December 13, 2005

Kaiju Movie of the Year! - GODZILLA FINAL WARS - DVD review

Kaiju Movie Of The Year!
(Japan, 2004)

Region 1 US DVD review

This monster movie was released to mark Godzilla's 50th Anniversary, and has finally surfaced with optional english translations on a US Region 1 DVD.

Godzilla Final Wars came out in Japan at the end of 2004. I've been avoiding publicity, reviews and spoilers for the past year and have just watched the US DVD. I know the film is a departure from the usual approach, but I'm writing this review before reading any others, not knowing what other Godzilla fans think about It.

Personally I thought this was totally entertaining. I'd have to think twice before recommending it to any of my friends who are into, say, mainstream American movies, but I'll certainly try and coax anyone I know who's into Japanese action or sci-fi fare. It's an outrageous, epic monster movie, in keeping with other films from cult director Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus and Azumi). The nearest movie comparison I can make is Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, where the director obviously wanted to include all his favourite ingredients, destroy the world, but keep it humorous rather than grisly.

The homage factor rates almost off the scale - Toho Studio's back catalogue of giant villains is cherry-picked for a monster rally to rival Destroy All Monsters, some after forty years in offscreen exile. The director is obviously a fan of the 1960's and 1970's Godzilla films, as these seem to be where many of the monsters have been resurrected from. Past cast members and plotlines have been plundered too and thrown together into an epic 2 hour stew.

But despite all the anniversary retro, the action and effects are cutting edge, for Japan. Yes, there's still men in suits playing the monsters, yes, there's a lot of model work, but these are occasionally supplemented by CGI for the impossible stuff. I read that the director preferred to keep as many of the special effects as possible physical (rather than CGI) because he doesn't like the CG look. That's also in keeping with the budget - Godzilla films are made for a fraction of Western action movie budgets, though Final Wars was more expensive than usual for the franchise.

What's different about this Godzilla film then is the higher budget, (noticeably bigger explosions), bigger cast, the high number of monsters (a whopping 15), and the action-packed non-monster scenes. On the premise of a superhuman defence force made up of human mutants capable of impossible strength (like X-Men meet The Matrix), besides fighting each other, we finally get spectacular scenes of humans in hand-to-hand combat with giant monsters! Makes a change from the traditional toy tanks. The lead actors seem to be doing the lion's share of the stuntwork as well.

What's harder to accept is everything that usually detracts from these admittedly family films, such as cute animals, cute monsters, a surfeit of professors, silly plotlines, and non-professional Western actors... all have all been included here. It wouldn't be a Godzilla film without some of these elements, but at least this time it's not taken seriously. The action sequences however are very seriously mounted, maybe a little more over-the-top than usual. Some of the aerial dogfight sequences are awesome.

I suspect the toughest hurdle to audiences will be the use of American stereotypes, particularly the New York Cop/Pimp scene! But at least it gives us a taste of our own medicine - goodness knows how many cross-cultural errors are going to be in Memoirs of a Geisha, for instance. Another problem is the use of apparently non-acting actors for the Western characters. All the Americans in the movie appear to be pro-wrestlers, and not the sort who can act! It all adds to the unique, mad, pumped-up, fun atmosphere of the film.

Overall, I'm thrilled by the film. I love the epic scale, the outrageous action scenes, the homage, the monsters... but will someone please open an English-speaking acting school in Tokyo?

Finally, look here for my attempt to catalogue all the Godzilla film releases on home video.

(December 2007 - this review was updated for EVIL DREAD reviews)

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