Home > Reviews > Thoughts on Godzilla: The Millennium Era (Part 1)

Thoughts on Godzilla: The Millennium Era (Part 1)

After my incomplete overviews of the Shōwa and Heisei continuities of the Godzilla franchise, it’s time to move on to the Millennium Era, the most recent incarnation and the first I’ll be able to review in full. This is also the first time Toho returned to Godzilla after the deaths of the franchise’s creator/producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and chief composer Akira Ifukube.

From what I read (mainly at this old fansite, which admittedly has a fair amount of errors and subjectivity), the Heisei Era was ended to make way for the American remake of Godzilla in 1998, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich, the team beyond Stargate and Independence Day. The expectation was that TriStar Pictures would do a trilogy and that Toho wouldn’t bring back the Big G until 2004, the half-century anniversary. But the Emmerich film flopped and earned the hatred of the Godzilla fan community. I actually think it’s a decent monster movie if you treat it as its own separate entity and don’t compare it to Godzilla. But as an attempt to create an American version of the Godzilla franchise, it failed (although it spawned an animated series that came much closer to the spirit of Godzilla), so Toho quickly got back in the game. This time, so I gather, Toho decided to try out several alternate takes on Godzilla before deciding which one to carry forward as a continuing series. All would count as sequels to the 1954 original, but otherwise would be in alternate realities, interpreting the daikaiju and his history in different ways.

The first alternate reality we get is 1999’s Godzilla 2000: Millennium. And that’s its actual Japanese title (Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu), unlike the 1984 The Return of Godzilla which got titled Godzilla 1985 when it came to America a year later. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that different from what came before, perhaps because so many of its makers were Heisei-series veterans. On the plus side, it’s directed by Takao Okawara, who directed the three best Heisei films (Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, G. vs. Mechagodzilla II, and G. vs. Destoroyah). It’s also produced by Shogo Tomiyama, who co-produced all but the first Heisei film alongside Tanaka. On the writing side, though, it teams the screenwriter of the superlative Mechagodzilla II with the co-writer of the abysmal Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.

In this universe, Godzilla has been a fact of life for an unspecified amount of time — at least in the English dub I was able to get. In theory, all the films count the ’54 original as canon, but if anything, he seems here like a more recent phenomenon, since there are things the characters are only now discovering about him. Also, he’s trashing all of Japan’s energy sources; it seems they’re making the same assumption as The Return of Godzilla that the big G feeds on nuclear power or other forms of high energy. This Godzilla is more reptilian than his predecessors, with green skin instead of gray, an iguana-like head, a thicker neck, and ridiculously oversized back spines.

Unlike the UN-operated G-Force of the Heisei films, here there are two rival Japanese organizations hunting Godzilla. One is the Crisis Control Intelligence Agency (CCI), run by the ruthless Katagiri, who’s determined to kill Godzilla. The other is the civilian Godzilla Prediction Network, perhaps the most interesting idea in the film, because it operates like the stormchasers who track tornadoes in the US. It’s an interesting analogy, treating Godzilla as a force of nature that can’t be stopped but only tracked and reported on so the public can try to avoid it. Shades of Godzilla Raids Again, the second Shōwa film.  The GPN is run by Shinoda, who argues (like Dr. Yamane in the original) that Godzilla needs to be kept alive and studied for scientific benefit, and who has a longstanding rivalry with Katagiri based on this philosophical divide.

The CCI also gets interested in a long-submerged meteorite for no apparent reason, and brings it to the surface. Once exposed to light, it revives and turns out to be an alien spaceship, which takes off and attacks Godzilla in the middle of a standoff with the CCI and the military. The saucer hacks the computer of our heroine, reporter Yuki, for her information on Godzilla. (Despite the title, the access dates in her computer log all say 1999.) Later, Shinoda analyzes a Godzilla cell sample and, with help from CCI scientists, discovers the “Organizer G-1” cells (called Regenerator G-1 in the dub) that allow Godzilla to heal and regenerate so rapidly. Again echoing Yamane’s hopes, Shinoda realizes that this discovery could revolutionize medicine. It turns out the saucer occupants, the Millennians, want to obtain those cells so they can adapt to our atmosphere and take over. After the CCI and GPN have unsuccessful run-ins with the saucer, Godzilla throws down with it in the heart of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and the Millennians vampirically acquire his Organizer cells, causing them to merge and transform into a monster known as Orga for the final battle.

