Sunday, March 2, 2014

Godzilla 1985 (1985 [duh])

Written by: Shuichi Nagahara, Tomoyuku Tanaka, Tony Randel, Lisa Tomei
Directed by: Koji Hashimoto, R.J. Kizer
Starring: Ken Tanaka, Yosuke Natsuki, Raymond Burr

I'm not entirely sure when I first saw this movie, but my guess is I would have been about four years old. In the days when a VCR cost about as much as a car, on weekends my parents and I would drive into town to the local five-screen (seemed like a lot at the time) movie theater, which also was one of the only places in town you could rent movies, and we would pick out some movies and rent a VCR. Then we'd go back home and I would anxiously wait for dad to hook the thing up to the TV and figure out how it worked so I could watch whatever cartoon was deemed suitable for my young eyes. Seems like a million years ago now, when any movie you could possibly want is available streaming in high definition any time you want. I remember even at that young age, I would spend almost all of the time looking at the lurid covers of horror movies until mom and dad would lose their patience and guide me to the movies they'd actually allow me to rent. The memory is a bit hazy now but I believe mom brought Godzilla 1985 home for me after work one weekend rather than me picking it out. I loved dinosaurs (what young boy in the 80's didn't?), so she figured this would be something I would enjoy. She couldn't know based on the monster's largely goofy past history and reputation (original movie excepted), that this would be a pretty dark flick or that the sea louse scene would scare the bejeezus out of me. She also could have had no idea what she was starting; a lifelong love affair, bordering on obsession, that would only be matched one other time a couple of years later, when I was around six and a family friend told me, “Hey, there's this show on PBS you might like, it's called Doctor Who.”

I won't bother recounting the story of the movie's production, or its perceived butchery at the hands of New World Pictures. These things are by now scripture that most Godzilla fans can quote chapter and verse. Instead, this will just be about my reaction to the movie. I'm in the minority on this one, in that this remains one of my favorite Godzilla movies. That probably has a lot to do with the fact that it was my first one, and the fond memories of watching it as a kid, but I think there's more to it than that. I've seen a lot of stuff that I loved when I was a kid through adult eyes and realized how awful it was. This one, though, I've probably seen more than any other movie. I can just about quote the whole thing from memory, and yet, I think it's actually gotten better with age.

The movie opens much as the original, with a fishing boat called the Yahata Maru in distress. Tossed in a storm, the boat makes for possible shelter at a nearby island...which explodes, stands up, and roars (while not 100%, I'm fairly certain the series of explosion sound effects used here is the same as the space monkeys' base going kerblooie in Terror of Mechagodzilla, just pitch shifted lower and slowed down). Not long after, a reporter named Maki, out for a cruise on his sail boat, runs across the drifting wreck of the Yahata Maru. He boards the ship looking for survivors (and less altrustically, a scoop), and discovers one man still alive amongst the shriveled, radiation-burned corpses. While trying to revive him, he is attacked by an enormous sea louse, and the survivor wakes up and hacks the thing to death with a meat cleaver just as it's about ready to bury its claws in Maki's neck.

When Maki brings Ken back to Japan, his survival is immediately covered up. The government realizes Godzilla has returned, but doesn't want to announce his presence until they've had some time to formulate a plan. While not officially allowed to publish the news of Ken's survival, Maki's boss sends him to talk to Dr. Hayashida, a scientist whose parents were killed in the 1954 attack, and who has somehow independently learned of Godzilla's return and is studying every bit of data he can get his hands on in the hope of finding a way to kill the monster. Coincidentally, Ken's sister Naoko is Dr. Hayashida's secretary, and Maki takes pity on the mourning girl and tells her her brother is still alive.

They manage to keep the story quiet for a little while, but then Godzilla takes the decision out of everyone's hands, escalating the Cold War a few DefCon levels by destroying a Russian nuclear submarine. In the interest of preventing a global nuclear firefight, the Japanese prime minster holds a formal press conference revealing the reappearance of the King of the Monsters. Russia and the United States both immediately want to take out their atomic aggression on the monster by re-aiming all their nukes at him, but the prime minister refuses to allow nuclear weapons to be used. Haven't these buffoons been paying attention? That's how they all landed up in this mess in the first place! The superpowers agree to stand down for the time being, but those sneaky Russkies have a ship linked to a nuclear capable satellite parked in Tokyo Harbor, just in case.

