect of his work to have given much though to the consequences. We're led to believe that, like Oppenheimer after the A-bomb, he may yet gain a wider understanding of the implications of his study.
Then again, the villain of the piece, Katagiri, is a live-action anime figure. He has no depth at all, and in fact is dressed, voiced and blocked exactly as though he were a cartoon character. He works pretty effectively as a stock "heavy", but to me he calls to mind two other possibilities... first, he could be a satirical swipe at the poor characterizations of the Heisei films; and he could also be the anti-Serizawa -- Honda's tormented hero looked forward to the doomed, tragic anti-heroes of anime as clearly as Katagiri is derived from them.
There are some bits played for pure comedy, which unfortunately don't translate very well... and I wish someone would explain them to me:
I don't mean to imply that there isn't an awful lot of nonsense in Godzilla 2000. There are, as usual in Japanese monster films, plot holes large enough to drive a giant radioactive lizard through. The dubbing for the U.S. release was deliberately camped up, featuring Japanese shopowners exclaiming in Yiddish, lines from classic movies like Patton and Dr. Strangelove, and a re-written set of final lines that make no sense whatsoever. However, in one or two cases, the inserted lines are an improvement -- for instance, when a sailor asks one of the scientists if they shouldn't move the ship away from the giant rock-spacecraft that's slowly moving down to crush them; American audiences would have rebelled if this line had not been given to them. And even in the original version, we have the usual schtick about escaping from an exploding building; an alien invader that seems to also design web pages, and which broadcasts invasion plans that look more like Apple computer ads than anything else; and a spacecraft that looks for the world like the fake nose in the "Throatwobbler Mangrove" sketch from Monty Python ("That's not even a proper nose... look: polystyrene!").
Still, there's never been a Godzilla film since the original that worked so well on so many different levels. I'm looking forward to new Godzilla installments with an enthusiasm I haven't experienced since I was a kid in the early seventies. I'm hoping they'll work a little harder on their script next time, and avoid some of the tedious "action-movie" stereotypes they threw into this one. I'm guessing we'll be seeing more of a little boy we glimpse briefly in Godzilla's opening attack: he's shown looking in amazement out a window at the Nemuro train station, before his mother drags him away. There's no real reason to have included this shot unless the little boy has some importance in future installments.
I'm also hoping they'll at last come up with a distinctive musical identity for the new Godzilla. Akira Ifukube did more to establish the character of Godzilla over the years, through his music, than any other individual in the history of monster movie production. The kaiju movie genre owes as much to him as to Ishiro Honda, Tomoyuki Tanaka or Eiji Tsuburaya. However, it's time for a change.
No other composer has been able to create music so perfectly tailored to the genre as Ifukube did. David Arnold tried in the American Godzilla, giving the monster a menacing leitmotif consisting of a descending fourth and minor second. He also gave the monster a soaring, romantic melody, intended to represent his majesty as a force of nature. Unfortunately, he used this Big Tune not only for the monster's first complete appearance (from under the street right in front of Matthew Broderick), but also for Godzilla's death, where it was utterly inappropriate. A lot of people noticed that the theme, however beautiful, just didn't match its context, so critics were given one more reason to take the whole movie to task.
Most of the music in Godzilla 2000 is by Takayuki Hattori, who had also scored Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla. Hattori's score for the earlier film was the best and most memorable part of the movie (not that that's saying much). His music is broadly in the international "movie music" style; pleasant, sometimes mildly contrapuntal, but lacking Ifukube's powerful personality. Ifukube's Godzilla-motive is used briefly in Godzilla 2000, and it just serves to point out to us how much less interesting and distinctive the rest of the music is. With Ifukube's cues come memories of all the movies that have come before, and that's not neccessarily a good thing for a series experiencing a dramatic re-birth. Until a composer of equal stature can be found, Godzilla movies will continue to be dominated by Ifukube's music, however briefly it is quoted.
|Buy This Movie!
I got my Hong Kong Video CD of Godzilla 2000 through a wonderful comic book shop, made all the more wonderful by being half an hour away from my work. Their video department is called Poker Industries, and they feature good prices on DVDs and VCDs of Chinese and Japanese movies.
For those who don't know, Video CDs are MPEG movies on CDs. Each CD holds about an hour's worth of movie, so VCDs are usually 2-disc sets. They retail for around $10 - $15 USD, and are playable with Microsoft Media Player, freeware Mac software, or any of several commercial applications which sell for around $30. The picture quality is nowhere near as good as DVD; and the soundtracks on my Chinese discs are usually split between Chinese and Japanese, or Mandarin and Cantonese, so I have to turn off one of the stereo channels unless I want to hear both languages at the same time. On the plus side, though, VCDs are cheap, require no expensive equipment to play, and look and sound just fine on a multimedia computer. They're a great medium to investigate movies your local Big Video Chainstore is unlikely to carry.
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