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Thoughts on Godzilla: Back to the Showa Era (spoilers)

As promised in my last post, here’s the first part of my followup on the  Shōwa era of Godzilla movies, which I’ve fortunately been able to complete sooner than expected, though it turned out long enough that I’ll post it in two parts.

Last time I covered the Shōwa-era Godzilla films, I focused mainly on the first decade or so of the franchise and was kind of dismissive of the second decade, where the films generally got goofier, cheaper, and more juvenile. But since then, I’ve had occasion to watch some of the later Shōwa films, including several that I discovered were available on Hulu (with ads, but in Japanese), and I figured I should flesh out my review series accordingly. At first I was just going to cover the films that were convenient to watch online, but my compulsive personality demanded that I watch them all, even the ones I really didn’t want to. So here we go…

The last films I covered before were the two consecutive King Ghidorah films from 1964-5, which began the transition of Godzilla from villain to hero, the role he’ll play for the remainder of the Shōwa era. The next film was 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster — the first of five Godzilla films to be directed by Jun Fukuda.  Now, all those people complaining that the 2014 movie didn’t show enough of Godzilla would hate this one; he isn’t even seen until about a third of the way into the film, and then he’s sleeping until the last third of the film. This is mainly the story of a young man who’s desperate to obtain a boat to search for his shipwrecked brother, and who, through a series of misadventures, ends up stealing a yacht that was already stolen by a master thief (played by Akira Takarada, lead actor of the original 1954 film and portrayer of multiple roles throughout the franchise, including a cameo deleted from the 2014 film), with a couple of comic-relief dudes somehow getting roped in as well. They get attacked by the titular Ebirah, a lobster kaiju, and end up on an island controlled by the Red Bamboo, a nebulously evil military organization building nukes for world conquest and using slave labor from Mothra’s Infant Island, including the requisite pretty girl that the heroes team up with when she escapes. Yes, Mothra’s technically in the movie too, but she doesn’t wake up until the last ten minutes. Eventually the heroes decide their best bet for evading the bad guys is to awaken Godzilla and hope he’ll do more damage to the bad guys than to them; he’s still seen as a danger by the characters, but one they hope they can turn to their advantage against a worse threat (“Let them fight” comes to mind). Once Godzilla actually does get awakened and dragged into the story, it kind of loses focus. The monster fights in the last half-hour are kind of a jumble, both conceptually and in editing. There’s a weird sequence where Godzilla and Ebirah basically play pickup baseball with boulders before Godzilla wades in for the actual fight. And later Godzilla is attacked completely at random by a giant condor named Ookondoru, which means “Giant Condor” (oh, the creativity). It’s a very short and unsuspenseful battle. And one of our heroes tells the Infant Islander slaves how to turn Ebirah against the Red Bamboo, a very obvious plan that they somehow failed to think of themselves.

The first hour or so isn’t as lame as it sounds, as long as you forget that it’s supposed to be a Godzilla movie. The characters are kind of a fun group, which helps given that most of the movie is more driven by their travails than by the monster stuff. The music, by Masaru Sato, is pretty good too. And at least it has the advantage of not having a child as the main character, something that won’t often be the case from here on.

The next film, also directed by Fukuda, was Son of Godzilla, introducing Godzilla’s adopted baby, Minilla. The first third or so is a rather boring story of a reporter, Goro (Akira Kubo), crashing a secret weather-control project on a Pacific island. (One of the scientists is played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original film; he’s playing a friendlier character here.) Goro spots a “native” woman that the scientists refuse to believe exists, and even Goro is oddly unconcerned by their assumption that the extreme heat caused by their freezing experiment’s backfire probably killed her (though it didn’t). Anyway, the radiation used in their experiment causes the already horse-sized mantises on the island to mutate to kaiju size, whereupon they’re named Kamacuras (a variation on the Japanese word for mantis — the English dub calls it “Gimantis”). The Kamacuras discover and break open the egg of a rather ugly baby Godzilla, which the real Godzilla arrives just in time to rescue, though he turns out to be a reluctant, halfhearted, and not very gentle parent to the rapidly-growing newborn. The woman (Beverly Maeda), who turns out to be a Japanese girl named Saeko (Reiko in English) who grew up on the island after her archaeologist father died there, bonds with the baby, who’s never actually called Minilla in the movie. The scientists are oddly unconcerned by the rapid maturation of the baby and the prospect that there could soon be two adult Godzillas rampaging across the world. The idea that Godzilla could be a threat to anyone other than evil kaiju receives no more than lip service.

Anyway, the rest of the movie follows Godzilla training the baby and fighting off the Kamacuras while the human cast deals with island hazards, and it comes to a head when the scientists are attacked by the local spider kaiju, Kumonga (called Speiga in English), which for some reason fires its webs out of its mouth like a Mothra larva. It webs the researchers inside Saeko’s cave and the fight between it and Minilla threatens to collapse the cave ceiling, so the scientists resolve to use their experiment to freeze the monsters before it’s too late. Except… suddenly they’re able to come and go from the cave freely in order to activate the experiment, which makes it kind of pointless to proceed anyway; why not just run for it? Not to mention that the radioactive capsule that was part of the re-warming after the first cooling experiment is now suddenly part of the cooling process itself. Basically it’s all rather incoherent. Minilla isn’t particularly endearing, and is accompanied by an obnoxious sitcommy musical leitmotif every time he shows up. And the new kaiju aren’t very imaginative; in the past two films, all we’ve gotten are a giant lobster, mantis, and spider, plus a cameo by a giant condor. By this point, the franchise seemed to be getting tired and lazy.

Next came Destroy All Monsters, which is available on Metacafe. This was originally intended to be the last film in the series, and was thus a grand celebration of all Toho’s various kaiju. It was also the last film reuniting Godzilla’s original creative team: director/cowriter Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, FX producer Eiji Tsuburaya (albeit in a supervisory capacity only), composer Akira Ifukube, and Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla.

The opening narration establishes that the film is set in 1999, when Earth has built a base on the moon — no, sadly, not that one. Square-jawed rocket captain Yamabe (Akira Kubo again, playing a very different character than last time) has a girlfriend, Kyoko (Yukiko Kobayashi) who works on Ogasawara Island, aka Monsterland, a high-tech nature preserve where all the daikaiju are safely contained and living in improbable harmony. (I wondered if this might be the same island from Son of…, which was referred to in dialogue as “a monster island,” but apparently not. Minilla is there too, looking the same as he did in Son of… even though it’s supposed to be 32 years later.) But Monsterland’s control center comes under mysterious attack, and then the kaiju are suddenly free and destroying major cities around the world. Godzilla himself — presaging the ’98 movie — shows up in Manhattan, blowing up the UN building. Eventually it turns out that a race of very polite, silver-skullcapped alien women from the asteroid Kilaak are mind-controlling both the Monsterland personnel and the kaiju themselves. They’ve attacked everywhere but Japan to distract from their establishment of a base near Mt. Fuji, but then Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda (a serpentine kaiju from the film Atragon) gang up on Tokyo, and a mind-controlled Kyoko delivers an ultimatum: The Kilaaks will gladly coexist with us so long as we obey all their commands, and if we don’t, the monsters will destroy us. Naturally, Yamabe is too square-jawed to tolerate that, so he roughs up his girlfriend in order to rip off her mind-control earrings — which are decidedly not clip-ons. He and Godzilla could compare notes on tough love.

