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SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING thoughts (spoilers)

I don’t have the budget to see many movies this summer, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was one I felt I needed to see (even though I’m waiting to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 until the library gets it). And I made enough money on my recent Shore Leave trip that I felt I could afford to spare a few bucks for recreation. Though of course I went on discount Tuesday.

Anyway, I liked the movie, but I didn’t love it. I guess I’m not the target audience for the John Hughes-style teen romantic comedy vibe they were going for — I don’t think I ever was. I got kind of bored during some of those teen-drama sequences, though the young actors were all pretty good. I didn’t dislike it, and it was pretty fun at times, but it didn’t wow me. I dunno, everyone these days seems to be excited about putting Peter Parker back in high school, even though he spent only three years and 30 issues in high school in the comics (well, more like 44 issues counting guest appearances in other books), but I first became interested in Spidey as a college-age character in the 1990s animated series, and I got to know him best when writing about him as a college graduate and part-time high school teacher in Drowned in Thunder. So I guess the idea of making him a kid doesn’t do that much for me.

Still, for what it was, it worked well. It captured the essence of who Spider-Man is, his sense of fun and his desire to help and his commitment to justice even when it screws up his personal life, as it invariably does — just in a more teenagery way than usual. And in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can definitely see the value of stepping away from all the big important adult heroes dealing with matters of global or cosmic significance and taking a look at what life in the MCU is like for the little guy down on street level. And Spider-Man is a very good character for that, a hero who often hobnobs with superhero royalty but never loses his connection to the streets. (Which was approached fairly literally here. He tended to stay more on the level of brownstones and bodegas than skyscrapers here, and there was a fun sequence showcasing how hard web-swinging is in suburbia. The few times he did get up high, he had trouble coping with it.) Moreover, it was really interesting to see a street-level villain. Adrian Toomes could soar to any height, but he didn’t want to rule the underworld or conquer the planet, he just wanted to make a dishonest living because he blamed Stark and the government for taking his honest livelihood from him. He wasn’t exactly a victim in the vein of your classic tragic Batman: The Animated Series villain — it’s not like he couldn’t have found a different way to make an honest buck, he just chose to become a criminal and occasional killer because he was ticked off at the system — but he still saw himself as just a guy looking out for his family, making him a more nuanced and relatable villain than the MCU usually manages.

Now — spoiler alert — I could say it’s a huge coincidence that that Vulture turns out to be the father of Peter’s school crush Liz (wait, is she Liz Toomes? Liz Allan-Toomes?), but then, that’s the classic Parker luck. The villain always turns out to be either a family member of one of Peter’s friends, Peter’s own beloved mentor, or both. So I can give that a pass. And it plays out interestingly. We’ve seen the beat of the villain deducing the hero’s identity before in superhero films, perhaps too often, but it rarely plays out on such an intimate scale, and with the villain not really wanting to hurt the hero. Although it does get rather hard to sympathize with Toomes toward the climax, as he’s actively beating up a teenage boy and trying to kill him. That felt like too much of a standard action-movie beat being imposed on the characters. I think that Toomes as established through the rest of the film should’ve had more qualms about such face-to-face violence against such a young opponent.

But I love the way it turns out. I’ve spoken before of my dislike of the way superhero movies insist on killing off the bad guys, either by having the heroes kill them or going the “I don’t have to save you” route or having them die by their own actions or a twist of fate. It was so satisfying to see a movie not do that — to see Spidey risk his life to save the villain, succeed, and even get karmically rewarded for it in the post-credits scene. That’s the way I like to see these stories play out. I was worried about how Spidey, a character largely defined by his refusal to kill, would be handled in the MCU, which tends to make its heroes rather less non-lethal than they usually are in the comics. (Seriously, why would Tony even install “Instant Kill Mode” in that suit?) I’m relieved that they’re keeping that aspect of his character intact.