It isn't long before Godzilla arrives and heads straight for a nuclear reactor, which he rips the core out of to absorb the energy. Before his meal is finished, however, something draws his attention away from the city. Examining photographs of the attack, Ken realizes Godzilla was following the cries of a flock of birds heading out to sea. He's a dinosaur, after all, and dinosaurs and birds are closely related. Now all they have to do is duplicate the birds' frequency and voila! Instant Godzilla lure. But it will only be a matter of time before Godzilla returns to feast on all that lovely nuclear energy. A plan is put into effect to lure Godzilla to the edge of Mt. Mihara, and set off a bunch of explosives deep in the volcano to trigger an eruption that will drown the monster in lava. Will our heroes perfect their lure in time? Will the Americans be able to shoot down the nuclear missile the Russians fired at Godzilla? Will they ever explain how the hell the cool-looking but undeniably impractical Super-X attack craft manages to stay aloft? Will Raymond Burr please beat the shit out of that obnoxious ginger Major McDonahue? How much goddamn Dr. Pepper can these guys drink!? The answer to most of these questions and many more, in the exciting conclusion to Godzilla 1985.

Where to start? There are just so many things about this movie to love. What about Raymond Burr, you ask? Very well, it's as good a place as any. Rather than being meshed with the action this time, he's just standing around in a Pentagon command center watching the movie along with the audience, occasionally telling the assorted officers in the room that all their ideas for blowing up Godzilla suck. He doesn't have any impact on the plot, but despite the least subtle product placement in the history of film, I enjoy these scenes anyway. Despite the fact that everyone seems to hate them, they actually do add something to the story. Shortly after Godzilla destroys the Soviet sub, Major McDonahue is briefing the general on the situation, and rattles off a litany of the disastrous environmental effects caused by Godzilla's presence. It really builds on Dr. Hayashida's statement to Maki about Godzilla.

Oh, that bit of dialog sends shivers up my back every time. Maki has just come to Hayashida's lab for the first time, and Hayashida is giving him the rundown on his research.

“Godzilla is more like a nuclear weapon.”
“Nuclear weapon?”
“A living nuclear weapon. Destined to walk the Earth forever. Indestructible.”

A bit on the nose, perhaps, but it really brings home the power of the monster. We know from thirty years of movies that Godzilla can't be killed. No matter what kind of beating he's on the receiving end of, he gets back up and keeps coming. But the ominous way those few words are spoken give us no doubt that Godzilla is timeless, endless, deathless.

Dubbing performances are always a subject of ridicule, but the translators and voice actors responsible for the American edit did a damn fine job to my ears. Of course there are the usual concessions to try to match the spoken English words to the lip movements of the Japanese actors, but no one seems to be taking the piss. There's nothing to suggest that the material wasn't respected, or that anyone did a half-assed job. The guy voicing the homeless dude seems to be having fun, but then again that's a comic bit part to alleviate the apocalyptic grimness of the rest of the movie. He should be having fun.

On to the score. Is it as thunderous and awesome as Akira Ifukube's original? Of course not. That's some of the most iconic film music of all time. If you ask me, nothing could ever top it, or even touch it for that matter. But Ifukube didn't want to do the music for this, so they had to do the best they could. Sure it's derivative of a lot of other, more famous things, but it really fits the movie. Even the bombastic, military pomp of the Super-X's theme song, reminiscent of Dragnet though it may be, is great. The music in this movie doesn't just sound like giant monster music; much like the more memorable original, it's giant monster horror movie music, and as a direct sequel to the original, this is definitely meant to be a horror movie. The red-tinged hellscape of the final reel, not to mention that damn sea louse, are some of the scariest, most atmospheric stuff in any kaiju movie since Gojra. The whole movie has a very ominous vibe, but everything after the Russian nuke explodes in the atmosphere and revives Godzilla from the Super-X's cadmium missile attack is pure nightmare.

Lastly, the big G himself. A blend of the 1954 and 1975 styles (with 1955's huge, jutting fangs for good measure), the eyes may be just a tad too big, but I don't think that undercuts the menace as much as most seem to. This is one mean-looking badass incarnation of Godzilla. The shorter, more rounded muzzle serves to make his face more expressive and vicious-looking. I like my Godzilla to look pissed off and evil, and while the longer, narrower, more crocodilian face adopted in the Millennium series went well with the way the rest of the body was designed, it robbed him of that intelligent malevolence he displays here. When he knocks that skyscraper down on the Super-X, he looks triumphant and satisfied.  And that pitiful, frightened howl he lets out while falling into the volcano.  Man, that brought me to tears as a kid, and even now it tugs the heartstrings a bit, even though you know he's going survive swimming around in there for the next four years before being blown free by the Saradian agent in Godzilla vs. Biollante.  Raymond Burr's great closing speech really brings it home too.  I have the whole thing as a ringtone.

There you have it. I usually see what others dislike in a movie I love, but love it in spite of those things. This is one case where I don't see anything wrong in the first place. This movie is great all the way through. One of my favorite entries in one of my favorite series, Dr. Pepper and all.

This is part of the Big Footprints kaiju roundtable.  The city smashing continues with:

Checkpoint Telstar:  The Monolith Monsters

Micro-Brewed Reviews:  The Sound of Horror

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Gamera vs. Barugon

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