Film Review

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The King of the Monsters struts his stuff in a film that fails to fulfill its potential.

By Norman England     January 21, 2000

GODZILLA 2000: MILLENNIUM, Toho Pictures' latest Godzilla film, has some tough acts to follow, namely a twenty-two film backlog produced in its homeland of Japan and a Hollywood remake that was one of the most financially successful films of 1998. In terms of sheer number, nothing, not even James Bond at seventeen films, comes close to the lengthy gamut of Godzilla's film inventory. Now, with Godzilla's newest playing theaters across Japan this winter season, the question on the lips of Godzilla fans everywhere is whether Godzilla, one of the great icons of 20th century film, can reinvent itself and become viable in the upcoming century.
Unlike concept driven series, Godzilla benefits from a well-defined main character, one that following the first Godzilla film has to a certain extent been removed from the constraints of plot. For many fans of Godzilla, story is more or less secondary; it is almost enough to just sit back and watch Godzilla go through its building bashing, army thrashing, and ray blasting routine ad infinitum. This is not to say that a good Godzilla film lacks the essential building blocks of storytelling, just that they frequently play a back seat to main attraction Godzilla. G-2000, it was hoped, would be the synthesis that would remove it from this mundane routine of giant monster films, injecting the series with well rounded human characters and a better integration between human and kaiju (the Japanese term for their brand of giant monsters). Alas, while showing some signs of new direction, G-2000 takes only baby steps towards this goal, relying mainly on the tried and true approach to kaiju filmmaking, keeping the film from being nothing more than just another in a long line of Godzilla films.
As a film, G-2000 opens with a lot of promise. The photography is compelling, and the father-and-daughter team of amateur Godzilla scientists who head a grassroots network of Godzilla investigators are a refreshing divergence from the typical stock of Toho's cut and paste characters. But all too quickly things fall apart, specifically when Godzilla first appears. In what should have been a victorious return of Japan's most famous cinematic creature to its homeland, we are instead dealt a distracting, over conceptualized introduction that plays too heavy handed, leaving the audience cheated of what should have been a spine tingling reintroduction of the King of Monsters.
As with Star Trek or Star Wars, Godzilla, for good or for bad, must be taken in context of its 'big picture', that is, how a new G-film fits in with its history. However, unlike most other film series, Godzilla is continually receiving rewrites to its past, giving it a somewhat schizophrenic veneer. When examining the mythos of Godzilla several distinct phases emerge:
1) The original 1954 B/W Godzilla, where the kaiju was introduced as a symbol of the callous effects of nuclear weaponry upon innocent citizens, and the quickie sequel delivered six months later.
2) The Golden Age starting with 1962's Godzilla vs. King Kong up to 1968's Destroy All Monster.
3) The Camp Agewhere the giant beast became a kind of self-appointed defender of earthbeginning with Godzilla's Revenge in 1969 and ending with Terror of Godzilla in 1975.
4) A single return in 1984 that saw the extremely uneven Godzilla 85.
5) The Heisei series (an unofficial title due to the first film of this period starting up when Japanese emperor Akihiro ascended to the throne) that began with 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante and ended with the death of Godzilla in 1995's Godzilla vs. Destroyah.
Each phase shows a reevaluation of Godzilla, some more successful than others. For Godzilla fans, the most entertaining period is that of the Golden Age. It was at this time in the 1960s that Japan began pulling out of its post war gloom and was focusing on its rise to economic world power. This national optimism reflected itself into Godzilla films, and it was during this era that Toho's most endearing monsters were introduced, including Mothra, Baragon, Gimantis, Manda, Minya and the incomparable three-headed King Ghidrah. The G-films of this phase were marked by an endearing playfulness and touches of humor that made them some of the great escapist entertainment of the entire fantasy genre.
Popular, too, with Godzilla fans is the Heisei period of the 1990s, but for almost reasons opposite those of Godzilla's Golden Age. During this time humor was drained from the series, and the effects took on a greater level of realism. Godzilla's nuclear analogy was again an issue with the audience feeling dread at the sight of this wrath of man's mistaken drive into nuclear weaponry.