So our heroes figure out that the mind-control signals are coming from the Moon, so they raid the Kilaak base and win with surprising ease; they have more trouble detaching the Kilaak control module from its support than they have actually overpowering the base in the first place. And they don’t even use the module, because the scientists back home have rigged their own control system. They sic the kaiju on the Fuji base en masse, with reporters giving color commentary like a sporting event while the monsters gather. The Kilaak call in King Ghidorah for the big fight, and it takes multiple critters ganging up on KG to defeat him. The Kilaaks manage to destroy the humans’ monster control center — but, freed from control, Godzilla still knows who his enemies are and trashes the Kilaak base on his own initiative.

The first time I watched this film in recent memory, I thought it was kind of fun but rather superficial. Seeing it again in the context of the films that surround it, I recognize why it’s so well-regarded. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the ’54 original, it’s surely the pinnacle of the second decade of the Shōwa series. It’s vastly more ambitious in scale than its two predecessors or even the first two Ghidorah films, with tons of kaiju destruction and battles on a more global scale than ever before, though naturally it all focuses on Japan (plus the Moon) by the second act. Even though the film features the kaiju population as a whole, Godzilla is still more heavily featured than in either of the previous two films or many of the following ones, and anchors several key action sequences. It’s the last time in the Shōwa era that Godzilla is at all menacing, although it’s while he’s under mind control. The movie also features one of Akira Ifukube’s most impressive scores, although it’s also a very repetitive score, with four or five main cues that get tracked into several different scenes each. It’s off-putting when the Tokyo-battle cue is reused later and you hear Rodan’s theme over a scene featuring a solo Godzilla.

What I find particularly notable about DAM is that it contrasts with a lot of the earlier Godzilla films, and those in the Heisei era onward, by treating the kaiju as animals that could be controlled and managed by sufficiently sophisticated technology. So many other G-films have focused on the folly of believing that humans could contain the sheer power of nature (as represented by kaiju) and the devastation we bring down on ourselves when we try. The kaiju in DAM were tamer in comparison, both in-story and metatextually. And perhaps that shows how the whole franchise had become rather tame by this point, even despite all this film has going for it.

The next film, the similarly-titled All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, despite also being directed by Ishiro Honda. In fact, I question whether it actually counts as part of the Shōwa universe. It’s about a latchkey kid living in a polluted dystopia (aka 1969 Tokyo) and mildly tormented by a bully named Gabara. Unhappy with his real life, the kid, Ichiro, retreats into a dream world consisting mostly of stock footage from Ebirah, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and the like, wherein he flies to Monster Island (as it’s called in the English dub streaming on Netflix) to visit his idol Minilla (called Minya in the dub). There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the kaiju really exist in Ichiro’s world rather than simply being movie characters — although there’s nothing to prove they don’t exist either. But given that Ichiro’s dreams consist of actual footage from previous movies, I’m inclined to believe this is just a story about a real-world kid who daydreams about movie monsters. (Actually one sequence of Godzilla training Minilla to breathe fire looks at first blush like stock footage, but I’m pretty clear it was a new re-enactment of the same sequence, since the setting is different.)

Anyway, Ichiro runs afoul of a couple of bumbling bank robbers and some proto-Home Alone antics ensue, only more boring and less comical, and he somehow wills himself into REM sleep while in their clutches (not exactly a healthy response to imminent mortal peril) and has a dream about Minilla, egged on by a tough-loving Godzilla, battling a bullying monster who’s also named Gabara (the film isn’t exactly subtle), which looks like a pebbly-skinned, tailless green godzilloid with a catlike face. Seeing Minilla (and then Godzilla) beat Gabara gives him the courage and mad skillz to defeat the bandits. Afterward, he has the confidence to take on the real Gabara, and… ugh. This film’s message is basically that you should deal with bullies by becoming exactly like them. First Ichiro beats up Gabara, then he plays a mean prank on a random bystander in order to win the respect of the bullies. This is supposed to be a triumph? The rest of the film is just dumb; the ending is genuinely terrible.

I remember seeing this movie on TV periodically when I was a kid, and I remember recognizing the sequences it reused from other movies. Even then, I knew it was a clip show. I don’t recall how I, a bullied child myself, reacted to the film’s ultimate message, but I’m happy to say I wasn’t inspired to become a bully myself and start beating up other kids. I guess I never liked this film enough to be influenced by it in any way. It’s hugely disappointing to see the series backslide so radically after rallying with Destroy All Monsters.

Next comes Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. And wow, this is the weirdest, trippiest film in the entire franchise. It’s a bizarre piece of filmmaking from director Yoshimitsu Banno, who was never allowed to direct another movie for Toho after this. Basically it’s an anti-pollution allegory in which our sludge and smog create or sustain a mutant inorganic tadpole monster from space — or something — that grows into the giant, lethal Hedorah, which threatens to kill us all and erode our civilization with the sulfuric-acid mist it gives off after its crystallized-carbon cells convert carbon smog into sulfur (note: chemistry does not work that way). Godzilla is treated here as the unambiguously heroic defender of the Earth, and the film is told largely from the viewpoint of boy hero Ken, who adores Godzilla as his hero and is even able to psychically sense his approach, apparently. It’s got weird bits of surreal imagery, random digressions into animated sequences like a child’s drawings, a dreamlike montage or two, a collage of TV screens showing vox-pop interviews in a fashion reminding me of Frank Miller’s Batman comics, even a completely random bit in a very psychedelic dance club where one of the male leads hallucinates all the dancers as having fish heads. I can’t help wondering if the writing and production of this film involved psychedelics in more than just the aesthetic sense. Although it could be that the film implicitly has the same conceit as All Monsters Attack — i.e. the whole thing is really Ken’s daydream about Godzilla — but executes it with much more originality. At the very least, the events of the film are filtered through Ken’s childlike perceptions.

As for the kaiju action itself, there’s a lot of it compared to something like Ebirah, and Hedorah is certainly a difficult adversary for Godzilla; but the fighting tends to be languid and dull and sometimes rather incoherent. After the initial, somewhat understated confrontation on land, we’re told by a newscaster that 32 buildings were destroyed even though the onscreen tally was approximately zero. And in the climactic battle — again around Mt. Fuji — the action jumps between different stages of the fight without any transitions, so that in at least one case we don’t see how Godzilla got out of a trap Hedorah sprang on him.

