Monday, July 14, 2014

Godzilla - Rampaging down Memory Lane

Me an' the big guy have a long and complex relationship. Godzilla's been a part of my sci-fi awareness for as long as I can remember, and, over the years, I've learned to take the good with the bad. He's been terrifying and awe-inspiring, campy and laughable, but never, ever boring.

Not until now, anyway.

In the beginning:

My first encounter with the King of Monsters was when I was around four years old. It was the middle of the afternoon, I think in the summer, and we were living in an Ontario suburb where the aerial towers on the houses (remember, this was the late 70s, so no cable yet) were able to pick up TV signals from Buffalo reasonably well (it had to be one of the US stations, because it was too early in the day for TV Ontario's old movie show, Magic Shadows), and one of the stations was running the Americanized version of the original Godzilla/Gojira. I was in awe. Completely terrified as I watched this unstoppable titan smashing through houses and buildings, but equally filled with wonder. I've always been a fan of dragons, and here, on the screen in our basement, was the ultimate dragon, complete with fiery breath, laying waste to whole cities. This guy was so big, so bad, he didn't have to concern himself with hoarding treasure or carrying off princesses — he was so big, the entire planet was his hoard to do with as he pleased. He was a force of nature... if one that was ultimately killed/driven off/whatever by a giant Alka Seltzer tablet.

That night, I had a nightmare that I was at my friend Cameron's birthday party, and Godzilla came storming through our neighbourhood and destroyed Cameron's house. I woke up screaming as the images of the house collapsing all around me, birthday party wreckage everywhere, all my friends gone, and a huge, green foot descending from so very, very high up, faded from my eyes. And here's where it gets weird: The next day, just before supper, Cameron came walking down the street with a stack of invitations and asked if I'd like to come to his birthday party that weekend! Now, I kept my poker face on, but inside I was going completely bonkers because I knew, I just knew that if I went to that party, that was it: Godzilla would come and kill us all.

Silly, yes. A total coincidence, yes. But I was four, and this shit was real to me. I politely declined without giving a reason, and Cameron went on to the next kid's place with a confused and slightly sad little frown. His mother called my mom later and asked if I'd reconsider. Again, I kept my poker face on, despite the mounting terror inside, and told Mom that I just didn't feel like it. How could I tell her I was doing everything I could to protect my family — my entire neighbourhood, dammit! — and that if I went to that party, Godzilla would come wading up the Grand River from Lake Erie or some damn place and we'd be toast? Parents would never believe something like that, so I couldn't explain, now could I? So I kept it simple and polite, and missed out on an afternoon of cake and hot dogs and junk food and noisemakers with my buddies.

Time went on, and I realized it was just a nightmare, and that Godzilla wasn't real, but the feeling of awe that I experienced when I saw that movie, of the big guy's unparalleled coolness, stayed with me.

Periodically, I'd get other Godzilla fixes that helped to maintain this fondness. I remember commercials on TV for a toy Godzilla that would fight samurai warrior robots (they had ejectable hands and missiles, he had plastic fire coming out of his mouth). I didn't have that cool toy, but what I did have (for a while anyway) was a little metal wind-up Godzilla toy that would march across the tabletop spitting sparks. It had been in my Christmas stocking in '77 or '78, I think, and was one of my favourite toys at the time. Sadly, it was lost after just a couple of months. Should I blame the vacuum cleaner, my little brother, or my dad's drinking buddies? Tough choice.

Then there was another afternoon where one of the TV stations ran Godzilla vs Mothra... I have a vivid memory of watching Godzilla struggle as the Mothra larvae hosed him down with layers of heavy webbing.

On another occasion (I think it was on TV Ontario this time), I was introduced to Marv Newland's hilarious 1969 short Bambi meets Godzilla

These days, you'd never see something this harsh put on TV where kids could see it, but back then we were tougher, and I didn't know a single kid who didn't laugh his or her head off at the inevitable outcome of this meeting. Twenty years or so later, I remember seeing this again when I went to Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted Animation Festival with a friend in Vancouver. Everyone in the audience laughed then too, although I think it was the copious amounts of pot being passed around, as much as it was the nostalgia or the humour of the film.

But back to the old days... In 1979, Hanna Barbera's Godzilla cartoon exploded onto our Saturday morning TV screen (yeah, I know, in some markets it was aired as early as the fall of '78 as part of a longer, co-branded package with other shows, but I don't remember it being packaged in our area - it was just run solo, amongst the other shows in the various networks' Saturday morning lineups).

