Film Review
By Nathan Schiff




Godzilla: Final Wars

Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Produced by Shogo Tomiyama. Screenplay by Mr. Kitamura, Isao Kiriyama, Wataru Mimura, and Mr. Tomiyama. Cinematography by Takumi Furuya and Fujio Okawa. Starring Masahiro Matsuoka, Rei Kikukawa, Akira Takarada, Kane Kosugi, Kazuki Kitamura. Released in 2004. 125 minutes.


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    It’s amazing how long Godzilla and his compatriots have survived in an ever changing and largely hostile marketplace. Yet the charcoal gray radioactive lizard has endured into the 21st century despite the advanced techniques utilized to render imaginary creatures to life. What would finally be Godzilla’s undoing is difficult to consider. The big G has had his ups and downs in life; and like everything else, has weathered a number of transformations. Godzilla was man’s enemy at first. Then he became kind of neutral. Then he became a daddy, and this softened him up so that the mighty one was a friend to mankind. Then he reverted to being man’s enemy again: were the changing times taking their toll on Godzilla’s psyche? Because he was never more compulsive, obsessive and manically depressed than he’d ever been. Was he mystified by his pal Gamera, the giant flying fire breathing turtle? Gamera never achieved enormous success and notoriety, yet he managed to keep his shell on straight and was consistent with compulsory issues, like remaining friendly to mankind and never harming a child. Or was it easy for Gamera, because he never had a son?
    Which brings us to Godzilla: Final Wars. It’s a kind of Destroy All Monsters and Monster Zero hybrid. In the near future, atomic tests and changes in the Earth’s biorhythms give birth to a world of giant monsters and a new generation of humans called “mutants.” These “mutants,” we are told, are the next step in the evolution of mankind. Aliens, called Xians, come to Earth in peace, but secretly plot to harvest Earthlings for food. And there is Godzilla plus an all-star cast of eleven classic Toho monsters and a guest appearance by the American Tri-Star Godzilla, making a total of thirteen monsters.
    But don’t let that fool you into believing this is a monster movie. The invincible Godzilla has finally met his match, but it’s not the work of another monster, a spaceman or a new super weapon. No—it’s the modern world that destroyed Godzilla. ’Twas infantile modernity killed the beast. Awkward perhaps, but accurate all the same.
    This is Godzilla’s 50th anniversary send-off, his 28th movie. Announced by Toho Studios as the ultimate Godzilla. Described by its director as the greatest Godzilla movie ever made (save for the original). Toho even doubled the budget. Godzilla himself received a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Could it be the King of the Monsters was now a bourgeois pop-star Hollywood sell-out? Wasn’t he always the stand-alone anarchist? The lizard with no name?? The easy rider of radioactive fury??? And now: had he become a dilettante? The man about town? A fop? A poseur? Lounge lizard? How could it be?
    Look no further than Godzilla: Final Wars. If Rodan could speak, he’d probably borrow from Easy Rider’s Peter Fonda: “we blew it, man.” It’s not the worst Godzilla film ever made; it’s barely a Godzilla movie at all. The full blame goes to Toho and their new director, Ryuhei Kitamura. They apparently hadn’t a clue where to go with this movie, and hired a popular hotshot, someone lacking any real talent or merit, but with the all-action-no-substance approach that brings in the youth crowd and makes a pile of money. Why not hire a seasoned director with a proven track record with Godzilla, like Shusuke Kaneko (Gamera, Guardian Of The Universe) or Masaaki Tezuka (Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla), both of whom could work on half the budget? Instead they hired someone whose forte is violent Kung Fu videogames and gave him carte blanche—including final cut. Toho was clueless, desperate and stupid: they fashioned the ultimate Godzilla movie, the last one of them all, doubled the budget, and then allowed this abomination to spew forth.
    This movie is not about Godzilla, not about the monsters. It’s about what modish Japanese directors do best: concoct their own versions of Hollywood blockbusters. In Godzilla: Final Wars you’ll find a whole lot of the Matrix series, Star Wars, Independence Day, X-Men and even Star Trek. There’s little room for Godzilla in this Western stew. Nor do Godzilla and the other monsters possess any personality. They’re treated like inanimate objects, buildings or cars or rocks. There’s no drama to the monster action, as they appear and disappear with little to no impact. Absent from nearly half the film aside, Godzilla rips through his scenes wasting monster after monster, shoving them into oblivion without a trace of drama, suspense or excitement.
    Such complete disrespect for Godzilla and all the other Toho monsters is unforgivable. With over two hours to create the greatest send-off ever, director Kitamura displays no interest in Godzilla or his opponents. His preoccupation is evidently in extraterrestrial Kung Fu and the Keanu Reeves/Matrix look-alike, as the battles between man and alien are much longer and far more intense than anything else. I had my doubts from the start, since his first film, Versus, is insufferable drek about Kung Fu fighting zombies bereft of personality, drama or purpose. Yet the fans hail it as a horror masterwork.
    Avoiding all human drama, characters delight in striking neat poses, as if they’re in a commercial for toy rifles and designer jeans. With all the hollow posing in this film, I couldn’t help but laugh when I remembered an old Mad magazine parody in which a body builder is shown in the same gaunt pose, panel after panel, and finally in bed fixed in his “pose.” In Final Wars there is a scene where everybody breaks pose to flee Godzilla, except the lead character who’s stuck in his and has struggle out of it. In keeping with one of the more ridiculous current trends, if any poser moves an arm or turns their head, the sound of a bullet or a train zipping by snaps in at top volume.

