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Friday, April 29, 2005

A Rose is a Rose is a Giant Monster With Big Teeth

Okay, my conscience compels me to let you know up front that this post is 100% geek stuff. Yup -- 100%. No popular culture observations. No new perspectives, contextualization or placement in genre history. No insights whatsoever. All geek.

I've done my duty. You've been warned. Ready? Let's go.

Godzilla. Gojira. The Big G. Fire breath, glowing spinal protrusions, and that roar. Oh, that roar. That Jurassic Park T-Rex can eat my shorts. You call THAT a roar? That's not a roar. THIS is a roar!

You can't keep a good giant radioactive lizard down. Even his lame ass Americanization at the hands of German director Roland Emmerich seems to have had no lingering effects. You call THAT a Godzilla? That's not a Godzilla. THIS is a Godzilla!

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I was a kid, Philly had two UHF stations likely to show Japanese monster movies: Channel 17 and Channel 48. As I remember it, they leaned towards the color films, so you were more likely to see mediocre stuff like Godzilla vs The Sea Monster than the B&W original. Of course, that also meant you'd get treated to camp classics like Godzilla vs King Kong and head trips like Godzilla vs The Smog Monster. Sing a-long with me: "Save the Earth! Stop pollution, find a solution, save the Earth!" (I was kind of sad to hear that unlike the old VHS release the DVD for Smog Monster -- Godzilla vs Hedorah -- is actually the Japanese cut w/ dubbing rather than the Americanized version I grew up with, and consequently lacks that song.) Over the very uneven course of the '60s and '70s, G went from scary embodiment of Japan's tragic atomic heritage to kiddie flick hero with tons of camp value. Sure, he was undeniably iconic, but you really couldn't take the guy seriously once he started doing shtick like his silly victory dance and using the blast of his atomic breath to fly backwards. Baby Godzilla showed up, G started talking (at least in the American version of Godzilla on Monster Island a.k.a. Godzilla vs Gigan), and suddenly Mothra started looking a lot less silly than I giant moth should.

By this point -- the early '70s -- G was thoroughly entrenched in the "how the mighty have fallen" department. The series had meandered through more than its share of genre mixing, from espionage to sci-fi, and even sunk to a kid's dream clip-show of assorted stock footage. Hanna Barbara got hold of the character for a short-lived cartoon series which a vaguely remember but am too lazy to research at the moment. He seemed ready -- and certainly was headed -- for the "where are they now" zone.

But the folks at Toho are no fools. What does it mean when you have in your stables an iconic character whose glory days are fondly remembered? It means you have a character for whom much of your advertising as already been done. So, for G's thirtieth anniversary, Toho revived the franchise. Well, they started it up again, at least. They'd like to have us think they "revived" it, but...

Hey, at least there were new movies.

Godzilla 1985 - Actually, 1984 in Japan. We got the Americanized version a year later, with generous additions of Raymond Burr a la the original. Burr was looking a little long-in-the-tooth and, as I remember it, so was G. As far as I know, the Burr-less Japanese version has never been available in the U.S. My feeling is that they weren't quite sure how to restore the gravity of a character who'd gone as silly as G had. It's not quite a reboot, but it does its best to ignore stuff like Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters! that cast Godzilla as Japan's heroic defender again invading aliens. As I remember it, Godzilla 1985 plays rather stiff. It's not on DVD in the States in any form, and I think the VHS is out of print. Either way, I don't have a copy and so can't refresh my memory. Possibly just as well.

A few years passed before G was on the big screen again, but it must have seemed worth it in Japan because eventually he was co-starring with a giant mutant plant named Biollante. Not the most auspicious pairing, you'll agree, but, believe it or not, things were looking up.