This time, Godzilla was a good guy, he was a lot bigger than his movie predecessor ("30 storeys hiiiiiiiiiiigh!"); he now had laser vision (in addition to his fire breath); he had a son or little buddy, Godzuki; and he was someone's bitch.

That's right, Godzilla, King of all Monsters, was, in this cartoon, always at the beck and call of a gaggle of puny humans. This Scooby Doo-esque gang of self-styled adventurers travelled the globe in their tramp steamer and used a remote control to signal to the big guy to bail them out whenever they got into trouble. Which was every week. Each Saturday, Godzilla would knock heads with cyclopean crab monsters, animated giant statues, creatures of legend, over-sized dinosaurs, or whatever the foe de jour happened to be. After he took a few knocks and beat the bad guys, the humans would dismiss Godzilla, and he'd give a farewell roar and then disappear back into the sea. No trips to gorge at the local nuclear power station as a thank you. No offer of industrial-sized dental work to fix whatever teeth had been knocked loose in the tussle with the gargantuan Aztec monkey robot or whatever. Not even a truckload of fish. The big guy didn't really get much more of a thank you than some servant in a British period piece would.

Even as a little kid, part of me was waiting for the day when Godzilla would get some self respect and ignore the signal, and leave the humans to deal with the giant space blob (or angry pizza delivery guy demanding a tip, or whatever) themselves. That day never came.

And there was the other difference from the movies: the roar. In the films, Godzilla's battle cry is that weird screeching-trumpeting-honk-growl, like an elephant in serious intestinal distress. But in the cartoon, he sounds like a college football player puking his guts out after a night of hard partying. Watch a few clips on Youtube and you'll hear that I'm right.

But I loved the show anyway. After all, what could you not love about Godzilla battling other super monsters every week?

The middle years:

Eventually the cartoon went off the air, and there were a couple of dead years before Godzilla experienced a bit of a Renaissance

In 1985, the appropriately — if unimaginatively named — Godzilla 1985 attacked the big screen. This Godzilla film was more restrained than the over-the-top monster slugfest sequels of the 1960s and 70s, focussing solely on the big guy, the mystery of why he'd returned, the tragedy of this attack, and what could be done to stop him. Periodically, a grim-looking Raymond Burr (reprising the newsman role he'd played in the scenes added to the original 1954 Gojira when it was released in North America in '56 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters!) would lumber onscreen, comment on the devastation, and try to give the movie some gravitas, and even challenging the audience to feel a bit of pity for Godzilla when he eventually met his apparent demise in the depths of Mount Fuji. I also remember this movie for getting a little weird and goofy when the TV promos ran Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" under the trailer (although maybe I'm thinking of the promos for the VHS release — it's been so long, I'm not entirely sure). In any case, it was nice to have the big guy back in action, especially since the other movies in the franchise never got much play on the local stations.

Round about then, my friends and I were also spending an awful lot of money playing the "Rampage" arcade game at one of the local convenience stores in Tsawwassen. The clip I've linked to is a solo run by George (clearly modelled on King Kong), but I always enjoyed playing Lizzie because she was so obviously Godzilla. Sure there were other — and more specifically Godzilla-related — video games that came out before and after this one, but Rampage was the one I loved.

Then there was the hilarious, if idiotic, movie One Crazy Summer, where, at one point, Bobcat Goldthwait's character, Egg Stork, gets trapped in a Godzilla costume when he's supposed to be spying on the bad guys. Mayhem ensues. Not necessarily one of my favourite scenes from the film, but memorable none-the-less.

At this point, as I got into junior high and was starting to stay up until stupid-o'clock-in-the-morning, I was also getting into the late night "Sci Fi Friday" features offered by the local US cable stations. Ah, the late 80s and early 90s: the glorious final years of cable TV, before all the little independent stations were eaten up by the big cable networks, and where they'd run anything at any time of day just to get any kind of viewer watching... the years when Friday and Saturday nights belonged to geeks. On these stations, the Sci Fi Friday (or Saturday) feature was a kind of Russian roulette: they might show a vintage piece of the canon, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, or something more recent and cool like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Alien. But they could just as easily inflict some cheestastic damage on a viewer in the form of Invasion of the Star Creatures or The Barbarians. Sprinkled in among all of this was the occasional instalment in the Godzilla franchise. My favourites were the 1968 supreme battle royale known as Destroy All Monsters, and 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, because any flick with a fight scene where Godzilla drop kicks King Kong is just... well, okay, maybe it isn't.