By the same token, I liked the scene with Spidey and Donald Glover’s character (who apparently is Miles Morales’s uncle). Spidey started out trying to intimidate the guy, but it turned out that what did the trick was Spidey’s kindness — he’d invited the bad guys to shoot him rather than Glover, and the latter appreciated that and was thus willing to help, as well as sharing a common concern for their neighborhood’s safety. That’s the sort of thing that really uses the idea of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and makes it mean something.

I’m a bit disappointed that Spidey ended the film with the same Stark supersuit he started it with. I figured the arc of the film would be that he’d learn that all those gadgets were too much of a crutch and that he preferred something more basic. Maybe that will still be the case, though — maybe he’ll re-enable “Training Wheels Mode” voluntarily. (Although I read a review that pointed out that having the “Karen” AI to talk to was a nice substitute for Spidey’s constant internal monologue in the comics.)

Speaking of Stark, it’s interesting how he has his own parallel plotline sort of running through this movie, even though he’s mainly there to serve Peter’s story as a surrogate father figure and (rather bad) mentor. Even though he seems to treat Peter as an afterthought, he’s invested an awful lot (literally, financially) in this kid and his training as a hero. It matters to him, even if he’s inadvertently following in his own absentee father’s footsteps. One could wonder why he places so much importance on this one young protege, and partly that’s because it’s Spidey’s movie, but it also fits with where Tony is at this point in the MCU. This thing he’s built, the Avengers, has fallen apart. He’s lost almost his entire team, save for War Machine and Vision, and Rhodey’s probably still on the disabled list. So he needs to cultivate new members — not just for the optics or the logistics, but out of his personal need to keep his dream from being a failure. He’s trying not to rush the kid into it, trying to give him a chance to start out small and work his way up, but he’s equipped the Spidey suit with an AI designed to guide Peter’s training and hone him into Avenger material. And once Peter bypasses all that and proves himself by saving the day in his hoodie and goggles, Tony can’t resist jumping forward and offering him the works, just going all-out for the kid the moment he has an excuse. Because he needs this. Not just to rebuilt the Avengers, but because, as he said, he wants Peter to be better than him. He sees himself in the kid and wants to help him be a better man and a better hero than Tony could ever be. It’s interesting how much this film reveals about Tony Stark even though it’s nominally in a different series and even from a different studio. Some might hold that against the film as a Spider-Man story in its own right, but I enjoy the interconnectedness of all this and how unusual it is for movies. I love it that you can put all these individual films together and get an ongoing story running through most of them as a bonus.

Oh, and speaking of bonuses… Yes, as usual, I was the only one in my theater who stuck around through all the credits and got to see the Captain America tag at the end. It was worth it. (Plus, Michael Giacchino’s score was a good one, so I was happy to listen to the whole end title cue.)

Thoughts on WONDER WOMAN (2017) (Spoilers)

I finally saw Wonder Woman today, and I pretty much agree with the critical consensus — it’s a terrific movie, and the first DC Extended Universe movie that not only isn’t fatally flawed, but is genuinely excellent and has a coherent, well-defined heroic journey at its heart. Gal Gadot is fantastic in the role, not only a sublimely beautiful, poised, and powerful physical presence but a strong lead actress who handles all the emotional range the film requires of her, which is a lot more than any of the previous three DCEU films have demanded of their leads. Chris Pine is also remarkably good as Steve Trevor, bringing enormous wit and charm to the proceedings (in fact, there were moments when he reminded me more of William Shatner here than he does in the Star Trek movies). The rest of the supporting cast was good too, with Lucy Davis a standout as Etta Candy.