The film has pretty good production values for its era, incorporating a CGI Godzilla in some shots to supplement the rubber-suit one in most of the film, although the CGI looks relatively crude by today’s standards. The best FX shots were the ones that smoothly matchmoved Godzilla into live-action plates with a moving camera at ground level, doing a good job of selling the idea that he was really there in the background. But attempts to do the same in helicopter shots in daylight overreach and don’t succeed. Godzilla’s roars still incorporate his classic bellow, but with more audio layers and variations added. The music is mostly by the same guy who scored SpaceGodzilla, but he does a better job here, and there’s still some use of Ifukube’s themes in the third act.

Even the English dub isn’t bad; TriStar made a point of getting Asian-American actors, and the dubbing cast is headlined by Francois Chau (the guy from the Dharma Initiative films on Lost) as Shinoda. There’s also a supporting role in the dub for Star Trek‘s John Cho, which means that both Sulu actors have dubbed Godzilla movies early in their careers, since George Takei was in the dubbing cast for Godzilla Raids Again.

All in all, though, Millennium is a bit odd for a new beginning to the franchise. It feels like a routine installment of an ongoing series, yet the history behind it is too new and cursorily developed for me to get really invested in it. It’s too half-hearted, neither close enough to what came before to feel grounded nor different enough to feel that the changes served a purpose. It’s a weak and forgettable start to the alternate-realities era.

Fortunately, the next film, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: G Extermination Strategy, makes better use of the alternate-timeline idea, despite having the same writers and producer as the previous film (but a different director, Masaaki Tezuka). The film cleverly extrapolates how Godzilla’s existence would have changed Japan’s history. Usually G-movies just show a world that’s basically ours but with daikaiju and futuristic technology tacked on; major cities are periodically destroyed, but the economic and social consequences of that are never felt. Here, at least in the prologue, there’s an attempt to approach that more thoughtfully. It opens with a newsreel recapping the original film, with new effects shots recreating Godzilla’s 1954 attack, and with Ifukube’s Godzilla theme cleverly used as a newsreel soundtrack. In this reality, the destruction of Tokyo short-circuited Japan’s postwar economic boom and forced the relocation of the capital to Osaka (awkwardly represented by showing the iconic Diet Building, seat of the Japanese government and a familiar Tokyo landmark in daikaiju films, relocated next to Osaka Castle). When Godzilla attacked the first nuclear power plant in 1966 (for he feeds on nuclear energy in this reality too), Japan outlawed nuclear power and spent the rest of the 20th century developing clean energy, culminating in the introduction of something called “plasma energy” in Osaka in 1996. When that draws another Godzilla attack, our main character, a Self-Defense Force soldier named Kiriko Tsujimori, refuses to retreat when ordered, leading to the death of her commander. But she blames Godzilla rather than herself and becomes even more driven to destroy him.

By the present day, the Japan of this timeline is not too dissimilar to our own, but apparently the clean-energy research has led to a somewhat more advanced technology in some ways.  Tsujimori is a major in the Self-Defense Force’s dedicated anti-Godzilla unit, which, due to somebody’s reckless use of a translation dictionary, is called the G-Graspers. (In the original, not the dub. It’s written out in English in their logo and everything.) They’ve devised a weapon that will fire a micro-black hole, sucking Godzilla inside and trapping him forever. It’s given the poetic English name Dimension Tide, which more than makes up for “G-Graspers.” (The device’s inventor is played by the actress who was the female lead in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster.) However, testing it opens a wormhole that either mutates an Earth insect or lets one through from another dimension (this isn’t made clear), and its egg is found by a kid who takes it to his home in Shibuya, the Times Square-like shopping district of Tokyo (which I recognized by sight from its depiction in the brilliant anime series Serial Experiments Lain), where it soon hatches into a swarm of large dragonfly-like creatures, Meganula (named for some larval critters from the 1956 Rodan), that begin killing innocent bystanders in the goriest scenes I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. (Most of the films I’ve seen since the original have avoided showing human death outright. G. vs. Destoroyah had a fairly violent sequence of the Destroyers battling the army, but the implicit death shots were stylized and sanitized.) Yet instead of blaming the kid, Tsujimori figures it’s the fault of her own G-Graspers and their black-hole weapon.