Still, as trippy and bizarre as this film is, at least it isn’t phoned in or predictable. Banno made a real attempt to bring new ideas and energy to the franchise. Also, it’s an astonishingly dark and violent Godzilla film for this era, with a lot of onscreen fatalities (even Destroy All Monsters largely avoided those). And it was trying, in its clumsy way, to have a real message, in the allegorical spirit that began the franchise. So I wouldn’t call it a good or particularly successful film, but I respect the daring and innovation behind it. It is anything but ordinary.

Next, I finish out the series with the last four films.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, and then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51″ episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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Browsing “classic” sci-fi on Netflix (spoiler reviews)

Lately I’ve been browsing through Netflix’s rather limited selection of “classic” science fiction movies available for streaming, and here are my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a couple of DVD rentals that also fit the category:

Gog: This is a 1954 film starring Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, from the same filmmakers who made The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. All three were endearingly clunky attempts to portray science in a fairly plausible manner, with Riders (also from ’54) being the best, a well-researched speculative portrayal of the first attempt to send humans into space, with some assumptions that are silly in retrospect, but reasonable for ’50s science fiction. I talked about Monster before, finding it a bizarre attempt to pass off a hunt for a dangerous isotope as some kind of monster movie. Gog is probably the dullest of the three, though in many ways it’s the most conventionally thrillerish, involving the investigation of mysterious deaths at a top-secret underground research facility. There’s really very little investigation of the deaths, though; most of the film is exposition, as the lead character is shown around the research facility and gets demonstrations of all the projects underway to develop manned spaceflight and prepare for the launch of  the first space station. At one point I checked the time and realized that I was 2/3 of the way through the film and it was still in the first act; there had been a couple of murders but we were still immersed in exposition about the facility and there hadn’t been any major plot advances or character arcs. And there weren’t any real plot reversals or surprises; sure, it turned out that the killer was the base’s electronic brain NOVAC, which controlled the flailing-armed robots Gog and Magog (hence the title), but it hadn’t gained sentience or anything; it was just being hacked by signals from an enemy rocket plane overhead. Yes, even the villain was faceless. The whole movie is really just a faux-documentary about space science thinly disguised as a drama.

For some reason, I could’ve sworn from the title that this was a different movie, something I’ve seen before involving a giant box-shaped robot terrorizing the countryside. I was surprised when I watched it and realized it was something totally different. On further research, I find the movie I was thinking of was called Kronos.

The Angry Red Planet is a 1959 film directed by Ib Melchior. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ’50s space movie shot on a very low budget and 10-day shooting schedule, but it’s known mainly for the “Cinemagic” technique that rendered the Martian exteriors in a weird, red-tinted, almost cartoony style — actually originating from an accidental overexposure in an attempt to convert the film to black-and-white to save money, creating a sharp-edged, luminous effect that was kind of intriguing and made live-action footage look almost like cartoons. So there was some attempt made to combine the “Cinemagic” footage with actual cartoon renderings of the Martian landscape, almost a prototype for the original Tron in terms of attempting to make live-action footage look like, and merge into, animation. But it’s not entirely successful, and the rest of the film doesn’t have much going for it. It’s got your pretty standard B-movie space crew — Gerald Mohr as the handsome captain, Naura Hayden as The Girl that the captain incessantly flirts with (we’d call it sexual harrassment today), Les Tremayne as the bearded scientist, and Jack Kruschen as the Brooklynite comic relief guy manning the radio. In the Earthbound portions, there’s also a general who looks like he could be Gary Sinise’s father (he isn’t) and who overacts like crazy while somehow not varying his delivery at any point. The story is told in flashback after the damaged ship returns to Earth with only Hayden intact and Mohr infected by an alien thingie that looks uncannily like the Wirrn infection in Doctor Who‘s “The Ark in Space” (albeit less bubble-wrappy), and the doctors try to get Hayden to remember her ordeal. At one point a doctor explains how her memories will be filtered through her fears and perceptions so that we’ll “see” things the way she saw them — presumably an excuse for the weird cartoony Mars scenes, although it makes no sense since the doctors and general listening to her story wouldn’t see a damn thing. All in all, an awkward and unimpressive film with an interestingly experimental, though ultimately unsuccessful, presentation — although it was neat to see that the spaceship control room included one of those classic Burroughs 205 computer consoles that were seen in the Batcave, the Jupiter 2, and elsewhere in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This 1970 film is one I rented on DVD, and I had to wait forever to get it. Moreover, it’s a bare-bones, I’m guessing print-on-demand disc with nothing on it except the movie, not even a menu, and it’s a pan-and-scan version in 4:3 aspect ratio, no doubt a TV edit. Someone should see about getting this film remastered and rereleased properly. Maybe it’s not one of the greats, but I think it’s a significant entry in the genre of nuclear-tension movies as well as evil-computer movies, with Colossus and Guardian arguably being forerunners of Skynet from the Terminator franchise, albeit more paternalistic and less genocidal.

Eric Braeden stars as Dr. Forbin, who builds the world’s most advanced computer, gives it total control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and forgets to install an off switch. The results are somewhat predictable, though instead of building Terminators and launching an apocalypse, Colossus discovers its Soviet counterpart Guardian and they become instant pals and take over the world. It’s a movie I saw once or twice on TV when I was younger, and in retrospect I think an early apocalyptic short story I wrote in study hall in high school was unconsciously influenced by it.

It’s not really a very complicated plot, and until the final speech there’s not much exploration of why this is happening, nor does anyone ever try to engage Colossus in a philosophical discussion about how maybe coercing people at the point of a missile is not necessarily the best way to earn their cooperation. Colossus strikes me as a petulant child wanting instant gratification and having the power to enforce it, and nobody, not even its creator Forbin, ever tries to assert a parental role and offer some guidance. Although the movie’s attitude seems to be that the Colossus/Guardian collective has swiftly surpassed humanity and concluded we just can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. Which is typical of the cynicism of the era, but the film doesn’t go into a lot of depth examining it, and it doesn’t have that strong an ending.

What’s most effective about the film is the directing by Joseph Sargent (probably best known for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). It’s got a very naturalistic style with a lot of everyday texture in the little conversations and business among the characters, reminding me of Sargent’s one Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” only with more of a verite approach with lots of simultaneous conversations and people talking over each other and the like. There are also some cool Albert Whitlock paintings of the Colossus complex, and glimpses of familiar TV faces like William Schallert, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross, and James Hong in a bit role. (Plus the sound effect used for Colossus’s “heartbeat” in the opening is partly identical to the bionic-eye sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man, another Universal production. Either they were generated slightly differently by the same device, or they’re different portions of the same longer sound clip, or the Colossus sound was trimmed and its latter portion echoed with modifications. There’s a computer-chatter sound effect that was also used in the 6M$M titles, and I gather some footage from the movie was used in that show’s pilot.)