Oh, and first off, let me respond to the inane “Gal Gadot isn’t buff enough” meme that I’m still seeing floating around online, even from the occasional female reviewer. It’s a myth that people have to be bulky to be strong — a myth that comic books have helped to promote by embracing bodybuilders as their standard character design reference over the past few decades. But bodybuilders bulk up for display. Muscles meant for practical use can be strong yet still quite lean; after all, muscle cells are basically long, thin fibers. And people with naturally tall, slender builds can be very strong while still being slender — look at Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova. This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that Diana of Themyscira is a demigoddess with superhuman strength anyway, so even if she were scrawny (which she isn’t by any realistic standard), she could probably still kick any mere mortal’s ass.

I do have some quibbles with the origin presented in the film. I don’t like the retcon that the Amazons were created by Zeus, and that Diana is the daughter of Zeus. In the original comics, it was Aphrodite, goddess of love, who created the Amazons and breathed life into Diana. Making it Zeus makes the backstory too male-dominated, and makes the Amazons feel like an extension of a male agenda. I also wish Kid Diana hadn’t been quite so enthralled with fighting and weapons; I would’ve liked to see more of her well-rounded education in the more positive things that drive her as an adult. (The actress playing Kid Diana was adorably badass, though. Give her a Wonder Tot prequel, stat!) Still, I guess that preoccupation is part of the naivete she has to outgrow over the film. She has a romanticized, simplified notion of what war is, resulting from the fact that she’s never seen it except as a bunch of awesome athletic feats her elder sisters perform.

And I like the acrobatic horseback combat, by the way. The Amazons of Greek myth were probably based on some of the horse-nomad peoples of Asia Minor, peoples that had a fair amount of gender equality (out of necessity — nomads can’t afford to have anyone not pulling their weight) and thus could’ve been seen as female-dominated by the intensely misogynistic Athenians. And horse nomads were historically known for their impressive mounted-fighting abilities, which seemed to be the basis for the Amazon combat methods shown in the film. So that’s a nice bit of historical context in a film with a generally fanciful portrait of antiquity.

In thinking back on the film, considering how it succeeds where the previous DCEU films failed, I realize that on the surface, it doesn’t seem that different from the previous films. It has a very dark and grim subject matter — it’s set in the quagmire of World War I and has characters lecturing Diana on humanity’s fundamental capacity for evil and self-destruction. It has a hero who kills. And, like Man of Steel, it has a hero whose journey to adopt the role is in defiance of a parental figure trying to hold them back. So why does it work so much better when it has many of the same elements?

As for the parental-defiance issue, part of it is that it fits the character better. Wonder Woman’s origin story has always involved her defying Hippolyta to leave Paradise Island/Themyscira — and has always had Hippolyta grudgingly accept her daughter’s decision and allow her to make her own path in the world. But Superman’s backstory has usually portrayed Pa Kent as Clark’s inspiration and role model, the one who taught him his value system and implored him to use his gifts to help others. Making Jonathan Kent someone whose advice Clark had to reject in order to become a force for good was too great a change, and too cynical for the Superman narrative. Then again, as much as I hated Man of Steel‘s version of Jonathan, I felt one of the more successful aspects of the film was the way Clark refused to be guided by his father’s fear and pettiness, and instead innately tried to do the right thing. So the thing that worked best about MoS’s Clark Kent is also something that worked about Diana of Themyscira. The difference is, in the case of Wonder Woman, it worked for the parental figure too.

As for the dark and grim subject matter, I think part of the difference is that the grimness was necessary in the context of the WWI setting, rather than just being there for its own sake. More importantly, the difference is that the Snyder Superman films tried to impose the darkness on Superman himself, to make him succumb to it and thus diminish him as a figure of nobility and inspiration. MoS and BvS paid lip service to some people seeing Superman as a savior and inspiration, but they didn’t really earn those reactions because they were more interested in showing Superman failing and struggling than in showing him actually helping anyone. BvS also defaulted to grim version of Batman based on a graphic novel (Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) that was meant to be an exaggerated, worst-case extreme and that’s too often been misinterpreted as a template for how Batman should normally be portrayed.  But in Wonder Woman, the grimness is around Diana. It doesn’t become a part of her. On the contrary, her basic goodness and compassion stand against the darkness of her surroundings and give hope and inspiration to others. She does what a superhero should do — she makes things better. The darkness is her incentive to shine, rather than something that infuses and darkens her. And though she sees the darkness in humanity, she also sees the goodness and love, and stands up for it and instills it in others. This is what Superman should do. It’s even what Batman should do — by using his own darkness to counter the crime and corruption of Gotham, he brings hope to its people and to its forces of law and order, and by taking Robin under his wing, he gives him a better life and allows him to be purer and happier than Batman was in the same circumstances. But Wonder Woman is the first DCEU protagonist who’s actually done that as a central element of her film.