Nonetheless, the G-Graspers ignore this risk and launch the Dimension Tide into space on a satellite. But they need a way to track and target Godzilla. When Tsujimori goes out to sea to investigate a Godzilla sighting — and a Meganula corpse that Godzilla presumably dealt with offscreen — her raft is capsized by the big G himself and she’s left swimming in the ocean right next to the deadliest monster on Earth. So what does she do? She swims right over to Godzilla. And. Climbs. On. His. Freaking. Back! This is the single most awesome thing anyone has ever done. “Oh, I used Godzilla as a surfboard today, what did you do?” Although she’s not going Ahab; she takes the opportunity to fire a tracking device into Godzilla’s hide.

Anyway, they try black-holing G from space once he makes landfall, but the Meganula swarm him and the shot misses. The big bugs feed on his nuclear energy and inject it into their queen, underwater in what’s now a flooded Shibuya, and the queen emerges as the dragonfly daikaiju Megaguirus. (Their resident paleontologist knows all sorts of things about this extinct Carboniferous species’ life cycle and behavior that he’d be unlikely to have any way of knowing — a tradition of Toho paleontologists going all the way back to Godzilla Raids Again.) Godzilla’s on his way to Tokyo because the obligatory corrupt government official has been secretly conducting plasma energy research in the city (why there?), and Megaguirus cleans his clock in the port of Odaiba, until Godzilla rallies and shows what a cunning fighter he can be. It’s really a pretty impressive, cleverly choreographed, and strikingly vicious climactic battle, although there are some odd moments of jerky slow motion (which mostly seems to represent Megaguirus’s POV, but is used in one key moment that clearly isn’t that). Then it’s up to Tsujimori to risk herself to fly her jet into the rampaging Godzilla so the Dimension Tide — which is falling out of orbit for no clear reason yet is still directly over Tokyo and able to aim itself while burning to a crisp — can lock onto her signal. I won’t spoil how it ends, but there’s a post-credits epilogue that rather weakly leaves the door open for sequels to this continuity.

It’s unclear how faithful this film is to the ending of the original film. The opening newsreel implies that Godzilla simply wandered off after wrecking Tokyo, as if the Oxygen Destroyer was never used. But later, the Dimension Tide’s inventor says that this time they must be certain there’s nothing left of Godzilla and they can’t make the same mistake again. That might be implying that the original did end as we saw, but the O.D. didn’t destroy Godzilla as completely as was believed.

While this wasn’t a perfect film, it was certainly much stronger than its predecessor, and one of the most interesting kaiju films I’ve seen. I could’ve done without the little kid, who’s responsible for massive loss of life and property but completely gets away with it, and whose only real role is to bring the egg to Shibuya, something which could’ve been arranged another way. But there’s a lot else in the film’s favor. Misato Tanaka is impressive as Tsujimori, a striking, distinctive-featured actress playing a strong, stoic character, very different from the female leads in prior kaiju films. The Godzilla costume seems better, a little closer to its Heisei design, or maybe I’m just getting used to it. The music, by Michiru Ohshima, is the most impressive non-Ifukube score I’ve heard in one of these. While not imitating Ifukube, Ohshima conveys a similar flavor, a mix of ominous, driving daikaiju themes and lively martial passages for the military and their gizmos, and uses a similar approach to Ifukube’s of having a number of cues that were repeated several times throughout the film and underlaid the action without really following it.

