Archive for June 8, 2013

Thoughts on GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989)

When I did my overview of the Heisei era of the Godzilla franchise, I was only able to cover the last five films, since the first two were not yet out on DVD in America. In the interim, the second, Godzilla vs. Biollante, has come out, and though Netflix still hasn’t gotten it, my library has. So I’ve finally been able to see it.

This is a tough film to summarize, since it has a convoluted plot. But it has interesting and ambitious ideas that unfortunately suffer in the execution. In the wake of Godzilla’s 1984 attack on Tokyo in The Return of Godzilla (after which he ended up buried in a volcano), we see that a number of factions are battling to obtain a sample of Godzilla’s cells to study their remarkable regenerative properties: the Japan Self-Defense Force, an American terrorist group called Bio-Major, and an Arab country called Saradia, whose lead agent/assassin ends up with the prize. A Saradian biotech firm is working with Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika to develop hybrid crops to make the desert bloom, and Shiragami wants Godzilla cells to make them indestructible. Although it’s hard to figure that out from the original Japanese audio track, since the actors are speaking in awkwardly translated and badly pronounced English, with Japanese subtitles. (The first dialogue spoken in the movie is all in English, so at first I thought I’d selected the wrong audio track on the DVD.) Anyway, a Bio-Major bombing kills Erika, leading Shiragami to swear off further research with Godzilla cells, due to what I’m going to assume is a grief so profound that it permanently robs him of the ability to form facial expressions. Seriously, even the rubber Godzilla mask is less deadpan than this guy.

Five years later, Shiragami is working with the roses Erika was with when she died, and he’s working with the 17-year-old psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) because he thinks Erika’s soul is in the roses somehow. Miki, of course, will be a regular character for the rest of the series, but here her role is secondary, basically just a walking exposition engine. The female lead is Asuka (Yoshiko Tanaka), who apparently works for the “Japan Psyonics Center” [sic] that studies Miki and other psychic children. There’s a nice chilling moment where all the psychic kids draw pictures of what they dreamed, and they all hold up drawings of Godzilla. It seems he’s awake and moving under the volcano. This lets the government convince Shiragami to work on using Godzilla cells to develop anti-nuclear energy bacteria (ANEB) that can be used as a weapon against Godzilla. There’s an interesting attempt to touch on the kind of ethical questions the original film raised, because bacteria that could neutralize nuclear materials, while potentially beneficial for cleaning up disasters or fighting kaiju, could also be turned into weapons and disrupt the global balance of power. As with the Oxygen Destroyer, the threat of Godzilla compels the weapon’s development despite the risks. But the terrorist groups want the ANEB too, and Bio-Major plants bombs to release Godzilla from the mountain to blackmail the government into giving up the ANEB. But the Saradian assassin fouls up the exchange, the bombs go off, and Godzilla’s free.

I almost forgot — meanwhile, Shiragami has crossed G-cells with rose cells and some of Erika’s surviving cells because… I don’t know, he’s basically insane, I guess. And this has somehow created the plant monster Biollante, with killer vines and stuff. Biollante ends up planted in a lake, a giant fat stem with arms and tendrils and a rose-head with teeth in the middle — one of the least intimidating kaiju ever. Godzilla is drawn to it, sensing his cloned cells within it, and they have a fight that’s rather dull because Biollante is stationary throughout. Godzilla eventually sets it on fire and it seems to burn up, but sparkly spores or something rise into the sky and Shiragami says something about Biollante being immortal that everybody (including him) subsequently ignores. After this detour, we get back to the plot as the military tries to deter G from reaching a nuclear power plant to recharge, since the Heisei Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy. The main military characters are Lt. Gondo (Toru Minegishi), a snarky/tough comic hero type I rather liked, and Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), who’s more ultraserious and is in charge of remote-piloting the Super X 2, a high-tech flying machine whose main weapon is the Fire Mirror, an array of synthetic diamonds for reflecting Godzilla’s atomic ray back against him, and which works about as well as human weapons ever do against Godzilla (i.e. it works at first but he then rallies and overwhelms it).

Miki’s most striking moment in the film is when she faces down Godzilla alone to try to telepathically or telekinetically nudge him to divert or delay his march on Osaka. But it’s unclear what, if anything, she accomplishes, since Osaka is soon being trampled underfoot (but maybe she gave them more time to evacuate it). Gondo retrieves the ANEB from the Saradians and puts it in shells to fire at Godzilla. Gondo gets in a nice heroic jab at Godzilla, with both weapon and wisecrack, before Godzilla gets his own back. But the ANEB doesn’t seem to work, and the brain trust deduces that it’s because this giant, intensely energetic, nuclear-powered monster has a very low body temperature because he’s cold-blooded. Uhh, yeah, right. So they use an experimental “Thunder Controller” technology to heat him up so the bacteria can grow and kill him from the inside. Oh, and Biollante’s spores rain down and it regrows into a final form whose head now looks like a cross between Audrey II and a crocodile, and she (?) holds Godzilla at bay for a while… but it’s the bacteria that finally do G in (at least enough that he has to retreat into the cooling ocean to hold them at bay, ending the threat for now). Then the various human-level plots are resolved somewhat anticlimactically.

Wow, that was a longer summary than I intended, but it’s hard to encapsulate this story briefly because there are so many entangled threads. But they don’t really come together into a very coherent story. Most frustratingly, the thread about Biollante, one of the title characters of the movie, is the most expendable plotline of the lot. Biollante doesn’t even defeat Godzilla, just has a random fight with him in the middle of a sequence of human technology defeating Godzilla. There’s some half-baked moralizing about the dangers of genetic engineering, with Biollante as the poster child for the monsters it could create, but Biollante doesn’t really cause any harm except to a couple of Bio-Major terrorists. Mostly it’s just there for Miki to stare at and talk about how Erika’s soul is inside it, or not, or whatever.

There are some good ingredients here. Gondo is a good character, well-played. The attempt to use kaiju to address ethical questions about the development of dangerous technologies is a nice callback to the original, even if it lacks payoff and is weakened by Takahashi’s totally wooden performance. And there’s merit to the idea of adding Miki, a character who can sense Godzilla’s thoughts and give him a “voice” of sorts, which is a useful storytelling device; but there’s essentially zero attempt to give her any personality yet, unless you count her one impressive moment, her fearlessness in standing up to Godzilla and making him flinch (though I’m still not clear on what the heck she was supposed to be doing and whether she succeeded). But ultimately it ends up as kind of a jumble, and the parts that don’t work overwhelm those that do. All in all I’d call it a weak film with some very good touches here and there. (Like a scene set in a Godzilla Memorial Restaurant in Tokyo, in a building that still has an unrepaired Godzilla claw mark in its wall with windows built within it. That’s a nice bit of worldbuilding.)

The music is a mixed bag too — literally a mix of reused Akira Ifukube cues (including the lively Godzilla main theme, the more ponderous Godzilla horror theme, and the oddly cheerful military march from the original film) and new music by Koichi Sugiyama, which is a mix of styles. Some of Sugiyama’s music is nice, but his Super X 2 leitmotif has a kind of cliched heroic-music sound, a very “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” quality. The wackiest bit is his motif for the terrorists, which is a ’70s-funk remix of the Godzilla main theme. (It’s Charlie’s Angels vs. Godzilla!) All in all, it’s pretty inconsistent, like the film itself.

By the way, I came across another series of Heisei-era reviews in this thread on the Ex Isle BBS. I raised the question I had about The Return of Godzilla, namely whether it treated its title monster as the regenerated original or a second member of the same species. As far as anyone who’d seen that film could tell me, it treated Godzilla as the original with no explanation for his return. But I’ve seen other sources say it was a “new” Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the final Heisei film, treated it as such, though the third Heisei film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah treated it as the same one.

So in that thread I formulated a hypothesis that may or may not work, which I now repost here:

TRoG is like GMK in that it’s set in a world where there have been no Godzilla attacks for several decades since the events of the original film. So maybe it’s also like GMK in that a lot of the details of the ’54 attack have been forgotten or suppressed. Perhaps the Oxygen Destroyer was classified here as well. So maybe the Heisei Godzilla is a second member of the species, but the characters believe it’s the original Godzilla returned because they don’t know that Godzilla was killed. And the folks from the future in GvKG are confused about it too, since it’s from centuries in their past. So the Godzillasaurus they relocate in the past was actually the progenitor of the second Godzilla — and maybe there was another one left behind on that or a neighboring island that mutated into the original G and attacked in ’54. And then, sometime between GvKG and the final film, the truth about the Oxygen Destroyer and the original Godzilla’s death was declassified. So it wouldn’t be a continuity error, just a change in what the inhabitants of the Heisei universe believed about their past.

Of course, this doesn’t help resolve the huge time-travel logic holes in GvKG, like how come everybody remembered the recent Godzilla attacks if that Godzilla’s history had been changed. But what I’m kind of suggesting here is that we ignore that bit of nonsense and retcon it away — pretend that the reference to people remembering recent Godzilla attacks is actually a reference to remembering the original ’54 attack.

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