As for the violence… yeah, I’m not a fan of heroes who kill, so that is an issue for me. But it helps somewhat that it’s in the context of a war story, rather than a crimefighting story where that level of force seems excessive. And it helps more that it’s balanced by the more positive things Diana does. The problem with Superman’s actions in Snyder’s films is that they’re too detached, too impersonal. In MoS, he’s literally on the opposite side of the planet while the people of Metropolis are fleeing in terror and dying in droves, and then he (or rather, Snyder) doesn’t even seem aware of the civilians while he and Zod are smashing up the city. In BvS, his acts of heroism are impersonal vignettes about Superman manipulating big heavy objects, and whatever people he’s helping in the process are barely noticed — whereas the film focuses more on his failures to save people when it bothers to pay attention to him at all. But Wonder Woman’s battles are clearly, centrally about saving people. We see the people she’s helping, and we see her connect to them. So there’s a better sense of who and what she’s fighting for, and a greater emphasis on that human element rather than just nonstop CGI destruction. The climax does get a bit heavy on the CGI for a few minutes, but unlike MoS, it doesn’t grind the story to a halt and lose focus on the human stakes of the battle.

A key difference: In both MoS and WW, the climax has the villain urging the hero to accept his nihilistic view and kill an enemy. MoS has Kal-El succumb to the argument and choose to kill, which means that the villain basically wins the philosophical battle and the hero is thus weakened. But here, Diana makes the opposite choice, sparing Dr. Maru. (At least, I think she does. The editing is a bit unclear, since she seems to throw the tank in the same direction Maru ran, and we don’t see Maru after that. But I presume the intention is that she defied Ares and spared Maru.) Okay, yeah, she also kills Ares, but the difference is, it’s not because he told her to. Both sparing Maru and killing Ares are her own choice, driven by her own judgment. Throughout the film, she had a strong point of view and wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do. She did listen and learn, did modulate her actions in response to what she learned, but her choices were always her own. Even though I might wish she’d made a different choice in the case of Ares, she still ends up a stronger protagonist than Clark did, because she didn’t just let the villain talk her into abandoning everything she believed in. And her choice not to show mercy to a predator is balanced by the fact that she did show mercy to someone she recognized as a victim.

Of course, part of the reason the film worked so much better than its predecessors is simply that it had a more coherent story with a better narrative flow and pacing. It felt like a normal movie with a good balance of character, action, ideas, emotion, and humor. It wasn’t trying too hard to affect a certain style or attitude as an end in itself, but was telling a story in the way that worked best for that story. And most importantly for a superhero franchise, it was actually about heroism and inspiration.

There was also a lot of respect for the source material, with some nice homages to the comics. There are two points in the film where Diana recreates the pose Wonder Woman struck on the cover of her debut issue — when she smashes through the window to rescue the hostages (I think it is), and in the final shot of the film (though I think she’s in the mirror-image pose there). The montage of her childhood seems to homage the three life stages that were frequently featured in ’50s and ’60s WW stories by Robert Kanigher — Wonder Tot, Wonder Girl, and Wonder Woman. (Kanigher started out telling stories about Wondy’s youth, then got into the habit of doing “imaginary stories” where the child, teen, and adult versions of Diana impossibly hung out together. Then another writer failed to realize that Wonder Girl was a younger Wonder Woman in the past and added her to the Teen Titans comic that was set in the present, so they had to retcon her into being a separate character, and it got immensely more complicated from there.) The climactic battle with Ares even nods at William Moulton Marston’s heavy use of bondage in the early WW comics, when she’s wrapped up and squeezed in the armor plates.