Next is one of the best-regarded Godzilla movies, 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, or as it’s widely known, GMK. Unlike the previous two universes, this film follows the precedent of The Return of Godzilla, depicting a near-future Japan that hasn’t seen any daikaiju attacks in the half-century since Godzilla’s original rampage, and that as a result is fairly ignorant of kaiju, with many even disbelieving that Godzilla was real. (Which may seem implausible given how completely he destroyed Tokyo, but consider how many people in real life disbelieve in the Holocaust or the Moon landing.) In fact, so we’re told at the beginning, there was a giant monster that attacked New York several years before and was reputed to be Godzilla, but this was unconfirmed. That’s right, folks — in GMK’s continuity, the only prior canonical films are the 1954 Gojira… and the 1998 American Godzilla! Which kind of makes sense, since in the ’98 movie, various Japanese characters knew the name “Gojira” and associated it with giant reptilian monsters, and one has to wonder why that would be. It makes perfect sense if the Emmerich film took place in the GMK universe, where the original Godzilla has become a legend and not many people either believe he existed or know what he looked like. People mistaking other kaiju for Godzilla is in fact something of a running gag in this film. Not to worry, though; there’s only one passing reference to the ’98 film, basically just an in-joke for the Japanese audience.

GMK takes an odd tack for a kaiju film, initially having almost a slasher-film vibe as gangs of teen delinquents vandalize small Shintoist icons whose destruction unleashes a couple of kaiju who kill them in revenge for their desecration, or so it seems to me. The kaiju, glimpsed only briefly at first, are Baragon (a Shōwa-era monster introduced in Frankenstein Conquers the World and seen briefly in Destroy All Monsters) and a larval Mothra. Our lead character Yuri Tachibana (Chiiharu Niiyama), a plucky, pretty, auburn-haired reporter for an online tabloid-news video site, encounters an old man who tells her the kaiju are the Yamato Monsters — Yamato being an ancient term for Japan that’s used to refer to the ethnic or national identity of the Japanese people. The Yamato Monsters, Baragon, Mothra, and Ghidorah, are the guardians of the homeland — which, unfortunately for the people who get in their way, means the physical land itself, not its current occupants. The old man says they’re awakening now because the real Godzilla is returning and they seek to protect the homeland from his wrath. In this version, Godzilla is more blatantly supernatural than in the past; while still described as an ancient living beast that’s survived for eons, he has also absorbed the souls of everyone killed by the Japanese military in WWII (Yuri distinctly says “Amerikajin,” Americans, at one point in the discussion, though the English subtitles don’t acknowledge this). That means Godzilla is wrathful, intent on revenge against a Japanese people who have allowed themselves to forget the crimes of their nation’s past. The film is something of an anti-war statement by its director Shūsuke Kaneko.

In fact, I daresay that the characters’ disbelief or complacency toward Godzilla symbolizes their cavalier attitude toward the wartime past that Godzilla embodies here. There’s also a metatextual quality, as if critiquing the past indulgences of the franchise itself, for many characters talk about Godzilla as a joke (as if channeling the sensibilities of the kid-oriented Shōwa films) or show sympathy for him as a poor innocent animal (echoing Miki’s sentiments in the later Heisei films) — only to be promptly struck down by the cruel reality of Godzilla. Also, apparently the Japanese military covered up the use of the Oxygen Destroyer and took the credit for killing Godzilla themselves, so they wouldn’t look bad. Perhaps this gave the characters a false sense of security about how dangerous Godzilla really was. (And perhaps it’s why people don’t know what Godzilla looked like; the SDF may have confiscated the film from the Tokyo attack because it showed how ineffectual they were.) This also plays into Kaneko’s theme of modern Japan choosing to obscure and forget its imperialist past.

There are also some interesting resonances with scenes from the original; when Godzilla first comes onto land in the same area where he originally made landfall, the scene parallels his attack on Otoshima in the original film, in that we focus on the people inside the building being trampled and barely see Godzilla at all. There’s also a later shot of his head appearing over a hilltop that parallels his first major appearance in the original. And a pivotal sequence of Yuri bravely reporting on Godzilla’s climactic attack from Yokohama Bay Bridge, and almost dying when the bridge is trashed, reminded me of the scene in the original of the brave reporters on Tokyo Tower doing their duty to the bitter end.