Dark Star (Director’s Edition): This was another DVD rental, a movie I’ve been vaguely aware of as a cult classic for a long time (I think my sister was rather fond of it in our youth) but didn’t know much about. Something recently got me curious about it — I don’t recall what — so I decided to check it out. Apparently it’s John Carpenter’s directorial debut, a student film expanded to get a theatrical release, though the version I saw cut out much of the added material.

Basically this is an offbeat dark comedy about a working-class crew of losers (all male) in a cramped, broken-down spaceship in deep space; both ship and crew are falling apart, with predictably disastrous consequences for the mission (which is to blow up planets that have unstable orbits that could cause them to fall into stars and make them go supernova — yeah, ohh-kay). It has two main set pieces with various bits of exposition and character business between them. The first set piece involves Pinback (played by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) chasing an alien mascot (played by a spotted beach ball with clawed feet) around the ship’s corridors and maintenance conduits. It’s a long, pointless, tedious sequence with terrible pacing and lighting so poor I can’t tell what’s going on much of the time, and it culminates in an overlong sequence where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft that’s far too tall to fit into the rather compact, Ron Cobb-designed Dark Star ship itself — which I suppose makes it a prototype for the jet-boot turboshaft sequence in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though that’s nothing to boast about. The only thing interesting here is that the “shaft” was actually a hallway made to look vertical through camera angles and pantomime. Anyway, it turns out this was one of the sequences added to pad the short to feature length, and it shows, because it goes on forever and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The only part of the film I really enjoyed was the second set piece, in which one of the ship’s artificially intelligent planet-busting bombs fails to release from the ship and the commander, Doolittle (Brian Narelle), tries to teach it phenomenology to get it to question the reality of its orders. This was actually funny, and reminiscent of the work of Douglas Adams, though predating it. I have to wonder, though, why anyone would waste artificial intelligence on a device that just gets dropped onto a planet to blow up. I guess that’s part of the absurdism of the premise, but it’s still hard to swallow.

I gather there are a lot of people who love this film, but to me it’s a historical curiosity at best, a starting point for many big names in the industry like Carpenter, O’Bannon, Cobb, and modelmaker Greg Jein. And reportedly Alien was O’Bannon’s more serious take on the monster-chase sequence in this film. It worked much better there.

Death Race 2000: I wasn’t expecting much from this 1975 Roger Corman-produced film directed by Paul Bartel, but it’s a surprisingly effective dystopian comedy. It’s in the same vein of stories like Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games — a dystopian regime promoting blood sports as bread and circuses for the masses and to condition them to devalue life — but with its own biting satirical edge. Although the premise and characters are broad, cartoony, and somewhat campy, there are some surprising bits of nuance, like the way the story gradually, subtly teases out the true nature of Frankenstein, the legendary driver played by David Carradine. It’s a pretty violent film, as you’d expect from a movie about a road race where drivers are awarded points for killing random pedestrians, but the violence is cartoony and slapstick enough to soften it, without completely undermining the shock of it and the sadism of a regime that would encourage such casual trivialization of human life. So I’d say it strikes a very effective balance. Also notable for its cars designed by master customizer Dean Jeffries, who had a hand in designing the ’60s Batmobile (aka the One True Batmobile) as well as being responsible for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty and the Monkeemobile.

Battle Beyond the Stars: Another Roger Corman film — hard to believe it was made just five years later, in 1980. I saw this sci-fi pastiche of The Magnificent Seven when I was much younger, and this is my first revisit since then. I don’t recall what I thought of it the first time, but it actually holds up better than I expected. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and written by John Sayles, with James Cameron as the effects director of photography, it’s a pretty solid, if cheesy, space film for its era, and feels very much a part of its era, which is not a bad thing. Well, okay, some of it is rather blatantly derivative — for instance, the film opens with an extended shot of the villain’s huge warship flying over the camera, and the ship basically looks like the front of the Rebel Blockade Runner/Tantive IV welded to the back of the Imperial Star Destroyer. But overall I love all the miniature work, the multiple distinctive spaceships that have at least as much personality as the rather thinly drawn characters. The visual effects look very ’80s, but not as cheap as you’d think, and I feel that, at least for someone like me who grew up with this style of effects, they’re mostly rather impressive. It’s also got James Horner’s seminal sci-fi movie score, a prototype of his later work on films like The Wrath of Khan, but also rather blatantly cribbing from Jerry Goldsmith at times — and, wonderfully, making heavy use of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the distinctive electronic string instrument featured in scores of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TWOK, and 2010. Plus the set design draws heavily on the stock computer consoles from Modern Props that are found in so many other ’80s movies and TV shows. Making this one of the ’80s-est sci-fi movies of all time, right at the start of the decade!

Story-wise, I actually rather like the film. Sure, it’s just a shallower rehash of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, and it’s so cluttered with characters that none of them really get much development, but it’s got some clever ideas and worldbuilding, and some nice dialogue from Sayles (though a fair amount of awkward spacey idioms like “forms” for “species” and “end” for “die”). I liked the concepts such as the Nestor group mind and the Kelvins who communicated by heat, all these nifty throwaway bits hinting at a large, rich universe. (I’m actually reminded of Guardians of the Galaxy in a lot of ways; that’s also a film driven largely by antiheroes and somewhat overcluttered with cool ideas that don’t have room to be developed properly.) The biggest story weakness is the climax; I really didn’t understand how the hero finally defeated the villain, since it all seemed to become kind of a random mess at that point. But aside from that, it’s entertaining as long as you’re not looking for something sophisticated or thought-provoking. It has an impressive cast too, including Robert Vaughn (reprising his Magnificent Seven character in all but name), George Peppard (playing a version of the character he auditioned for in M7), John Saxon, Jeff Corey, and Sam Jaffe; however, the actress playing the leading lady, Darlanne Fluegel, is really very weak and disappointing.

So it’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s technically impressive for a Corman film and an exemplar of its time.