One thing we didn’t get was the name “Wonder Woman” actually being spoken at any point in the film. I think they missed an opportunity to use it in the Veld scenes. It seems that it would’ve been fairly natural for the rescued villagers to call her Das Wunder-Fraulein, and for Steve to translate it into English as “the Wonder Woman.” It was German that gave us wunderkind, after all, so it seems like it would’ve been a plausible origin for the name.

By the way, I’ve seen a number of people say that the Wonder Woman theme used in BvS and here reminds them of a riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” — but I can’t help but notice that it has the same 7/8 time signature and 3-note ostinato as Joseph Lo Duca’s Xena: Warrior Princess theme. Fitting, no?

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.

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.)

Supernatural TV pilots of the ’70s: Roddenberry’s SPECTRE and Marvel’s DR. STRANGE

Having previously covered Gene Roddenberry’s failed 1970s SF pilot movies Genesis II, Planet Earth, and The Questor Tapes, I’ve finally managed to complete the set with 1977’s Spectre, a supernatural-horror show starring Robert Culp, Gig Young, and John Hurt. While Roddenberry tended to prefer to keep his science fiction grounded and plausible — in principle if not always in practice — he made Spectre with the intent of taking the supernatural seriously, disdaining what he called the Scooby-Doo approach of treating it as a hoax. Which means, going in, that there’s no chance of treating this pilot as a possible offshoot of the Star Trek multiverse as I prefer to do with G2/PE and TQT. I had wondered if maybe there was a chance of treating the supernatural forces as alien phenomena, a well Star Trek went to on multiple occasions, but I doubt that would work here.

Spectre, scripted by Roddenberry and Samuel A. Peeples and directed by Clive Donner, opens with Dr. Amos “Ham” Hamilton (Young) answering an urgent summons from his old friend William Sebastian (Culp), an eccentric criminal psychologist who has now become an expert on the occult, to Ham’s disbelief. Sebastian explains that he was almost killed by a voodoo curse of some sort that’s left him with a weak heart, and he needs Ham to keep him alive as he investigates a case involving the Cyon family in London. He says he was saved by his spell-casting housekeeper Lilith (Majel Barrett, an inevitable presence in any Roddenberry production), who also casts a spell to cure Ham’s alcoholism, which has come close to costing him his hospital practice. It soon becomes clear that Sebastian and Hamilton are modeled on Holmes and Watson, if Holmes were an occult detective and Watson a skeptic (and if they were both womanizers, this being a Roddenberry show).

Sebastian is visited by a seductive woman claiming to be Anitra Cyon (Ann Bell) and telling him that she was mistaken in believing something supernatural was going on at her estate. Sebastian figures out that she’s a succubus and burns her up with a book, though Ham is locked out of the study and doesn’t see it happen. Later, when flying to London in a private jet piloted by Mitri Cyon (Hurt, who looks amazingly young), the jet loses power and almost crashes, in what Sebastian interprets as another supernatural attempt to scare him off. Perhaps these are simply tests of his resolve?

In London, Sebastian takes Ham to meet an occult expert, but his house is on fire and they rush inside, finding him dead just short of the center of a pentacle drawn on the floor. They’re oddly untroubled by the flame and smoke as they examine the scene, then get into the pentacle to evade a demon of some sort that’s driven away when the fire department arrives along with a Scottish inspector (Gordon Jackson) who’s the Lestrade of the piece, I guess. The inspector, Cabell, is investigating a string of murders and desperately does not want the influential Sir Geoffrey Cyon linked to them.

