Who Will Be the Last to Survive?
As a fan of the old-school Showa series of Godzilla films from the 60s and early 70s, the cheesy but good-natured rubber-monster stomps with Godzilla as a goggle-eyed protector of children, I've tended to avoid the recent re-villainized revivals of the King of the Monsters, which seem too much like live-action anime with their overwrought storylines and a Godzilla that feels too different from the giant lizard I know and love. As the botched 1998 American version demonstrated all too well, it's dangerously easy to re-imagine the Big G to the point of unrecognizability.
2001's Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack certainly isn't a return to the olden days—at least, not to the days of Monster Island and a smoke-ring-blowing Godzilla Jr.—but it brings Godzilla into the 21st century with panache and a surprisingly exciting visual style.
Godzilla has had a number of restarts since his introduction in 1954; both Godzilla 1985 and Godzilla 2000: Millennium basically ignored all of the films but the first. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, or GMK as I'll refer to it hereafter in order to save you the eyestrain, presses the reset button once again—although it does acknowledge, humorously, the American Godzilla movie. This time around, Godzilla takes on something of the mystical quality he had in those early 70s incarnations, but rather than being a force of nature given form, he's the vengeful embodiment of the souls of those killed in Asia during the Second World War. It's a rather serious premise, and GMK is a serious film for the most part, although it's rife with deliciously black humor.
GMK has made numerous changes to the Godzilla mythos that will be sure to outrage at least a few purists. One of the biggest is turning Ghidorah into a good guy, as one of the three Guardians of Japan (the others are Mothra and Baragon, who doesn't get billing in the admittedly already unwieldy title) who are roused from their slumber to do battle with Big G. I have to admit, I found this revision disconcerting, Ghidorah being one of the all-time badass villains, but within the context of the film it makes sense.
Another change that may displease fans is a shift of focus by writer-director Shusuke Kaneko (director of the well-loved Gamera giant monster flicks of the 90s) from the monsters themselves to the people who fear them. In most Godzilla movies, the non-rubber characters' stories tend to be silly afterthoughts, mainly there to fill time between monster battles. Here, the human story comes to the fore, centering around a young female reporter looking to score her career-making story, and her father, a general who experienced Godzilla's wrath firsthand in his first attack on Tokyo. It's really only a subtle shift in perspective, but you get the feeling that this is more of a story about people that involves monsters, rather than the other way around. This may be either good or bad depending on how rabid your desire is to see the rubber monsters duking it out—as it is, the big guys probably get about the least amount of onscreen time of any Godzilla film since the original—but I was pleasantly surprised. This is the first Godzilla movie I've ever seen where I actually enjoyed, rather than endured, the dialogue and acting.
When Godzilla and company do get to trading fisticuffs, the result is, again, a very different kind of fight. First of all, Godzilla's radioactive breath actually packs some atomic punch. Second, Kaneko doesn't shy away from showing us the collateral damage from the monsters' rampages. People die in this film, and oftentimes it's the good guys doing the (innocent but unavoidable) killing. One thing that has always made these monster battles a little dull for me is that the monsters always pummel and bite away at each other with seemingly little if any effect, since they're all practically invulnerable. Not here. Monsters get gory, seriously hurt, and vaporized. It ain't pretty. Subsequently, the battles themselves tend not to be of epic length, but fairly brief affairs—another thing that might put off rubber-suit-wrestling fans.
Columbia TriStar's DVD release of GMK is a pleasant surprise to this critic, who up to now has watched Godzilla films mostly on shoddy full frame VHS tapes. Godzilla gets the widescreen treatment here with a stunning (comparatively, at least) 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, with a crisp, clean print and vivid colors. Combined with Kaneko's creative camerawork, it's hard to tell this is even a Godzilla movie at times. This release shines especially bright with its audio presentation: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in both English and Japanese. Wow. The film sounds great, with an active surround mix plunging you right into the thick of the action. Even the normally atrocious English dub sounds pretty good. Somehow it's not quite a Godzilla film to me without a cheesy dub, but I'm not complaining. Godzilla has never looked or sounded this good in home video.
Sadly, extras are practically nonexistent, with only a smattering of trailers (for Alien Hunter, Godzilla (the American version), The Medallion, Returner, and So Close). Inexplicably, there's no trailer for GMK itself.
Although it looks like the superhero Godzilla of my childhood is long gone, I have to say that I enjoyed GMK far more than any Godzilla movie of the past 20 years. It's certainly different—perhaps more so than some fans might like—but if you can roll with the changes you'll find this to be one of the most exciting entries in Godzilla's long cinematic history.
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