Better days: Kumi Mizuno and Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla in Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (1966).


    Stalwarts from Godzilla’s golden age have been retrieved for guest appearances: Kumi Mizuno, so beautiful and alluring in Monster Zero (1965; oddly enough, she was the only major Toho actress that didn’t join the stunning Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama in You Only Live Twice, the Japanese-based James Bond film of 1967); Kenji Sahara, who starred in Rodan (1956); and, perhaps most importantly, Akira Takarada, who played Hedeto Ogata in the original 1954 Godzilla. (Takarada has appeared in no less than ten Toho fantasy films, four of them Godzilla entries.) Final Wars offers them small roles with nothing to say. It was shameful to see Takarada standing around speechless during the last few minutes. Couldn’t one important line have been written for him? Even the tiny twin fairies, always a unique element in the past, come off as unimpressive, given short shrift and then quickly forgotten.
    The women are given little to do except wear mini-skirts, high heels and shiny lip gloss. At first I thought they were hookers for the film’s Earth Defense Force. I had no idea that they were the Earth Defense Force. Meanwhile, the men, including the Keanu Reeves look-alike, sport frozen bouffants that are good for a giggle. They’re all very pretty and quite conscious of their Cool Factor.
    One of the leads is played by an American, Don Frye. Please note that I said an American, not an American actor. He’s a big, gruff, burly fellow who speaks in English and delivers his lines with the gravelly aplomb of Lionel Stander. Be it a skirmish with a giant monster or bidding his girl a sad farewell (“Later, sweetheart”), his tone never changes. He is rather funny, but where is Nick Adams when you need him?
    The alien leader played by Kazuki Kitamura is a wonder to behold. He’s effeminate, loves his new human face (the equivalent of us loving our new eel faces) and stages a Blue Meanie hissy fit with every defeat, jumping up and down and screaming like a petulant, amphetamine-riddled ten-year-old. This is supposed to be funny, but I think this alien is a mirror of the director himself.
    Several of the classic monsters have been redesigned to imbue a human shape, thereby drawing attention to the fact that these are men in rubber suits. That the actors perform with undisguised human movements create a tragic image. Godzilla, however, looks pretty good, is leaner and quicker than usual, and moves with dignified grace. The inclusion of Minya (or Minilla), the baby Godzilla, is the work of a certified psychopath. Resembling a retarded Muppet, he had me pining for the old tot from the 60’s. Hopping and making annoying squawking sounds, its appearance adds nothing to the plot (except, perhaps, to set up the foolish denouement). Like a lot of things had me wondering during Final Wars, why was this put in the movie? It’s badness was surely deliberate.
    The soundtrack music is an abomination. Heard independently, some of it is kind of interesting. Married to the film, however, it’s the worst soundtrack for a Godzilla movie ever. It doesn’t fit the action, lacks soul and feeling—random noise. Just like the hateful, soulless film it accompanies. With so many talented film composers in Japan, why did they farm the score out to Keith Emerson? His (by now nonexistent) name value? Why not Masamichi Amano or Michiru Oshima, who’s composed excellent scores for three Godzilla movies? Emerson is joined on the soundtrack by Nobuhiko Morino & Daisuke Yano. Together they’ve created a soundtrack that any kid could have produced on a cheap portable synthesizer. It’s videogame quality, but then so is Godzilla: Final Wars.