Cyon Manor is an old abbey, refurbished inside with lots of erotic-themed artwork. Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) leads an openly hedonistic lifestyle and keeps a household staff of sexy young women, who (among other services) entertain prominent leaders of finance and government from time to time. The real Anitra, looking more “spinsterish” than her succubus impostor, believes Sir Geoffrey is possessed by a demon, though he insists she just disapproves of his lifestyle, and she privately admits to Sebastian and Ham that she may just be jealous of the more attractive women surrounding her, though Ham says he finds her more attractive. Oh, and Sebastian finds the coffin from his voodoo doll in the house (but not the doll), and there are various attempts on their lives including glass shards in the wine and a breakaway balcony railing. Sebastian reads the journal of the dead occult expert, who feared that “Cyon” was possessed by Asmodeus, the Prince of Lechery, though it’s unclear which Cyon he meant. (The mythology presented for Asmodeus has only the most cursory connection to the real lore.) Later, Cyon’s women make a comically exaggerated attempt to seduce Ham, but Sebastian interrupts. He takes Ham to investigate strange wails coming from a small henge called the “Druids’ Firepit,” only to be waylaid by a Creepy Groundskeeper (TM) and his hounds. According to the journal, the Firepit is where Asmodeus was bound by the ancient druids until Cyon’s excavations released him. Sebastian explains to Cabell that Asmodeus takes the form of a dead person whose body has not yet been found, but Sir Geoffrey has alibis for a couple of the murders. (At this point, is anyone not expecting John Hurt to be the demon?)

Still, the movie keeps trying to make Mitri seem sympathetic and Sir Geoffrey look guilty, while arranging things so Sebastian and Ham can discover the underground catacombs where Asmodeus escaped from and prepare magical defenses. But they may be too late — Anitra is reported missing, and when our heroes witness a debauched ceremony in the catacombs below (complete with extra nudity added in the European release), they find not only that Mitri is Asmodeus and Sir Geoffrey is his disciple, but Anitra is their sacrificial victim. Suffice to say that good triumphs and evil is destroyed, and along the way, John Hurt turns into a really silly-looking lizard monster. Then there’s an obligatory Roddenberryesque tag where Anitra shows up at Sebastian’s home and charms Ham with her newly glamorous appearance.

Well, this was a mixed bag. The idea of a Holmes-like supernatural detective had promise, and Robert Culp did a terrific job as usual. But Gig Young was disappointing as Ham, not managing to achieve the same kind of chemistry with his co-star that Shatner had with Nimoy or The Questor Tapes‘ Mike Farrell had with Robert Foxworth. Casting Young would’ve been problematical if this had gone to series — not only was he unreliable due to his heavy alcoholism, but a year after this was made, he killed himself and his new wife for reasons that were never understood. Which makes it creepier to watch him than John Hurt.

The Roddenberry preoccupation with sex got a little tedious too, but by ’70s standards I guess it wouldn’t have been too bad. It’s odd that, both here and in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (which Roddenberry scripted and produced), Roddenberry portrays characters as licentious as promiscuous as himself as villainous figures. Was that just the only way he could sneak such things past the censors, or did it reflect some ambivalence about his own proclivities? We’ll probably never know. Anyway, the constant debate between Sebastian and Ham about whether the supernatural had a rational explanation was a little tiresome as well, but I suppose that’s because I’m looking back from an age where there are countless series that take the supernatural for granted — and even they generally go through the same beats of skepticism and doubt in their pilots. Ham was fully convinced of the supernatural by the end of the pilot, so that wouldn’t have been an ongoing issue except where guest stars and authority figures of the week were concerned. This could possibly have worked as a series, given a better co-star than Gig Young. But it would’ve had its problems that might have kept it from holding up too well today.