As the years passed, Japanese filmmakers continued to pump out Godzilla instalments at a fairly regular rate, but I didn't have time in my university and college years to hunt around for them. The next time Godzilla came crashing into my awareness was in the spring of '98 when Hollywood took a run at the concept with Godzilla.

This time, it was New York, rather than Tokyo, in the monster's sights, and the menace in question was quite a bit different than its previous incarnation. First, there was the facelift (which I guess fits with Hollywood culture) which abandoned the big guy's traditional body design for something more like a gigantic, bipedal, lantern-jawed iguana. Second, there was the sex change, ignoring Godzilla's traditional identity of "it" or "he" and reimagining the creature as female (to facilitate the laying of eggs to pave the way for sequels that were never made because the film was received so poorly). Third: forget about the atomic fire breath. I seem to recall one scene where it looked like maybe Godzilla (or "Zilla" as she's now called in the franchise's canon) took out a helicopter with fire breath, but it wasn't completely clear and could just as easily have been rogue ordinance or a gas main explosion. Even if it was supposed to be fire breath, it was only used once and certainly wasn't as flashy as the traditional blast. Lastly, there was no thirst for energy. Instead, Zilla had a hankering for fish.

Throw in Matthew Broderick in the lead role, supported by Jean Reno and a squad of French commandos ("Croissant?" "Non. Donut."), and you've got a well-intentioned but ultimately weak attempt at rebooting the monster.

I'll admit that I was super eager to see this film. Again, lifetime Godzilla fan. And this was the first opportunity to get a fix in a long time, and one that was going to have slick Hollywood special effects and filmmaking. I also have no problems saying that I was disappointed when I came out of the theatre. Not gutted. Not really pissed off and feeling cheated and raging that they'd mutilated a thing I'd loved. But disappointed. There's a lot that was dumb or screwed up, but when a human character (in this case, Reno) steals the show and you're indifferent to the kaiju, then something's seriously wrong with the Godzilla movie you're watching.

But things started looking up after that.

There were other movies, not imitators, but films very much inspired by Godzilla, that came along and showed audiences that kaiju movies could move beyond their schlock property roots and could look good, be fun, and even be capable of creating a real emotional impact, and (sometimes) have something intelligent to say.

In 2006, there was the Korean film The Host, which some of you may remember I gushed over at length.

Then, in 2008, there was Cloverfield (I'm constantly amazed when I can reference this movie without saying "Cloverdale" — the name of a nearby village known for its rodeo, which has nothing to do with anything in the flick. "Coming this summer: a town at the mercy of a man... and a giant pickup truck!"), which I also enjoyed.

Last year, Guillermo Del Toro gave us Pacific Rim, which wasn't the least bit intelligent, but was ultra fun and everything a great kaiju movie should be, with the best Hollywood special effects, and the right actors to pull it off.

Even the Godzilla comics have been good for the past couple of years! Yeah, I know, Godzilla's been published in comic form off and on by different houses for a long, long time, but I never really paid much attention to them until this past year or so, when I started picking up the graphic novels from IDW. The best of these has been Godzilla: The Half-Century War, chronicling one man's efforts to stop the big guy and other monsters over the years since Godzilla's first rampage in 1954. Great story. Great art. Definitely worth picking this one up next time you're at your local comic shop.

The newest version: Godzilla.boring

Just when you thought it was safe for Hollywood to go back into the waters of Godzilla movies, you were wrong. For a flick that came on so strong in the trailers, the 2014 Godzilla turned out to be disappointing and boring. Worst of all, it was stingy with the big guy's screen time — I don't think the director/writers/special effects team let the audience see the titular King of Monsters for more than a minute and a half.