Now, with GODZILLA 2000: MILLENNIUM, it is Toho's hope to start yet another phase in the existence of Godzilla. Given that this has been pulled the umpteenth times before (let us not forget last year's forgettable Tri-star Godzilla, which also rewrote Godzilla history), this is expecting a lot of viewers, particularly passing fans. This wouldn't be unforgivable if G-2000 didn't make the mistake of asking viewers to accept Godzilla's new existence with no alternative offered; true, we all know by now who and what Godzilla is, but being asked to erase everything we have learned about Godzilla save the first film while not being given anything to replace it, can cause severe synapse-fraying within the minds of audience members struggling to keep everything in check. Had Toho truly wanted to reinvent Godzilla, they should have simply erased ALL Godzilla films, including the first, rebuilding the series from the ground up.
G-2000, which should also have been the antidote to the Tri-star fiasco, buries itself within its own clichés. Like any series that has been around for a long time, there are certain obligatory actions that must be performed to satisfy audience members' expectation. As in STAR TREK, where neck pinching, transporting, and a gushing speech from Capt. Kirk on moral issues became elements of the original series and their films, the makers of Godzilla have taken the G-films peripheral elements and turned them into the mainstay of the G-2000 story: Godzilla coming ashore, Godzilla engaging the army, citizenry fleeing from the rampaging beast, and most formula of all, the film's human characters gapping on the sidelines as Godzilla squares off with the monster antagonist Orga. Whereas in STAR TREK these elements established style and only served as unity between episodes, they are used by the G-2000 filmmakers as main ingredients, with a story seemingly put together from a checklist of such items.
Interestingly enough, as the Godzilla of the 1960s reflected Japan's growing optimism, G-2000 unknowingly echoes the failings of that optimism and the loss of meaning in the Japanese life style. The human characters within G-2000 are grave, never seeming to enjoy their situations, and they move through the film motivated by either self-sacrifice to some lofty cause (in one case the understanding of Godzilla, and the destruction of Godzilla in another) or simply following orders (the female reporter covering Godzilla). Had Toho made use of this theme, combining it with Godzilla as the ultimate foreign intrusion, it could have made for one hell of a social commentary, one almost the equal of the original Godzilla and one sorely needed by the Japanese audience. Instead, this unintentional heaviness simply drains what on the other hand could have been an enjoyable escapist tale and delivers in its place a somewhat silly story filled with unrealistic characters behaving blandly and with little identifiable motivation.
G-2000 is not a bad Godzilla film when it gets down to its battle scenes. There are many imaginative angles employed, and some of the sets come across as testaments to the fine art of Japanese miniature set building. But, here again, they are entirely uneven. For every good shot, there is an equally poor one. And the CGI, so successfully used in last March's GAMERA 3, is an embarrassment, with several shots obvious beyond measure. Kudos, however, must be given to the fact that the SFX people did deliver some amazing work on a budget that, had it been done within the bloated US filmmaking system, could never have been achieved.
In the end, however, G-2000 is simply just another Godzilla film, nothing more, nothing less. Had the film been released before Daiei's modern Gamera series, a trilogy released in Japan between 1995 and 1999 that bucked the kaiju film genre to new levels of realism and excitement, it would have been adequate to meet the needs of most kaiju enthusiasts. However, in light of the achievements of the Gamera series, G-2000 comes across as a major disappointment. Godzilla, to its benefit, is an immortal character, one that needs only the right vehicle to get it back on track. Whereas G-2000 was announced as part one of a trilogy, Toho, perhaps sensing their mistake, has canceled all plans to continue the story begun with this film. G-2001, the next G-film announced at the end of G-2000, is slated for release next winter. Let us hope that with this film, Godzilla will finally be given the chance to break out of the self-constraints of the genre and prove finally why it has earned the moniker King of the Monsters.


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