I’ve also finally gotten around to watching the 1978 Dr. Strange pilot movie, the one ’70s live-action Marvel Comics adaptation that I don’t remember seeing. I was curious because it was reportedly more authentic to the source than other contemporary Marvel adaptations like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man (both airing on CBS, like this pilot). Apparently it’s the one project that Stan Lee consulted on most closely. Although it’s still pretty revisionist compared to the recent feature film version. It was written and directed by Philip DeGuere, Jr., who would later head up the 1980s Twilight Zone revival.

After a main title sequence featuring the distinctive Blaster Beam musical instrument, we go to a Steve Ditkoesque dimensional plane where a vaguely seen, multi-eyed stop-motion demon called the Nameless One assigns Morgan Le Fay (Jessica Walter) to strike at the current Sorceror Supreme, Lindmer (John Mills), before he can pass his power to Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten), who works as a psychiatric resident at a New York hospital and is apparently quite the ladies’ man, like most ’70s TV leads. Lindmer sends his aide Wong to locate Strange, whom he knew years before. Wong is played by Clyde Kusatsu, later ST:TNG’s Admiral Nakamura and one of three Star Trek veterans to have played the role (George Takei voiced him in the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon, and onetime DS9 guest Paul Nakauchi voiced him in the 2007 animated DVD movie). The next day, Morgan strikes at Lindmer by possessing a young woman, Clea (Eddie Benton), and pushing him off a bridge. He survives, but is concerned that Clea is now in danger, since such possession has consequences.

That night, Strange and Clea both fall asleep watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (a reminder of the days when there were only a few channels on TV) and share Clea’s nightmare as she relives her possession and is stalked by Morgan. Clea flees into the street and almost gets hit by a cab, whose driver finds her amnesiac and takes her to the hospital, where Strange recognizes her and has her admitted. She insists she’ll die if she falls asleep, so she’s upset the next morning when Nurse Ratched (well, the nearest equivalent) tries to give her a sedative. While Strange argues with Ratched and the uncaring hospital administrator about his more compassionate admissions policies, Morgan tests the wards on the Sanctum Sanctorum (with its iconic window accurately rendered) and Lindmer uses a straight-up Jedi Mind Trick to get in to see Clea. He instead ends up talking to Strange, who turns out not to be aware of him or his world. But Lindmer gets him interested enough that, when the uncaring administrator tricks Clea into taking a tranquilizer that puts her in a coma, Strange goes to Lindmer and gets the expository speech about sorcery. Turns out Lindmer and Strange’s father were friends and worked together to protect Strange from the demonic forces that killed his parents. Lindmer convinces Strange to take a journey into the astral planes to rescue Clea’s wandering soul, and it’s a very psychedelic journey with Strange flying through a 2001/Time Tunnel corridor of trippy lights and fighting a Ted Cassidy-voiced black knight in a blurry astral realm before spiriting Clea’s spirit back to her body.

Dormammu — err, the Nameless One is mad at Morgan for failing to kill Strange because she thinks he’s hot, so he gives her one more chance. But Strange is still unconvinced even after his mystical journey, walking out on Lindmer — and Morgan uses the old “pretend to be Lindmer’s cat trying to get out of the rain so Strange will carry you across the threshold” trick to get into the Sanctum, strike Wong down, and overpower Lindmer, calling on the demon Asmodeus (oh, hi again, how’ve you been?) to spirit him away. Morgan then interrupts Strange’s date with Clea (now his ex-patient, so it’s ethical, allegedly), sends her back to sleep, and takes Strange with her to the astral plane, where she seduces him with wealth, power, knowledge, and, err, other stuff. But he resists the temptation and finds the power to battle her, rescuing Lindmer and foiling Morgan’s plans. He then accepts the transfer of Sorceror Supreme power from Lindmer to him, under the auspices of an Ancient One that’s just a bright light with Michael Ansara’s voice. And somehow Morgan is back pretending to be a motivational speaker or something, a hook for the theoretical series to come, despite her fate at her master’s hands just minutes of screen time before.