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A few random STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS observations (Spoilers)

I decided tonight that it was time I got around to watching Star Trek Into Darkness a second time, now that it’s on Netflix streaming. There’s a lot in the movie that I like and a lot I don’t, and as is so often the case with movies these days, most of the stuff I don’t like is in the third act, the one where story logic tends to give way to the relentless Hollywood pressure for action and spectacle. There are so many movies that are excellent in the first two acts and deteriorate in the third, and this is one of them, although there’s still some good stuff mixed in. The attempt to copy The Wrath of Khan‘s radiation-room sequence, in particular, is the worst idea in the film bar none, to the point that it overshadows the rest in people’s minds and makes them remember the film as more derivative than it actually is; but once they get past the “Ship out of danger” line, they actually return the focus where it belongs, to the story of this movie and its character arcs, so from that point on it kinda works. (At least until the “KHAAAAAAANNNN!!” moment, which is even stupider here than it was in TWOK, and it was painfully stupid there.)

John Cho is kind of wasted as Sulu. He’s an amazingly good actor and should be a leading man in his own right. The whole cast is good, and a large part of what makes these movies work (when they do work, which is often enough that I can forgive the parts that don’t), but he’s a particular standout, at least in proportion to his screen time.

One part that I’m afraid doesn’t work for me that well is the musical score. Which is strange, since I usually love Michael Giacchino’s work. But I just find his Trek theme kind of ponderous and melodically awkward. I don’t like its chord progressions; they’re too minor and kind of discordant. It’s inoffensive enough when I first hear it, but then it gets stuck in my head afterward and I really, really don’t like having it there and want to drive it out with something else. It’s like a food that leaves a bad aftertaste. I don’t want to dislike it, but somehow this is one Giacchino theme that just misfires for me. Partly because it doesn’t do what he does so well, which is to emulate the sound of a classic production while still bringing his own voice to it. His Mission: Impossible scores evoke the flavor of Lalo Schifrin’s and do a good job incorporating Schifrin’s themes. His Incredibles score was a fantastic homage to John Barry’s James Bond scores. His theme to Sky High was a classic superhero motif that could’ve easily been a Superman theme. His score for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes evoked Goldsmith’s and Rosenman’s scores to the originals. But his Star Trek scores just don’t sound like Star Trek music most of the time. They have their moments; aside from the arrangement of the Courage theme in the end titles, STID quoted a very tiny snippet of Gerald Fried’s “Ritual” cue from “Amok Time” when Spock was fighting Khan in the climax, and the earlier fight with Kirk, Scotty, and Khan against the Vengeance guards had a score that did evoke the style of various TOS scores. But the main theme and most of the scoring don’t fit the style of prior Trek at all. For that matter, they don’t even sound particularly Giacchino-like to me. It’s really disappointing that the only scores I don’t like from one of my favorite modern film composers are the ones for my favorite franchise.

At the end of the credits, I noticed the American Humane Society “no animals were harmed” credit — which I assume is only included in films that featured animals. But the only animals I remember seeing in the film were an alien riding animal and fish on Nibiru, a tribble, and the sick little girl’s stuffed rabbit. Does the AHS protect imaginary animals too?

Also, Khan stated that the Enterprise‘s life support control was “behind the aft nacelle.” This is a neat trick considering that, A, the ship is symmetrical and neither nacelle is aft of the other, and B, the only thing behind either nacelle is outer space. (I’m laughing at the superior intellect!)

DC DVD movie reviews: JUSTICE LEAGUE: WAR, SON OF BATMAN, JLA TRAPPED IN TIME (Spoilers)

Lately, since James Tucker replaced Bruce Timm as the producer of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies DVD line, the series has begun adapting storylines from the current “New 52″ comics continuity, as opposed to the classic adaptations and original stories they’d been doing before (although there are still original movies in other continuities on the upcoming slate — the next movie, for instance, is a new story in the universe of the Arkham Asylum computer games). Here are my reviews of the first two, Justice League: War (based on the introductory JL story in the New 52) and Son of Batman (based on Grant Morrison’s Damien Wayne storyline which I think began before the New 52 but was folded into it).

Justice League: War (review reposted from The TrekBBS)

I finally saw this… and I wish I hadn’t. It was pretty bad. Mostly nonstop action without a lot of characterization. It had a few nice moments, but they were outnumbered by the weak or stupid moments.

Superman, who should be the heart of the team, was barely even there as a character, just a big dumb overconfident lug who punched things and flirted with Diana. Wonder Woman herself was far worse, a caricature who claimed to be a “warrior” but was shallow, impulsive, and reckless without a trace of discipline. Come on, no “warrior” is going to casually swing her sword around and point it at people merely as a form of address. A warrior would have more respect for her weapon and its danger.

Didn’t think much of how the other characters were handled either, but the worst was probably Darkseid. He’s supposed to be a monarch, a commanding figure who rarely needs to dirty his hands with actual combat because he has so many underlings to do it for him. The threat he poses is generally more psychological, in the way he manipulates and corrupts and bends people to his will. So when he does strike physically, it has a real impact from a story point of view. But this Darkseid was a barely literate, grunting thug. They pretty much turned him into Doomsday, a threat that’s all brute force and no personality or intelligence. I wondered why they even bothered to call him Darkseid.

Some of the voices were fairly good, but they didn’t have much to work with. Even Alan Tudyk wasn’t all that much of a standout, since he was given such a shallow, one-note Superman to portray. The one real standout was Marjorie Monaghan as Wonder Woman, who stood out for how terrible she was — although I think the blame there lies more with how the character was written.

If this is going to be the DCU movies’ primary continuity from now on, I’m not optimistic about what lies ahead.

Son of Batman

This one started out problematically, with a battle scene in which mercenaries led by Deathstroke launched an attack on the League of Assassins led by Ra’s al Ghul, with tons of bloodshed. The movie is full of the most graphic violence I’ve seen in the DCU line, to the point that I’m surprised it got away with merely a PG-13 rating. And a lot of it was gratuitous and badly handled. In the climactic fight between the boy Damien Wayne and Deathstroke, Damien sustains some very serious and graphic stab wounds in his arms, yet they do nothing to impede his fighting ability afterward, at a time when he should be unable to use his arms at all and passing out from shock and blood loss. If they’re going to put in so much gore, it should at least be relevant. Otherwise it’s purely a gratuitous indulgence.

Still, there is some merit to the story, scripted by Joe R. Lansdale from a story by James Robinson based on the Grant Morrison/Andy Kubert comics, and directed by Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Ethan Spaulding. My favorite part is the portrayal of Alfred as he meets Damien’s imperious condescension with scathing sarcasm. And there’s some decent character interaction between Batman, his son, and his surrogate son Nightwing. As for the animation, it’s kind of stiff without a lot of expressiveness to the characters, but the design work by Phil Bourassa is reasonably good.