The problem lies in the fact that the writers and director are clearly trying to go for a Cloverfield approach to the movie — focussing entirely on the human characters, with the kaiju relegated to the background as shadowy, rarely seen, and barely understood causes of disaster. So, instead of 30, 40, or even 70 percent of the movie fixating on the battling monsters, Godzilla teases us with some offshore dorsal spines/fins in the opening credits, then a dark, distant shot of Godzilla fighting the flying Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) at the Oahu airport (a brawl that only lasts a minute or so before cutting away), then lastly the final battle against the MUTOs. Problem is, this is a Godzilla movie. We paid to see Godzilla. A lot of him. It's okay — and, dammit, even encouraged — to have a solid cast of human characters with a decent plot and dialogue, but those things can't get in the way of Godzilla's screen time! The whole point of the movie is to watch extended sequences of the King of Monsters laying down his authoritah in a Cartman-like temper tantrum that lays entire cities to waste in lengthy battles against equally destructive foes. So when the first 45 minutes or so had no Godzilla in it, and then the audience was teased with just a minute-long glimpse of his supposed Hawaiian rumble, and then there was another long wait before the final battle, you can imagine the disappointment of myself and other audience members. There's a vulgar comparison I could use here, but I'll exercise a little discretion and instead say it was like seeing an advertisement for delicious pie, going into the baker and laying down your money, and being given only a half-forkful of mostly crust with just a little filling on it, and then being told there was no more to be had. Not cool.

To make matters worse, the writers and director botched the job of focussing the film on the human characters. Brian Cranston does a good job of playing a nuclear technician who survives a terrible reactor accident that kills his wife. But his talents as an actor are ultimately wasted because he's killed off after 45 minutes just as the film is finally starting to get moving, and before the kaiju really start doing their stuff. If we could have watched him ride through the events of the entire film, watched him have to cope with his feelings of confronting the monsters that caused his wife's death, and the government agents who allowed it to happen, watched him weigh the options that could affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, that would have been a human-centred plot that would have been worth while. That would have been a role worthy of Bryan Cranston. Instead, his character is abruptly killed off, making it a role that could have been serviced by any middle-aged actor. Instead, we're left more or less drifting through the rest of the movie with his character's non-entity army guy son, Ford, who himself basically just drifts through the events around him (even drifting past his opportunity to use his bomb disposal skills at the end of the movie when they'd actually count for something). The other failed option is the character of Ford's wife, Elle, who's given just enough screen time to tell us that we're supposed to care about what happens to her, but not enough screen time to actually make us care whether she lives or gets pulverized in the falling rubble of San Francisco at the end. Beyond those two, there's only the Japanese scientist, Dr Ishiro Serizawa, who seems limited to cryptically muttering that Godzilla is a force of nature who should be left to do what he does, and who looks so incredibly hang-dog, so bent and constantly cringing, so utterly physically and emotionally broken, that you'd think he'd either been stepped on by Godzilla, or that between the movie's takes he'd had to use the toilet stall next to one occupied by the kaiju king and been forever altered by the horror of the experience. So, lame-duck human characters taking up too much screen time that should have gone to the monsters.

On the positive side, Godzilla himself looks terrific. Sure, the special effects designers have made a few alterations here and there, but they're okay. Firstly, he's much bigger than his cinematic predecessors, standing at around 150 metres, compared to the modest 50 metre height of 1954's original. Apparently, the director and special effects guys took to heart the tag line from the '98 version, that "size does matter". Next, he's hunched forward slightly, not standing erect like many godzillas of the past, but also not entirely horizontal like 1998's Zilla. This one also has smaller, round, compact feet like an elephant or sauropod dinosaur, rather than the big flappy dogs that the others had. And he's bulky. Hugely massive. As in no-neck big. Formidable in a sumo sort of way. And it looks good on him. I also have to give credit to the atomic fire breath: it's incredible. In fact, one of the only good parts in the movie is when Godzilla uses his fire for the second time, in a kiss of death blast that finishes-off the last MUTO.

But good looks aren't enough to carry a movie, and when my wife and I left the theatre after the show on opening night, I was bored. And disappointed. More disappointed than I'd been after the '98 version. And with Pacific Rim and Cloverfield and The Host to learn from, that's inexcusable. I can only hope that the next time Godzilla rises from the depths, it will be to destroy the real monsters — the people who would settle for boring mediocrity and ruin the chance to make a really good film.

But as much as 2014's failure has left a bad taste in my mouth, I haven't lost my love for Godzilla yet. He's been down before: savaged by other monsters, cheapened and made campy by greedy and overzealous studios, ridiculed by critics, and compelled by a gang of meddling kids. But he's never been beat. Whether he's thrown into a good movie or bad, Godzilla is still the King of Monsters.

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