Probing Uranus: Final Wars predicts a post-apocalyptic population of antiquated gay stereotypes and armed, dour fashion models.


    The terrible script foils even the special effects direction. A massive monster assault early in the film is exciting and inspiring, giving the impression of a global catastrophe. But it’s short-lived, and the tone of global destruction diminishes, even though we’re informed that ninety percent of humanity has been wiped out. (We never see it, nor do we care.) Only a few shots are eye-opening and evoke split-second inspiration and wonder: Rodan’s nighttime attack on New York, the Empire State Building and moon glowing in the background; the battle between the Gotengo battleship and Manda underwater in Normandy; Angilas’s ability to curl into a ball and roll around (though I’ve been informed that this was cribbed from a videogame called Sonic the Hedgehog); Gigan looking like a killer monster (but doing very little); Monster X’s transformation into the enormous Kaiser Ghidorah; a decently staged and edited man-on-monster battle against Ebirah; and a lovely shot of Godzilla roaring with a beautiful Mt. Fuji towering behind him.
    But this amounts to five or ten minutes parceled out over a 125-minute movie. The endless Kung Fu and the nods to Independence Day and Star Wars are exhausting. I grew tired of the Matrix thread, the absurd Xian leader and baby Godzilla. What exactly was I watching? Is this film drama, science fiction epic, comedy, adventure…? Who was it made for? One moment there’s the “children’s delight” of Minilla, then we watch a man shot in the chest, vomit blood and his head split open.
    Director Ryuhei Kitamura professes to love Godzilla movies and promised to make the best one ever. But the flaws of Final Wars aren’t the minor snags of a difficult project. It’s bad filmmaking, shot and cut like an extended videogame or music video. In fact, during one monster battle, we’re treated to a heavy metal song blasting away on the soundtrack. The lyrics were indiscernible, but its title, “We Are To Blame,” speaks volumes.
    All previous twenty-seven Godzilla movies, whatever the quality, have carried some sort of message, no matter how infinitesimal. Mothra (1961) was an attack on the ugly American; The Mysterians (1957) was a plea for world peace; Rodan (1956) offers two of the titular creatures who prove that monsters can remain bound in love unto death; King Kong Versus Godzilla (1962) took a satiric jab at commercialism; Atragon (1963) examined Japanese imperialism and blind nationalism; Matango (1963) had concerns for the loss of identity; Godzilla Versus Mothra (1964) took corporate greed to task; Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) profiled the fear of Red China; Latitude Zero (1969) dared to predict a socialistic Shangri-La that worked; Godzilla Versus Hedorah (1971) was a new threat eclipsing the bomb, pollution and the destruction of our eco-system; and Godzilla Versus Mechagodzilla (1974) detailed Godzilla’s struggle against unfettered technology.
    What is the message of Godzilla: Final Wars? Well, there is none. No speeches about radiation or pollution or greedy businessmen or technology ruining our lives. Rather, the message here has to do with a future owned by a generation completely absorbed in video games, mindless Hollywood blockbusters and blaring death metal. Perhaps this film was a fitting end to the Godzilla series by default. We are shown everything that is wrong in the modern world.
    For me, this is a troubling and depressing film. I wanted to enjoy and savor this last entry in Godzilla’s history, but I felt betrayed. The kid inside me was injured. My only consolation was a small gift given out free to moviegoers in Japan. It was a model of the planet Earth about the size of a gumball, with Godzilla standing triumphantly on top. It read, “50th Anniversary 1954-2004.” This tchotchke was more of a thrill than anything on the screen in Godzilla: Final Wars.