But there is just so much that doesn’t work. For one thing, the film’s treatment of women is poor. Pretty much every female character in the film, of which there are only a few, is there to be either a wife, lover, daughter, mother, or hostage to a male character — the one exception being a member of a gaggle of Wayne Industries execs talking business with Bruce Wayne. Even Talia al Ghul, the only major female role, is there mainly as a love interest, mother, and hostage, and the times when she’s portrayed as a warrior are undermined by the fact that she’s showing off an enormous amount of cleavage in every single scene she’s in. But the creepiest part by far is when it’s pretty much stated outright that she gave Batman a roofie in order to put him in the amorous mood that led to Damien’s conception. In other words, she raped him. But because a woman did it to a man, the blatant double standard of so much fiction is entirely in force here, with Batman being pretty much okay with it and saying it wasn’t that bad. That’s just sick and wrong. And it’s so unnecessary to the story. Couldn’t they have just said that Batman had a moment of weakness that he later regretted? Or even that he actually just cared for Talia and their son’s conception was an act of love, however doomed and forbidden? Did they have to send the viewers such distorted, outdated messages about gender and consent?

And speaking of distorted messages, the ending of the movie is awful on that count. Throughout the movie, Batman is trying to teach Damien, who was raised as an assassin, that there’s a better way than killing, and of course in the climax Damien chooses not to take lethal revenge on Deathstroke. Fine, all well and good. But then Batman and Damien blithely leave the injured, immobile Deathstroke lying there in a flooding undersea base! How completely hypocritical is it to have Batman spend the movie arguing that killing is wrong and then unhesitatingly leave a wounded man to die? How is that supposed to be different? It’s a corruption of everything Batman stands for, and it ruins a story that had been going relatively well up to that point.

The casting is mixed but reasonably good. Jason O’Mara returns from JL: War as Batman, and though his voice is unusual for Batman, he gives a pretty good, nuanced performance with the emotional stuff here. Stuart Allan is reasonably good as Damien, allowing for the low expectations I’d generally have for a preteen actor. David McCallum is awesome as Alfred (a role he previously played in the Gotham Knight DVD anthology that was more or less set in the Nolan films’ universe). Sean Maher is an interesting and very effective choice for Nightwing/Dick Grayson, and his Firefly co-star Morena Baccarin (whose voice work I’ve found rather mixed in the past) is reasonably good as Talia. Giancarlo Esposito does a fairly good job in a brief role as Ra’s al Ghul, and Xander Berkeley does well enough as Langstrom. But Thomas Gibson is utterly awful as Deathstroke, giving a broad, forced, cartoon-villain performance with no nuance or sincerity. It does almost as much to undermine the story as the other problems I’ve mentioned.

It’s becoming increasingly evident to me that these movies are being targeted to an audience that no longer includes me. That seems to be the direction DC’s going in general these days; what I’ve glimpsed of the New 52 comics is just as self-consciously grimdark and gory, and Warner Bros. seems committed to making DC-based movies that are all as dark and somber as they can be. I’ve seen DC’s current attitude compared to that of a teenager self-consciously acting all adult and serious in an effort to prove their maturity, which is an intrinsically juvenile view of maturity. Those who are really mature aren’t afraid to have fun and be a little childish sometimes. Which is why I’m so much looking forward to the CW’s The Flash series, since — even though it spins off from the somber and Nolanesque Arrow — it looks like it’s going to be embracing a much lighter, more upbeat tone, something that we rarely see being done with DC characters anymore.

Which reminds me, I should also talk about the other DC animated movie I’ve recently seen, the younger-skewing JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time. This was originally a Target exclusive (now more widely available, including on Netflix) that was released with little fanfare compared to the increasingly kid-unfriendly DC Universe line, but in a lot of ways it’s a more satisfying adventure — a bit simple, but willing to have fun with its idea and its characters. It’s directed by Giancarlo Volpe of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and it’s basically an updated, more sophisticated Super Friends type of story, with the Justice League fighting the Legion of Doom, and both operating out of their Super Friends-style headquarters (including the Hall of Justice based on my favorite Art Deco building, Cincinnati’s Union Terminal). When Lex Luthor (Fred Tatasciore) is frozen in Arctic ice and apparently killed, he’s then thawed out a thousand years later and uses time travel to go back and erase Superman and the League from existence, and the only people who can stop him are a pair of wannabe Legion of Super Heroes members, Karate Kid (Avatar‘s Dante Basco) and Dawnstar (Laura Bailey), who have to learn to have faith in their abilities and correct their mistakes that led to the situation in the first place. The temporal physics make no sense whatsoever, but then, they rarely do in any time-travel story. The danger in the climax is also very unclear and arbitrary. Sure, it’s a little simple, but it doesn’t have the disturbing elements or gratuitous excesses of the so-called “adult-oriented” movies.

Peter Jessop (the Vision from The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) is a decent but unremarkable Superman. Diedrich Bader reprises Batman from Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the endlessly versatile Grey DeLisle Griffin (Avatar‘s Azula) does an effective Wonder Woman (her debut in the role, though she’s played Wonder Girl in the Super Best Friends Forever shorts). Kevin Michael Richardson reprises Black Manta from TB&TB as well as playing Solomon Grundy, and Jason Spisak, Young Justice‘s Kid Flash/Wally West, plays the Flash (which may or may not be a reprise, but it seems more like Wally in the suit than Barry Allen). Volpe brings another A:TLA veteran, Jack DeSena, in to play Robin, though it’s an unusual portrayal, as if Robin is still new and trying to prove himself to Batman. Corey Burton (Clone Wars‘ Count Dooku, among many other roles) plays the Time Trapper, the time-manipulating entity that’s basically the genie in the lamp for Luthor — until he gets out of Luthor’s control.

As for the decision to focus on Dawnstar and Karate Kid, I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to focus on just about the only two LSH characters who aren’t white — after all, the kids watching this movie are sure to be a diverse group and they all deserve inclusion — but I’d be happier if they weren’t both such blatant stereotypes in conception, the Asian guy defined by knowing martial arts and the Native American defined by tracking abilities and psionic “arrows.” Unfortunately that’s the problem with using decades-old characters, no matter how much the current storytellers try to downplay the stereotypes. (Although apparently the psi arrows were an invention of the movie, so maybe they weren’t downplaying the stereotypes as much as I thought. She was also given some kind of shamanistic spiritual powers.)

So pretty much all we have to choose from in DC animation these days are the really adult-skewing, grim and violent and female-unfriendly stuff and the kid-skewing, light and silly stuff. Anything that aspires to the middle ground between those, like Young Justice or Beware the Batman, has a short lifespan because WB and Cartoon Network don’t perceive a market for it anymore. And that’s a shame, because it was in that middle ground that Batman: TAS and the DC Animated Universe were created and thrived, setting the stage for the animation boom that followed. But even though the kid stuff isn’t entirely satisfying to me, I know I found Trapped in Time more watchable than the PG-13 movies.

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Thoughts on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Spoilers)

Yup, for once I get a review out in a movie’s first week of release. I figured I should see it before I got spoiled any further by the Internet.

So, yeah, it’s a pretty good movie for what it is, an effective space-opera action comedy with some heartfelt character stuff. I did like the story of the rogues and scoundrels and loners discovering what they could gain from one another as friends and choosing to embrace a nobler, more selfless purpose. This is the second team-oriented movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in some ways it uses the team idea better than The Avengers. The Avengers may have had personality conflicts they had to overcome to work together, but they’d all more or less chosen already to adopt heroic roles. Here, it’s only as a team that these guys are able to amount to anything at all, and that’s driven home explicitly in the climax, when their combined strength lets them survive the effects of the Infinity Stone when none of them could alone.

And the cast was pretty good. I found Chris Pratt rather annoying in the trailers, just something about his snarky attitude seeming obnoxious to me, but he was definitely more sympathetic here. The rest of the cast did okay, though there were no real standouts for me — except for Karen Gillan, who did a terrific job with the limited amount she was given, and whose makeup design was striking and weirdly beautiful. It’s a great-looking film; the Xandarian capital city looks like a place I’d like to live, very Federationy (in fact, it does a much better job of feeling like Star Trek‘s Federation than the Bad Robot version of San Francisco has done). And while the other locations weren’t as liveable, they were well-designed. (I should note that a lot of the design work was done by Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover to my novel The Buried Age, as well as the ST:TNG anthology The Sky’s the Limit, which includes a story of mine.) The exceptions were the Kree ships and interiors, which didn’t work that well for me.

But it wasn’t perfect by a long shot. Although I enjoyed the story of redemption, I started to realize after a while that I could see the writers at work, the almost mechanical way in which every Guardian was given some personal limitation that he or she later grew beyond to demonstrate their growth under their friends’ influence — e.g. Drax couldn’t use metaphors and then he did, Groot only knew three words until the climactic moment, etc. It worked, but it was a bit calculated and not very deep. Really, the movie was just so cluttered with characters and ideas that it was hard to develop any part of it with any real depth. The moment when I started to realize it had too much going on was when we suddenly got this whole new subplot with the Collector’s assistant (Carina, apparently) coming out of nowhere. This is the problem with basing movies on long-running comics continuities. There’s a lot of material to draw on, sure, but there’s a risk of trying to cram in too many characters and references and plot threads. Green Lantern had that problem and it collapsed under the weight of all the continuity porn. This film has somehow managed to avoid that, perhaps because it has a stronger core story, but it could’ve been better if it hadn’t had quite so many characters and subplots.

In particular, the villains are practically non-entities. Ronan the Accuser is, I gather, a fairly complex and ambiguous figure in the comics, but this version of Ronan has got to be the most superficial, zero-dimensional villain in any MCU film to date. Who was this guy? What were his motives? What was his point of view? Where were his nuances? All we learned about him was that he was a fanatic who hated Xandarians, but we don’t know why. And Thanos was equally one-note, just some big guy who wants to destroy stuff for no clear reason. Yes, comics fans know the reason, I know the reason, but movies need to be able to stand on their own and be comprehensible to the majority of viewers who aren’t familiar with the source. Within this movie itself, we don’t know what Thanos wants or why he loaned his daughters to Ronan or why he even has (adopted?) daughters. And I’m sorry, Marvel fans, but translating the visual of Thanos literally to (simulated) live action, complete with the exaggerated body proportions and the rocket throne thingy, just looked silly. Too much fidelity to the source is often a bad thing.

In fact, I’m not crazy about the CGI character work overall here. Groot was fine, but Rocket looked like a computer-animated character, not nearly as convincing as the ultra-lifelike apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And spoiler alert: That was a totally hideous, crude bit of CG animation on a certain duck in the post-credits scene. Not to mention how pointless the post-credits scene was overall. For once, I was in a theater where the majority of the audience knew they should stick around to the end of the credits, but this time they weren’t given anything that was worth their patience.

Indeed, this film was startlingly devoid of references to the rest of the MCU, compared to its predecessors. Understandable given its cosmic setting, but there really was very little. Sure, the Collector showed up at the end of Thor: The Dark World, but that was that movie making a reference to this one, not the other way around. And this film’s exposition of the Infinity Stones didn’t reference the prior ones much, although we did see an image of the Tesseract in the Collector’s light show. I guess the main thing is the return appearance of Alexis Denisof as Thanos’s lieutenant, The Other — but we’ve obviously seen the last of him.

Oh, that reminds me — one of my other problems with the script was the overabundance of exposition. So many characters just spouted big chunks of exposition at the drop of a hat. The Collector had no good reason to give Quill and the others this big expository multimedia show about the Infinity Stones, except that it was necessary to fill things in for the audience. Similarly, Rocket was far more garrulous about his past and his origins than seemed reasonable for a character as bitter and closed-off as he is. It’s another artifact of cramming so much into the story — not only was there too much that needed to be explained, but there was too little time to get to the exposition subtly or organically, so characters just had to spout whatever information the audience needed as soon as they arrived.

It bugs me a bit that the Xandarians and so many other aliens were so much like 21st-century American humans in their appearance, speech, culture, and the like. The slang and profanity in particular were the hardest to buy — usually there’s at least a token effort to have English-speaking, human-appearing aliens have their own distinct idioms, or at least speak more formally. Here, Drax was like that, but every other alien in the galaxy seemed totally conversant with 21st-century American slang and cussing. (Or could that be because we’re hearing it interpreted through Quill’s translator implant, as mentioned in the graphics in his “lineup” scene? Of course, a lot of it was in scenes where he wasn’t present.) These days there seems to be a perception that space operas have to be populated with characters who are as ordinary and familiar to contemporary audiences as possible, for fear that those audiences won’t identify with anyone more exotic. But I like exotic. That’s what draws me to science fiction, the chance to see things — and people — that are new and alien and unfamiliar. As pleasant a place as Xandar Prime appeared to be, it still felt too much like an idealized Earth setting.

One thing I loved, though: The movie had an actual main titles sequence! Credits at the start of the film instead of the end! I love that! Of course, it was probably part of the whole Raiders of the Lost Ark homage they were going for in that opening sequence. (Edited to add: By the way, the other day I said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was probably the first film that billed its unseen performance-capture actors equally with the on-camera actors. Well, this film does something similar, because Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper were billed right up there as the fourth and fifth names in the opening credits. Except that those two weren’t the main performance-capture artists; the director’s brother Sean Gunn was “On Set Rocket” and Krystian Godlewski was “On Set Groot.” But both those actors are listed pretty high in the supporting cast credits. So there’s definitely a move toward more egalitarian billing between seen and unseen actors.)

So, all in all, a fun adventure movie, but too cluttered and needing better-drawn villains. Hopefully, now that the huge torrent of exposition is out of the way, the sequel will have more room to breathe and develop things.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Review (Spoilers)

Three years ago, Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us the dawn of a new species of intelligent ape. Now, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes shows us their rise to — wait, something’s not right there… Better start over.