Godzilla vs Biollante (1989, at least in the U.S.) has some handsome effects and takes itself pretty damned seriously, which make for some fun unintentional humor. My old VHS copy is the Americanized release, with great bad dubbing that includes a character who consistently pronounces the star's name as "Godziller." It's not in print on VHS anymore, nor has it been released on DVD (here in the States, at least), which may be owed to lingering entanglements from its original American release: I don't know if it ever played in theaters, but Godzilla vs Biollante was released here on VHS on HBO Video by way of Dimension entertainment, a division of Miramax. This was, I'm pretty certain, before the Miramax/Disney deal, but in that arrangement Disney took over distribution for the entire Miramax back catalog. So potentially in the mix here are Miramax, Disney and HBO, on top of which we have the new tangle of the Disney/Miramax rights retention as the Weinsteins depart their old company. Suffice to say, I'm holding onto my copy.

Although problematic and uneven, GvB is substantially the starting point of the new '90s Godzilla continuity. It references G1985 and establishes a number of characters and plot elements that will run through the next five movies. There's a sense that they're trying out bits of the old series formulas, seeing what will and won't work.

From G's 1984(5) attack on Tokyo, the Japanese government has acquired a small sample of "Godzilla cells," obtained from chucks of Godzilla flesh scraped off the wreckage of his Tokyo rampage. Some of these are stolen by an evil middle eastern nation that's planning ahead towards the days when its oil fields will no longer support its economy. They want to use the Godzilla cells to bioengineer plants that will thrive in their deserts and allow them to become an agrarian giant. This whole business harkens back to the subplots of political and corporate espionage that ran through some of the '60s and '70s films. It facilitates some car chases, shootouts and fist fights. It also feels a little weird in the context of current world economies and politics now, fifteen years later. The bioengineering aspect, in which Biollante is created in the process of splicing Godzilla cells with a rose, seems a little prescient in these days of controversy over genetically modified crops and farm animals. Of course, most of the scientific gibberish - Japan's desire to create a "radiation-eating bacteria" and the blathering about Godzilla and Biollante sharing a genetic connection "closer than brother and sister" and being "the same creature" - plays like utter claptrap, and you can only blame so much of that on the dubbing.

One of the other - rather embarrassing -- holdovers from G1985 is the Army's Godzilla-fighting supership, the "Super-X." Here it's the improved "Super-X 2," whose bow splits open to reveal a synthetic diamond "Fire Mirror" capable of reflecting G's mighty atomic breath back at him. It's pretty ineffectual, but it gives them something to throw at him besides extremely vulnerable helicopters and stock footage of jet fighters.

Most significantly, GvB sets up the elements of a running ESP subplot that will feature in varying degrees of prominence through the next five movies. Biollante is inhabited by the spirit of her creator's dead daughter, killed in a lab accident (damned silly in almost every respect, particularly Biollante's smarmy death scene) and the ESPers in a government psychic research program can detect G and - somehow - influence him with their telepathic abilities (unclear, but comparatively reasonable). The ESPer character will continue through the following films, as annoying and compelling as Counselor Deanna Troi in ST:TNG.

It'll be three more films before the franchise again tries an original monster as titular opponent to G, so that should tell us something about Biollante's appeal. C'mon kids - she's a big plant. It's hard not to think of her as the big sister of Little Shop of Horrors' Audrey II, particularly when she starts whipping her snapping Venus Flytrap tendrils at Godzilla. "Hey, lizard boy, I ate Steve Martin and Vincent Gardenia, and I'm gonna whup yer butt." But G lets loose with his mighty atomic breath and it turns out that no matter how big they grow or how many toothy vines they have flailing around, rose bushes are still flammable.

Yeah, B sprouts again for one of the film's several false climaxes, this time with one gigantic fanged mouth, but the fact remains that this just isn't a cool villain. Truth be told, the bad guys throughout GvB leave much to be desired, with one significant exception: the Big Guy Himself. I know it has nothing to do with the fact that I've only seen the movie dubbed, but I can't help feeling that at some point in GvB Godzilla's roar should be subtitled, "Bring it on!"

They heard the invitation. Starting with the next movie, things get really wild.

Coming Up Next:
(at some point)
Godzilla vs King Ghidora(h)

2 Comments:

Blogger Rob S. said...

Of course Godzilla and Biollante are "closer than a brother and a sister." They're cousins! Identical radioactive cousins!

12:09 PM  
Blogger Admin said...

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2:48 AM  

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