Toho finally figured it out: audiences don’t want the benevolent protector Godzilla of the ‘60s and ‘70s, neither do they want the weird psychic bilge from the Godzilla of the 1980s, they want Gojira – Unstoppable Force of Pissed of Nuclear Vengeance and Scourge of the Japanese Archipelago. And brother, do you get that and more in “Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack” (or “GMK” for short).
In case you haven’t been paying attention (and who can blame you, with all the quality reality TV programming on today?), Toho recently scrapped 40 years of Godzilla continuity. The current timeline starts with 1954’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” jumps to “Godzilla: 1985,” and forgets everything in between. In those newer movies (known as the “Hesei” series), Godzilla never fought King Kong (though if he had, he still would’ve kicked the crap out of him), never dealt with Manda or Varan or Megalon or any of the other “red shirts” of the Godzilla canon. He never became a good guy, and it appears we can safely scrub our minds clean of any memory of Minya.
I should preface this by saying two things. First: I hate Mothra. I thought “Godzilla vs. the Thing” was a fine film, but admit it: he’s a weak monster. Proof of this is the way they keep trying to soup him up: supersonic cry, poison pollen, and – in “GMK” – explosive spines. Tricked out or not, he’s a giant freaking moth. Light a candle to distract him and let’s move on.
Second: Godzilla is a bad guy. Leave the “protector of children” crap to Gamera or the Ronald McDonald House, and let Godzilla be Godzilla. The same type of people who helped turn vampires into simpering fops by buying Anne Rice’s books are the ones lamenting G’s return to the Dark Side. Shut up, already.
Anyway, after the “death” of Godzilla in 1995’s “Godzilla vs. Destroyah,” Toho took a bit of a breather, allowing Sony to release an American version of “Godzilla” in 1998 starring Matthew Broderick and…you know what? Nobody cares. All you need to know about that celluloid stool sample is that it compelled Toho to get off their duffs and tackle the Big G again. This new series started with “Godzilla: 2000” and continued with “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.” The new films featured better effects (considering all the monsters are still played by stuntmen in rubber suits), more realistic destruction, and a slightly more serious tone. They both also took place in an alternate reality.
Enter “GMK.” Let me say that I believe in the power of film. At best, movies can heal us spiritually and teach us something about ourselves and the world in which we live. In “All-Out Monsters Attack,” I found myself believing this like never before. Finally, after the Roland-Emmerich atrocity, I have been born again into the Church of Godzilla.
In “GMK,” the year is 2004 and Godzilla has been spotted for the first time since his devastating appearance 50 years earlier. Yuri, a reporter for a “Lone Gunman” type TV show called “BS Digital Q,” is desperate to prove her mettle by reporting the carnage and also by deciphering the mystery of an ancient prophecy about Japan’s “guardian monsters.” Her father, a survivor of G’s original Tokyo romp, heads up the Defense Force tasked to stop Godzilla.
I knew this was going to be a good movie when, during an early scene involving a Defense Force briefing, an officer refers to Godzilla’s 1954 rampage and a similar appearance in New York City in 1998. A fellow officer replies, “That wasn’t Godzilla.” Ah, le mot juste.
Godzilla emerges and immediately begins laying malicious waste to everything around him. No creature of blind rage, G is a much more consciously evil entity in “GMK.” He stalks by a hospital, staring in a window as a woman in traction watches in powerless horror. Godzilla passes by and the woman exhales in relief, just as his tail comes crashing through her wall. There’s also a choice homage to the 1954 original when Godzilla appears looming over a hill, only this time he knocks the whole thing down, killing everyone on it. His design is much more reminiscent of the powerful, blunt-snout configuration from “Gigantis,” and just to make him creepier, his eyes are completely white.
Yuri discovers, from a mysterious old man, that Godzilla is the personification (monsterification?) of the souls of those who died in World War II, and in attacking Japan because the people have forgotten the sacrifice of the soldiers. This seems vaguely…odd, if not offensive, until later we discover that the souls of Americans and Asians who died are also part of the manifestation. Whatever, guys. I guess the whole ‘parable for the nuclear age’ has been played out, and it isn’t as if anyone pays attention to “why” Godzilla shows up to destroy s**t anymore.
Fortunately for Japan, there are three “guardian monsters” that appear to protect the land from invaders like Godzilla. Note that I said, “protect the land.” Nowhere has a monster’s disregard for collateral damage been more evident than in the attitude displayed by the three guardians (Baragon, Mothra, Ghidorah), who lumber through the local infrastructure with reckless abandon.
First to square off against Godzilla is Baragon (“Frankenstein Conquers the World”), the Jar Jar Binks of the daikaiju pantheon. Frankly, Baragon should’ve waited for back up, because Godzilla stomps the floppy-eared punk’s a*s like a Hell’s Angel at Altamont. And after pummeling Baragon into submission, Godzilla incinerates him in a spectacularly gratifying display of cruelty. I was literally out of my seat cheering.
Godzilla has made some refinements to his breath, since it now appears to have three settings. There’s “A-bomb” (his first use of breath results in a mushroom cloud that can be seen miles away), the “classic” setting (good for general property damage), and the tightly focused “laser” (which he uses against Defense Force fighter jets with lethal precision).
Other nice touches abound in “GMK:” the Desert Storm style night vision shots of G getting hit by missiles, the unusual tactic of showing ground level consequences of the giant monster battles, the two identically dressed girls watching as Mothra flies overhead (a shout-out to the twin fairies?), and the numerous references to the 1954 movie visible in various places. Part of the fun of watching the movie, for me, was picking these things out.
Ground zero for the big battle in “GMK” is Yokohoma. Mothra and Ghidorah show up to fight Godzilla, while the Defense Forces desperately try to come up with an effective strategy and Yuri chases the monsters around with her camcorder. The battle is highly entertaining, with Ghidorah getting in some good licks before being TKO’d by Godzilla. Only Mothra’s “butterfly shield” maneuver keeps Ghidorah from going the way of Baragon, but in the ensuing melee, Mothra is also destroyed.
(At this point, I would’ve been happy if all Godzilla did for the next three hours was hunt down lame kaiju and incinerate them. Battra, Gimantis, all of them. What a great “Crisis on Infinite Earths” way to clean house. Alas, it was not to be.)
There’s a point, about ten minutes before the end of “GMK,” where I got the feeling that this could’ve been the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Godzilla series: Baragaon and Mothra destroyed, Ghidorah at the mercy of the villain, and Yuri dangling from a collapsing bridge. If the movie had ended at that moment, it would’ve gotten five stars. As it stands…well, you know the bad guy can’t win…and the father-daughter tension has to be resolved. Still, “GMK” is a superior entry in the recent series, and one of the best films in the franchise. Director Shusuke Kaneko has made a successful leap from Daiei’s “Gamera” films to helm a fine Godzilla debut. I hope Toho gives him another shot.