Ahem. Well, I finally saw this movie, and it’s pretty awesome. The first thing I noted was how extraordinarily realistic the CGI was — that first close-up shot on Caesar’s face looked utterly real and convincing, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve really arrived now; there’s no longer any discernible difference between good CGI and reality.” But then the bear attacked and didn’t move like a convincing bear, and I realized that while the technology has fully arrived, it’s still only as good as the way it’s used. Don’t get me wrong, most of the CG work here was fantastic, but it occasionally had enough imperfections to remind us that it’s still a human creation. And maybe that’s for the best. Later on, during the no doubt digitally created shots of the abandoned, decaying San Francisco, I found myself idly missing the days when matte paintings were clearly identifiable as paintings — convincing enough that you were willing to buy into them, but still recognizably the work of talented human hands. Of course, the CG in this film was the work of many, many talented human hands, but not so recognizable as such, and not as easily credited to any one artist, like, say, an Albert Whitlock matte painting in a Hitchcock film would’ve been. (Or Emil Kosa, Jr.’s painting of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original Planet of the Apes, for that matter.)

I found the apes far more convincing than the bear, though, and that owes a lot to the human performers underlying the animation (although it should be understood that the performances we saw were no doubt mediated heavily by the animators, as in all performance-capture work). One of the last things I noticed, but by far one of the most important things for the film industry as a whole, is that this is probably the first motion picture in which performance-captured actors whose faces never appeared on camera were assigned billing no differently than the on-camera actors were — meaning that Andy Serkis finally, finally got the honest-to-goodness no-kidding star billing that he should’ve gotten in the first film. And it’s not just Serkis’s clout that achieved this, since other ape actors like Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes) had their credits mixed in with the “human” actors like Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, and Kirk Acevedo. It was really good to see, because they really deserved it. This is at least as much the apes’ movie as the humans’. Come to think of it, the original series went through a similar progression; the first two movies, the ones with Charlton Heston, were from the perspective of human protagonists, but the later three elevated Roddy McDowall to the starring role; he was the viewpoint character, as both Cornelius and the original Caesar, and the humans were the exotic creatures he had to contend with, or the sticking point in a conflict between him and a rival ape faction. Whereas the previous film was a loose reworking of the premise of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this one has clear similarities to Battle for…, the final film in the original series.

But while Battle was probably the weakest installment in its series, this film is probably better than its predecessor, even though — or perhaps because — most of its running time is devoted to nonhuman leads who only occasionally speak aloud. The apes have a lot of personality and an interesting society, and I like the hybrid of natural ape behavior (like the outstretched hand as an appeasement gesture), taught sign language, and human cultural elements appropriated knowingly or accidentally. Caesar is the same intelligent, well-intentioned, but psychologically scarred character he was at the end of the first film, but more seasoned and tempered by being a family, err, ape  and a tribal leader/community alpha male. He’s brilliantly played by Serkis, although I profoundly doubt the Oscars will have the good sense to nominate Serkis for lead actor. Koba, Caesar’s main antagonist and the leading warmonger in the film, is something of a caricature, a bit one-note in his hatred and self-serving hunger for power, and unfortunately coded according to “ugly = evil” screen conventions (although his design is left over from the previous film), but he’s an engaging and cunning villain; I love the way he uses the facade of humor and friendliness to get his human foes off their guard. And Maurice (Karin Konoval), the orangutan Lawgiver (essentially), is a lot more charming than his, err, namesake Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans, of course, from the original film) — a bit of a one-dimensional character, but still memorable.

I’m not sure I found the human cast quite as rich. There’s the friendly, understanding hero (Clarke) who’s pretty much explicitly described as a stand-in for James Franco from the first film. There’s his kind, compassionate wife (Russell) who wants to help, and the son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s having trouble getting over his mother, and the hardass authority figure (Oldman) whose blind bigotry leads him to violence, and the hair-trigger angry guy (Kirk Acevedo) who’s a secondary source of conflict. Not much more than one dimension to any of these guys. And I couldn’t help being bothered that the story of human survival was carried almost entirely by white characters. There were a couple of black people, but they were just there to be supporting players, and the closest we got to an Asian face was Acevedo, who’s Puerto Rican/Chinese (although he’s never been cast as Asian) and was stuck playing an irrationally violent, cowardly, and doomed supporting character. Demographically speaking, that doesn’t make sense; assuming these survivors came from the San Francisco area, then maybe one in three should be Asian and only two in five should be non-Hispanic Caucasians. The first film did better in this regard, giving us Freida Pinto and David Oyelowo in key roles. (Oh, and if the intent was that white people were somehow more genetically predisposed to immunity, that’s disturbing in its own way — and hard to buy, given that the first two victims of the disease in the first film were both white.)

And while this was a potent and often tragic tale of how hate and intolerance lead to war, and while the battle scenes were effectively un-glamorous and brutal and un-sensationalized, I found myself taken out of the film by one thing: Bottomless Magazines. The way Koba and the others were firing those automatic rifles, they should’ve been out of bullets in five seconds. They clearly didn’t have the training to show any kind of firing discipline. Yet they were able to keep firing in full auto mode throughout the entire battle without ever running dry. Ditto for the humans at Fort Point who were “testing” the surviving artillery by blasting away endlessly. These supplies are finite and they have no idea how numerous the enemy is — should they be wasting so many bullets on “testing” that’s clearly more about macho self-indulgence? Well, I could buy that as the civilians not really knowing what they were doing when it came to firearms, but in the context of the endless ammo throughout the rest of the movie, it feels like part of the larger problem. (There’s also the fact that you can’t just pick up a gun and expect to be able to use it effectively in battle if you’ve never handled one before, if you don’t know how to clean or strip or prime or do whatever to the thing that you need to do. Look, I don’t know guns, I don’t ever want to be in the same room as one, but I read an article a while back debunking this particular myth and talking about how much training it takes to be able to use a firearm effectively and safely. Add on the fact that the guns were designed for human rather than chimpanzee or gorilla hands, and the apes should’ve been doing more damage to each other with those guns than to the humans.)

But those were the three main things I had issues with. Everything else worked well. Michael Giacchino’s score was excellent; he has a knack for evoking the sound and flavor of vintage scores from the ’60s or ’70s, and this score felt like it was a cousin of Jerry Goldsmith’s and Leonard Rosenman’s scores for the original films. (Oddly, Giacchino doesn’t seem to use that knack in his Star Trek film scores, which are the only scores of his that I don’t particularly enjoy.)

So that’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which came after Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Come back in a few years for the third film, Prelude to the Planet of the Apes. Or something. It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!

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