Monday, March 30, 2009

Rubber Reptile Rampage

I think the first horror movie I ever saw--or monster movie, anyway--was a Godzilla movie. I think it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, but I"m not sure. I vividly remember watching Godzilla vs. Megalon on television in prime time when I was in the first grade, but most of the Godzilla movies I saw as a kid were either shown just after school let out or on a Saturday. My brothers and I would positively drool if we saw that Destroy All Monsters or The Terror of Mechagodzilla was scheduled to play. More often, we got Son of Godzilla, which was awful. In any event, I never really lost the taste for rubber monster mayhem, though I gave it up for a long time in late adolescence and during college, but it returned full force when the so-called "Hesei" series started appearing on the grey market in the 1990s. Most of the Godzilla movies I actually own date from this period and after. I don't own Godzilla 1985, but I own all of the subsequent films. For reasons I don't fully understand, I started watching them this weekend.

Godzilla vs. Biolante (1989, directed by Kazuki Omori) follows directly on the 1985 movie, when, in the aftermath of Godzilla's latest rampage, various interests attempt to make off with some of the cells that have shuffled off of Godzilla during the mayhem for their own nefarious purposes. The film opens with a Hong Kong action-y shootout and the film follows several assassins over its running time. The final destination for Godzilla's cells is a laboratory that's researching genetically engineered crops and, well, you can probably see where this is going. Biolante is a huge plant monster. The movie also mixes up psychics, G-force (the UN team tasked with dealing with Godzilla's rampages, usually with cool technologies), and the military as usual. It's all pretty easy to follow, which is good given that the version of the film I have was sourced from a Japanese laserdisc without subtitles. It's actually kind of fun making up your own dialogue. The first time my friends and I tried this, it became a kind of Lovecraftian battle between the elder gods. We pretty much promoted Godzilla into the pantheon. Two scene stand out for me: first, a spy is ransacking an office and he opens the venetian blinds only to see Godzilla outside. His reaction? "S--t! Godzilla", which is probably how I'd react, too. In the other, one of the army guys tasked with shooting Godzilla with a suped-up bazooka flips the big guy off, turns his back to reload, then pays the price. I can't say this surprised me. This movie was a relative failure--it took almost a decade to make it to North America on non-bootleg versions. It's still not on DVD here.

Godzilla vs. Biolante was supposed to be followed by a movie introducing a new monster, but Biolante's failure was blamed on Biolante not having marquee value. So the next film went back to first principles. Most kaiju fans rank Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991, directed by Kazuki Omori) as the best of the Hesei series, perhaps because it has the most satisfying city-wrecking and monster brawling. It's also a kick to see a new version of Godzilla's old enemy, Ghidorah, in a new "mecha" version at the end of the movie. And, really, all kaiju fans demand of their Godzilla movies is great city wrecking and monster fighting. So I see their point. I do. But I'm a movie fan first, and the movie fan in me--to say nothing of the liberal humanist in me--recoils from the subtexts in this movie. This is a seriously wrong-headed piece of work. The plot involves evil westerners (read: evil, underhanded Americans) traveling back in time to prevent Japan from becoming the world's economic superpower. They do this by travelling even farther back in time to prevent the dinosaur that would eventually become Godzilla from becoming Godzilla, and instead, substituting their own creatures to become Ghidorah. In order to fight Ghidorah, Godzilla must be recreated. Godzilla kicks Ghidorah's ass, then goes on his own rampage that must be stopped by a revived mecha-Ghidorah. It's all very goofy, and very circular (as time-travel plots tend to be). But the attitudes on display here are disturbing. The movie tends to glorify the Japanese military during World War II, glorifies Japan's corporate culture of the late 1980s, and depends on an intentional ecological disaster to fuel its plot, no questions asked. In a lot of ways this is a neo-con kaiju movie, which seems perverse for a series that began life as an elegy to Japan's 1945 nuclear holocaust. It makes me rather sour on the whole thing, though it's interesting to contrast this film with the one that follows it.

Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992, directed by Takao Okawara) is Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah's ideological opposite. It's almost a point by point refutation of the the previous film. Mothra has always had an ecological subtext, and here, it comes to the fore. Again, there's a big corporation, but this time, the movie is scathing in its critque of that corporation's willingness to engage in ecological disasters in the name of profits. Mothra is unique in the Toho pantheon of monsters because he (?) has a mouthpiece in The Peanuts (or The Cosmos, as this movie renames them), the two miniature women who act to explain Mothra's actions). This movie has some pretty good mayhem, much of it provided by the "Black Mothra," Battra, who has a wing ding of a fight with Godzilla on the floor of the ocean in which Godzilla gets knocked through the Earth's crust and into the magma below. He then swims through the magma and re-appears in a volcanic eruption on Mt. Fuji. This provides me with my all-time favorite Godzilla moment. The scientists on the case are watching Godzilla emerge from an orbiting helicopter, and one of them says to the other, "Godzilla is beyond our understanding." Which is so, so true on any number of levels. This is my favorite of the Hesei series.

I chose to skip Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1993) for the present, because I absolutely hated it the first time I watched it.

By rights, I ought to hate Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994), too, given that it has an even more appallingly cutesy version of Baby Godzilla in it, and it has pretty lame monster fights (in which the two principles stare each other down for the most part, and Space Godzilla is one of Toho's lamer monsters. All true. But there are some things in it that tickle my illogical kaiju love. First, there's Mogera, the second generation countermeasure to Godzilla following on from Mechagodzilla. Mogera is designed to look like the big robot monster from The Mysterians, a film I love. Second, there's a pretty cool scene in outer space when Mogera takes on Space Godzilla in an asteroid field. But mostly, I like this movie because I think the human story is more interesting than usual. At the end of most Godzilla movies, the human cast tends to watch the mayhem from a safe distance without adding anything to the film but astonished expressions (or bored expressions, depending on the involvement of the actors). In this one, the human cast is in the action. Of particular interest is the pilot of Mogera. Remember the guy who flips off Godzilla back in Godzilla vs. Biolante? That was this guy's best friend. His hatred of Godzilla has turned him into the equivalent of Captain Ahab. This is fun to watch. Still, this says more about what I personally look for in movies than it does the quality of the movie itself, so caveat emptor.


The thing to remember when you're watching any given Brian De Palma movie is that you are watching a movie. Never mind all the swipes from Hitchcock and Antonioni and god knows who else, the proper frame of reference is Godard, who rendered movies as abstractions. Of course, De Palma's cinema is more commercial than Godard's ever was, but if there's anyone who wields his movies as weapons in the same spirit, it's De Palma. 1984's Body Double is the director's most vicious hate note to Hollywood, and the more you know about movies, about De Palma's movies in particular, and about critics, the funnier it is. I can only imagine the glee in De Palma's black little heart as he assembled the critical blurbs for his in-film porno movie, "Holly Does Hollywood." Sometimes, the film is blatant about what's it's really about: the swinging door with the mirror during the porno shoot is a good example--it reveals the film crew. Sometimes it's subtle. During the front credits, the main title is superimposed on a desert vista that is promptly picked up and carried away by workmen on a movie set, and right after the credits, Craig Wasson's character is shown driving a car with a rear projection that's just bad enough to call attention to itself if you're looking for it (in 1984? Really? Hence the cognitive dissonance). And the film invites--nay, compells--the audience to look. One thing I never realized the first time I saw the film is that it's a sly quasi-remake of Blow Out. Oh, the details are different, as is the tone, but the broad outlines are the same. This has to be some kind of post-modernist coup: a director quasi-remaking his own quasi-remake of another film. It makes the head spin. And then, the coup de grace. De Palma deconstructs the shower opening of Dressed to Kill by setting up a nearly identical scene over his end-credits, then showing you the results, all laid bare like a pathologist leaving a cadaver gaping wide on the table for a medical class to examine. Wow, did I ever underestimate this film when I saw it back when it was released. It's actually kind of a masterpiece.

As an aside to horror fans: watch out for a very naked Barbara Crampton in the early part of the film.

No comments: