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Thoughts on miscellaneous (very bad) kaiju films

I’ve already covered pretty much all the major kaiju films in previous posts, so I’m down to whatever dregs I can scrounge up here and there. Here are some thoughts I’ve gradually accumulated…

One film I found online was Varan the Unbelievable, the 1962 Americanization of the 1958 Daikaiju Baran (Giant Monster Varan), the last black-and-white kaiju film from Toho and one of the few solo monster movies in the series. The thing is, the adaptation took the Godzilla, King of the Monsters! approach and then some, replacing most of the movie with new American-made footage and using mostly just the action/effects footage from the original, plus some silent or Japanese-language scenes with narration added. So I wasn’t sure I should bother watching it, but it was the only opportunity I had to see Varan, whose only other appearance is a minor cameo in Destroy All Monsters (since the suit was badly damaged between films). So I gave in and took a look.

The American version stars Myron Healy as Commander Bradley, a US officer assigned by the Japanese to head a desalinization experiment in a saltwater lake on a small Japanese island, whose “primitive” natives resist the project because it will disturb the lake where their reptilian god sleeps. Oddly, the god/kaiju is called Obake throughout, despite the title being Varan. We spend most of the first half of the movie with Bradley and his Japanese wife/secretary Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi), whom he treats like a child both because that’s how American men treated their wives in the ’50s and because that’s how white Americans treated non-Westerners in the ’50s. The new material is claustrophobic and tediously padded, spending nearly half the movie debating whether to forcibly relocate the villagers before it gets to the actual experiment, which naturally awakens Varan and sends him on the rampage that dominates the rest of the film while our “heroes” are mostly stranded on a jeep far from the action, trying to get through on the radio to give instructions to the actual leads of the Japanese film, with whom our “heroes” have been clumsily given an off-camera relationship and who are only seen briefly a couple of times before they carry out the action of the climax. It’s a really dreadful adaptation. At least GKotM included the bulk of the actual plot of the original, giving the sense of telling almost the same story from an alternate perspective. This replaces most of the story with cheap, padded, repetitive scenes that offer nothing of interest besides Ms. Kobayashi’s stunning features.

It’s a pity, because Varan’s a fairly effective kaiju. Based on a monitor lizard (genus Varanus), it’s a quadrupedal kaiju with a row of straight, clear spikes down its spine, effectively menacing-looking and quite versatile — it can function as a facultative biped as well as an aquatic creature and even, in the Japanese version, gliding like a flying squirrel. It’s too bad its film wasn’t well-received (the Japanese version’s plot was apparently considered too unimaginative and by-the-numbers) and the costume was damaged, relegating Varan to an undeserved obscurity. I hope someday I manage to see the original film.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I managed to see a rather obscure 1967 kaiju film from Shochiku, The X from Outer Space (Giant Space Monster Guilala). Shochiku is actually Japan’s oldest film studio, but kaiju-eiga wasn’t generally in its wheelhouse, and this film maybe shows why. It’s a lightweight film aimed at a young audience, and it’s practically two different movies. The first half is a space-travel adventure about a rocket crew trying to get to Mars and fending off a UFO attack, which ends up with the rocket being coated in some kind of space spores that they manage to get off, bringing one back with them. The second half suddenly turns into a by-the-numbers kaiju film when, due to lousy scientific procedure, the space spore gets loose and grows into a cheesy, Muppety space monster called Guilala, which has a pointy, bug-eyed head with antennae and bizarrely bulgey limbs with a very limited range of motion. Guilala goes on a half-hearted rampage through very cheap miniature cityscapes while the space heroes try to harness a space element as a weapon against the space monster. And all the monster’s rampages are accompanied by the same two bars of music looping endlessly, and I had it stuck in my head for hours thereafter.

Oh, and the three Caucasian actors in the cast have their lines dubbed into Japanese, and there isn’t the slightest effort to even vaguely match their lip sync. Really lame stuff, although the Japanese female lead is really pretty. You’d think a network with “Movie Classics” in its name could drum up some higher-quality movies. They show this one often enough that there will probably be more chances to see it.

Apparently, astonishingly, Shochiku actually made a 2008 comedy sequel to this movie, The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. I haven’t managed to see that one, though, and I’m not sure I’d want to.

One kaiju movie I’d read about but hadn’t had the courage to watch was South Korea’s first stab at the genre, 1967’s Taekoesu Yonggary (Great Monster Yongary, which I guess would make taekoesu a direct translation of daikaiju), which was released in English in 1969 as Yongary: Monster From the Deep. From what I’d read about it, it was really bad, and so I didn’t feel any great compulsion to watch it. But when the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on Netflix recently, Yongary was its 9th episode, so I finally got to see it, after a fashion. My review is based on the MST3K viewing, but I really don’t want to bother to watch the movie “in the clear,” because it seemed like it’d be really boring without a guy and his robot friends making fun of it.

So the main characters are an astronaut and a scientist who seem to be related in some way, plus the astronaut’s new wife, the scientist’s love interest who doesn’t actually seem to like him much but is being pushed toward marrying him by her relatives, and her mischievous 8-year-old brother Icho, who’s introduced hitting the newlyweds with an experimental ray that makes them itch and nearly drives them off the road. The honeymoon is interrupted when the astronaut needs to go on a spaceflight to monitor a nuclear test in the Middle East, but if this becomes relevant, it’s unclear in the version I saw. Presumably the nuclear test is what awakens Yongary, but the spaceflight to monitor it has no bearing on the plot at all. And there’s never any direct link drawn between the test and the monster. Anyway, the monster is first detected as a moving series of earthquakes as it burrows underground, just like Baragon in Frankenstein Conquers the World. Thus, the officials name the monster Yongary, supposedly after a mythic Korean monster associated with quakes, although it’s actually a portmanteau of yong, Korean for dragon, and the name of the mythical Korean monster Pulgasari.

But when Yongary finally emerges, he’s possibly the most derivative kaiju ever — a skinnier Godzilla with Gamera-like eyes, a Baragon-like nose horn, and vaguely Anguirus-like tail spikes, emitting Gamera-like fire breath (emitted from a huge, obvious nozzle in its mouth) plus a Gyaos-like cutting beam from his horn — a weapon that I think shows up exactly once in the entire film.

I hardly even remember the plot after this, since it’s your by-the-numbers kaiju business with government men in meeting rooms and toy tanks and buildings getting crushed while the people flee, only much more crudely made. There’s a shot of a mother and her baby that looks like a ripoff of one of the most heart-wrenching moments from Gojira, but then they get up and run and they’re fine. The scientist, Ilo, goes to see the monster and his girlfriend and Icho inexplicably go with him, and the scientist gets hurt and Icho wanders off to where he manages to see Yongary feeding on oil tanks, and being made very itchy by some substance he encounters. Like the kids in Gamera movies, he’s the only person to have the insights that help the grownups figure things out — namely, that Yongary feeds on heat and energy, just like Gamera, and that the chemical irritant may be a weapon. The government tries setting an oil fire to lure Yongary out of the city so they can blast him with missiles, and when that doesn’t work, Icho steals the itching ray, but this time it doesn’t make Yongary itch — the chemical already did that — but rather lures him with its energy. (Confusing, isn’t it?) So the kid leads him into the trap and the missiles don’t work but the chemical dust (dropped from a helicopter) does, poisoning Yongary into a coma. But then, with the monster already defeated, the damn kid sneaks out and uses the energy from his no-longer-itching ray to revive Yongary, which… oh, hell… inexplicably makes the monster dance, with Icho dancing along until some soldiers come along and drag the kid away for perpetrating this horror — well, actually to get him to safety, but come on, the kid is directly responsible for the destruction Yongary goes on to cause.

But that final rampage doesn’t last long, since the good guys just dump a bunch more chemical on Yongary until it very slowly dies, and there’s an aspect of it that’s rather disgusting and gruesome and “What were they thinking?” And then the kid who started off happy to help kill Yongary and then resurrected him is suddenly all “It’s cool that you’re killing him, but did we really have to kill him, since he’s really a nice dancing monster who’s just hungry?” (I gather that they stopped short of killing him in the Korean version, though he’s dead in the English dub. And the Korean version is mostly lost.) And then there’s an interminable denouement with the press interviewing the damn kid and the girlfriend finally breaking down and agreeing to marry the scientist, and then oh gods it’s finally over.

Wow. Not only a lazy ripoff of a bunch of other kaiju films, but a totally unfocused one, unable to make up its mind about whether it’s a drama or a comedy or about what motivates the characters. I’ve seen some bad kaiju films, goodness knows, but this is just such a thoughtless, empty parroting of other kaiju films that its very existence as a distinct entity seems unjustified.

Despite everything, though, there was actually a reboot of Yonggary (as it’s spelled in this version) in 1999, with a revised 2001 edition that’s the only one available (it’s on YouTube in a version squished to a 4:3 aspect ratio), and was inexplicably called Reptilian in US release, or even Reptile 2001, as it’s listed on IMDb. You know how the ’90s reboots of Godzilla and especially Gamera were much better than their late-’60s versions? Well, we finally have a kaiju whose ’90s reboot was even more awful than the original! 2001 Yonggary/Reptilian/whatever is a Korean film, but it’s set in America with an all-Western, all-English-speaking cast of atrocious actors, and though the script is credited to Marty Poole, it sounds like the work of someone for whom English is not a first language.

Most of the characters in this film are incredibly unlikeable, too. We spend the first act with an evil archaeologist who’s determined to unearth the bones of a huge new dinosaur, not caring about all the strange accidental deaths happening around them, and refusing to listen to the dire warnings of his crazy, grizzled mentor Dr. Hughes, who gets a little more traction with the evil archaeologist’s ex-assistant, aka the film’s female lead Holly. There’s also a skeevy photographer who’s treated as a major character in the first act (there are actually two different scenes where he tries to photograph a dead worker and has the film torn from his camera by the evil archaeologist, who gives nearly the same lecture to him both times), but this goes nowhere. Of course, Hughes’s warnings prove right, because there’s a goofy-looking alien ship that just happens to show up in orbit and fire an un-skeletonizing ray to turn the fossil back into a live monster, which Hughes calls Yonggary, based on knowledge from ancient hieroglyphs (somehow written 200 million years ago, or else more recent but somehow knowing about events 200 million years ago and also having a word for “dinosaur”). While in the original movie, the monster’s name rhymed with “dungaree” (at least in English), here it’s pronounced “Yong Gary.”

So Young Gary kills the evil archaeologist — and I guess the skeevy photographer too, since he doesn’t appear again — and the film becomes about Hughes and Holly assisting a bunch of military types as they hunt and fight Yong J. Gary, which keeps getting beamed up and down by the aliens. This Yonggary is a very crude CGI effect who doesn’t look much like his predecessor — he’s still a broadly godzilloid kaiju, and he has a tiny horn on his snout, but he has a more simian facial structure, triangular head plates reminiscent of Lisa Simpson, inexplicable spiked shoulder pads, and a rosette-like chest structure resembling the ’90s Gamera’s plastron (i.e. underbelly).

The rest is mostly the usual thing of the military’s attacks having no effect, the city being trashed, and the President threatening to use a nuke on the city if another solution can’t be found. The one innovation is that a group of soldiers headed up by the main soldier character (who’s evidently meant to be likeable and witty but is terribly acted and obnoxiously unfunny) takes on Yonggary by flying around him in jetpacks, but that seems like a singularly pointless and bad idea when going up against a giant monster with fire breath. At least in a jet plane or chopper, there’s a chance the hit will be glancing enough that you can eject. Anyway, Hughes and Holly decipher some secret data that Hughes stole from the top-secret government agency dealing with aliens, telling them to attack the diamond structure on Yonggary’s head, which the aliens are using to control him. This is over the objections of a cartoonishly evil government guy from that agency, the latest in the string of thoroughly unpleasant characters.

So when one soldier does a kamikaze jetpack run to smash the diamond (with the actual smashing implied rather than shown), Yonggary is freed from the aliens’ control and is suddenly a friendly and helpful kaiju, saving the obnoxious soldier guy from a falling buiding. So the aliens send down a second monster, a centauroid hodgepodge of crustacean parts called Cykor, and Yonggary fights him. (If they had another kaiju all along, why did they need Yonggary? Or why didn’t they have both attack Earth at once? Their goal was explicitly to destroy Earth, and relying on a single monster to do all the work is pretty inefficient.) But the evil government guy wants Yonggary killed to lure the aliens down so his agency can get their technology, or something, so he jams the command center’s transmissions, which doesn’t really affect anything since Yonggary’s doing all the fighting anyway. The crisis is resolved by the time Yonggary wins and they need to call off the nuclear strike. Yonggary conveniently falls unconscious for no reason after destroying Cykor, and the military airlifts him to an offshore locale that I’m sure is geographically and legally distinct from Monster Island.

I guess one thing I can give this version of Yonggary is that at least it’s a slightly more original story with somewhat more creative monster designs than its predecessor. But it’s far more ineptly made and acted, far more obnoxiously bad in its dialogue writing and attempts at character humor, and comparable in incoherence. It was clearly made for US audiences, but they couldn’t be bothered to cast a single recognizable actor, let alone a single competent one. The American cast and setting also make it feel more generic from my perspective; at least the original Yongary gave us a glimpse of South Korean culture and architecture, a change from the usual Japanese or American (or occasionally European) monster-movie settings. And the CGI monsters are not only terribly animated, but they take away the charm of watching rubber-suit monsters duke it out and smash toy buildings.

I say if you’re going to watch a South Korean monster movie, you should go for Dragon Wars: D-War from 2007. It’s almost as ineptly written as Reptilian, but the Celestial Dragon that shows up in the climax is the most beautifully rendered screen version of a Chinese-style dragon (long) that I’ve ever seen, awesome enough that it almost makes up for the rest of the movie.

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DOCTOR WHO’s “Smile” seems a bit familiar… (Mild spoilers)

Sorry I haven’t been posting lately — again. I’ve been distracted by stuff including a hard drive crash, although I’ve gone back to the previous, potentially unstable hard drive and it’s working okay for now.

Anyway, I’m liking the new season of Doctor Who so far; Bill is a fun companion, she and the Doctor have a good relationship developing, and it seems like Moffat may be going for a classic-Who formula of having each story lead directly into the next one, one of several homages this season seems to have to the very first season of the original show. (“The Pilot” was basically an inversion of “An Unearthly Child,” with a student learning about her mysterious teacher instead of the other way around.)

But it’s a different parallel that struck me when watching the second episode, “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, this past weekend. Okay, so this is a story where the Doctor and Bill go to a human colony world, only to find that the colonists sent a swarm of robots on ahead to build their colony for them so it’d be all ready when they arrived — but during the interim, the robots underwent evolution in their behavior and were no longer following their expected directives. And that led to a debate about whether to fight them or learn to coexist with them.

And that reminded me of the second story I ever got published, “Among the Wild Cybers of Cybele” from the December 2000 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. That story, which I talk about a bit on my Original Short Fiction page, was about self-replicating “auxons” rather than nanobots, and the premise was more along the lines that the auxons had become essentially a new order of animal in the colony world’s ecosystem. So the robots weren’t a threat to the human colonists as in “Smile,” but rather posed a threat of extinction to the world’s native life, creating a dilemma over whether they should be destroyed or have their own right to exist protected.  It’s a story I’ve always been pretty proud of, and I’m hoping I can get it back into print in some form soon.

I doubt very much that Frank Cottrell-Boyce ever read my old story or was inspired by it in any way, but it’s nice to see a science fiction concept show up somewhere and realize that I did it first. Although my own story was inspired by Roger Zelazny’s “Last of the Wild Ones,” about self-driving cars that had gone rogue due to a computer virus and roamed the plains like wild horses or bison. (Which is a sequel to an earlier story called “Devil Car,” which I don’t think I ever read.)