"Gamera is really neat! He is filled with turtle meat!"—Mystery Science Theater 3000
A plutonium-laden freighter (!) runs aground on an atoll in the Pacific, threatening to leak its radioactive cargo. But the crew is even more terrified when the atoll suddenly starts drifting. Meanwhile, a trio of gigantic pterosaurs eats up a coastal village. Once again, Japan finds itself a squared circle for some giant monster wrestling action. Old favorite Gamera is back, and this time our giant turtle hero is packing more than a case of salmonella for his rival Gyaos.
When I was a kid, Sunday mornings were a time of unbridled joy. "Creature Feature" was the one thing we could count on to show us the wonders of international cinema. No, not Fellini or Godard. Sunday mornings were giant monster mayhem. We would wake up to kaiju action from Godzilla and Rodan and Mothra. But sometimes, "Creature Feature" would show Gamera. Once every few months, we would sit through that one where the dumb alien women kidnap the kids and threaten to eat their brains, until the enormous flying turtle would show up to rescue them (Gamera vs. Guiron, in case you were keeping score).
It was silly, even beyond the worst of the Godzilla movies, and we knew it. Gamera was a cheap Godzilla knock-off from rival studio Daiei, aimed at very young kids. Although the Big G sunk pretty low himself by the early '70s, battling smog monsters and barely tolerating his annoying kid Minya, you could always look back at the good old days with fond memories. Not so with Gamera the Flying Turtle, who always seemed silly.
Well, he's not silly anymore. If you ever wondered who would win in a fight between Godzilla and Gamera, you know have your answer. Godzilla won—or at least his studio did, when Toho appropriated Daiei a few years ago. And looking to resurrect the Gamera franchise with the same updated special effects that propelled its successful relaunch of its tentpole dinosaur, Toho announced in 1994 that Gamera, Guardian of the Universe would be saving the world once again.
In this version, Gamera is now a genetically engineered hero from ancient Atlantis, programmed to awaken in response to an attack by its archenemy, the evil Gyaos. Of course, none of that is comforting to the Japanese government, which seems more afraid of a giant turtle tromping through the city than a trio of killer pterosaurs.
Big mistake. While the Japanese Self-Defense Force beats up on our turtle hero, the surviving Gyaos (Gamera makes short work of the first two) grows bigger and builds a nest in the ruins of Tokyo Tower. Can Gamera save the world for children everywhere?
Sure, there are no little boys in short pants this time around (although Gamera is psychically linked to a teenage girl), but otherwise this is pretty familiar kaiju stuff: military blunders around, giant monster gets hurt for the first two acts, rubber monsters on miniature sets round out the final battle. Do not pay any attention to the human characters; they are there to pad out the running time between fight scenes, as is the case in most kaiju movies. It is all kicked up with some better special effects than they had in the 1960s, but somehow it still feels pretty cheap. ADV does not help by adding a weak English dub (stick with the Japanese soundtrack) and placing English titles in place of Japanese on-screen text.
ADV does add some decent extras though, starting with a 30-minute interview with special effects director Shinji Higuchi (the first of three parts discussing all the new Gamera films, so expect plenty of spoilers). The interview begins audaciously with a Hitchcock quote and the sounds of a "Dies Irae" signs that this new series takes itself rather seriously. Higuchi claims that his initial goal was to surpass the films of Hayao Miyazaki (!), although he tactfully admits that Miyazaki still has him beat. We are also treated to a press conference announcing the film project, a behind-the-scenes montage, a trip to the Yubari Fantasy Film Festival, and the Tokyo premiere.
This collection of extras suggests that the new Gamera production team is pretty proud of their work. Certainly, Gamera, Guardian of the Universe is not a bad film, and it delivers some solid action, but it feels like a throwback rather than a step forward. Consider it only a warm up however. The next two installments in the series, Gamera 2: Attack of Legion and Gamera 3: The Awakening of Iris, are vastly superior and probably rank among the finest of the giant monster genre. Check out Gamera, Guardian of the Universe in the spirit of a prologue to the tasty turtle treats to come.
In light of Gamera's service to mankind, our hero is acquitted and outfitted with a snappy turtleneck sweater. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Interview with Shinji Higuchi
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