But the most powerful way in which GMK evokes the original is that it confronts the death and human devastation caused by Godzilla, and the other daikaiju more directly than any kaiju film I’ve seen since the original. A lot of people die on-camera, and there’s attention given to their terror during the attacks, the grief of the survivors, and the like. Although the impact isn’t quite as potent as it was in the original. Perhaps these filmmakers, half a century removed from the era of the original, hadn’t had the same firsthand experience with the horrors of war and disaster, so their depictions of death and suffering are a bit less heartfelt, a bit more sensational — and with a bit too much comic relief tossed in to spoil the mood.

Anyway, Godzilla takes out Baragon pretty early, so when he reaches Yokohama, only Mothra (looking more realistic than in the past thanks to occasionally being CGI) and Ghidorah (finally awakened by the old man) are there to confront him. Ghidorah is briefly linked in dialogue with an eight-headed dragon from Japanese mythology, but it’s said he was awakened too young; perhaps that explains why he has only three heads. (And this is a hybrid version; Ghidorah’s heads here were modeled after the title kaiju from the ’50s film Varan the Destroyer, since Kaneko and the creature designer had originally wanted to use Varan. Maybe the change is fitting, since it’s the first time Ghidorah’s ever been a good guy.) Godzilla injures Ghidorah and incinerates Mothra, but Mothra pulls an Obi-Wan: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Mothra’s sparkly remains surround the fallen Ghidorah and revive him as the sparkly-auraed, occasionally CGI King Ghidorah, who knocks Godzilla into Yokohama Bay where the battle reaches its climax — and it’s Yuri’s father, Admiral Tachibana, who plays a pivotal role in resolving the battle and the film.

Story-wise, this is one of the strongest Godzilla films I’ve seen, and certainly the darkest and most allegorical since the original. More care is put into the lead characters than usual for the franchise. Ms. Niiyama is effective as Yuri, and Ryūdō Uzaki is excellent as Admiral Tachibana, giving a very likeable and nuanced performance as a soft-spoken, thoughtful, yet strong authority figure, both as an admiral and a father. The music, by Kō Otani, is very different for a Godzilla film, synth-based and more modern, but quite memorable and in a similar spirit to Ifukube’s, with a John Barry-esque, minor-key main theme for Godzilla over a lumbering ostinato, and with the military getting its own more optimistic, marchlike motif. The only actual Ifukube music used here is a medley of motifs from the original film over the end titles.

The big disappointment here is the Godzilla suit itself, the worst one I’ve seen in the post-Shōwa films. They’ve given him a longer neck and more crocodylian head, which is often awkwardly puppeteered and looks almost as fake as the puppet-head closeups from the original film. The body is oddly chubby and pear-shaped, almost reminding me of Earl Sinclair from the old Dinosaurs sitcom, and the legs’ connection to the body is far from seamless. They used a different performer than usual, and the new guy doesn’t move as well in the suit, tending to flail his arms too much. The roar is built upon the original sound effect, but modifies it too much to work really well. The part that works best is the effect for Godzilla’s atomic breath/ray, which is actinic blue and has kind of a “wave motion gun” buildup effect, drawing in a halo of light before expelling the blast. Also, the warmup glow of his spines now has an electric buzzing sound effect added; I’m not sure that works as well. The rest of the special effects are inconsistent; the creature FX are mediocre, but the CGI is getting better.

Well, I’m only halfway through the Millennium Era, but there’s been so much to cover with the distinct histories and all that I’ll need to split this overview into at least two posts. To be continued…

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  1. July 12, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    I just watched GODZILLA 2000 again, and I liked it a lot better this time. Before, I was comparing it to the Heisei series and complaining that it didn’t change enough to be worthwhile as a replacement. But just seeing it as a film in its own right, it’s pretty effective, with good characters and interactions and some pretty imaginative action and effects, albeit a bit too much comic relief at times. And the ending is still weirdly nihilistic.

  1. October 3, 2012 at 3:40 pm
  2. October 7, 2012 at 3:03 pm
  3. June 8, 2013 at 12:17 pm
  4. May 20, 2014 at 9:31 am
  5. June 16, 2016 at 8:45 pm
  6. October 24, 2016 at 4:59 pm

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