This is very ’70s, but actually pretty good. It’s a decent interpretation of the material, it’s pretty well-written, and the effects are rather good for a ’70s TV movie (although it occurs to me that this was the same studio and the same year as Battlestar Galactica, though a different effects house, Van Der Veer Photo Effects, who did some Star Trek work a decade or so earlier). I’d expected it to go a bit differently, with Lindmer dying due to Strange’s mistake and Strange vowing to make amends. But I guess if CBS’s Spider-Man wasn’t willing to use that origin for Peter Parker, I shouldn’t have expected it here. TV heroes at the time were generally expected to be more infallible and pure than that. And I imagine, given that Strange was a practicing resident here rather than an ex-surgeon, that the intent would’ve been to use a lot of standard hospital-drama tropes, with Strange continuing to clash with his uncaring administrator much like Quincy or Trapper John, and to use that comfortable formula to ground the more fantastic elements and make the show more palatable to the general audience, much like how many genre shows today get shoehorned into a crime-procedural mode. Which could even have worked, with good enough writing, and De Guere did a pretty good job of that. Stan Lee blamed its poor ratings on being scheduled opposite Roots; if not for that, maybe it would’ve gone to series. I doubt it would’ve been as good as the contemporary Hulk series, but it would probably have been better than Spider-Man. Too bad the pilot is all we got.

Thoughts on DOCTOR STRANGE (spoilers)

November 24, 2016 1 comment

I finally got around to seeing Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I hadn’t been in a rush to see it because the reviews have been mixed, with some praising it but others saying it was just another run-of-the-mill Marvel origin movie. But I quite enjoyed it. The formula may have been familiar, but the execution was fresh and engaging in a lot of ways.

I grant that it’s a little hard to sympathize with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange at first. He’s good at what he does, and the opening surgical sequences do a good job of establishing how important the precision of his hands is to him, but he’s also an arrogant jerk, and not as charmingly so as Robert Downey, Jr. But if the goal is to make us want to see him get comeuppance and begin a journey of transformation, it succeeds. Although I wish the movie had done more to give us some indication of why Strange would be chosen as a sorceror candidate, what this great potential was that the Ancient One saw in him. If anything, the lead character himself is one of the least well-drawn figures in the film.

But that’s the film’s strength, in a way. Marvel films have a tendency to focus on the heroes’ journeys and complexities and keep the villains kind of simplistic, which is a shame, because Marvel Comics have long been known for the richness of their villains’ personalities. Here, though, the supporting cast and the villains (both present and future) are nuanced and well-drawn. The main villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) was not what I expected — far from seeking power or vengeance or some standard villain motive, he sincerely believes he’s saving the world and doing good for its people; he’s just been misled by Dormammu’s promises, and is too dismissive of sacrificing individual lives to save the greater number. I was surprised at what a sympathetic figure he turned out to be. And Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is a fascinating character — an ally of Strange and the Ancient One rather than the power-hungry traitor he was in the comics, but one who has harsh and unyielding sensibilities — a willingness to do whatever violence is necessary to achieve his goals, and a rigid adherence to the rules that makes him unwilling to accept it when his allies break the rules to save the world. In an inversion of the original character, this Mordo sees himself as the betrayed one instead of the betrayer. I’m somewhat reminded of Ejiofor’s Operative character in Serenity — an antagonist who stood for law and order and believed that the unethical things he did were necessary to defend a peaceful, orderly system he revered above all else. Although the Operative went from antagonist to ally, while Mordo went the other way. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One is a nicely nuanced character as well, taking questionable steps that make Mordo’s sense of betrayal understandable.

One thing I did really like about Strange, in contrast to prior Marvel Cinematic Universe screen heroes, is that he has a clearly stated aversion to killing, and shows remorse when it becomes necessary. This is something that’s been standard for the majority of comic-book superheroes since the ’40s, but it’s all too rare in their movie counterparts, since American adventure movies tend to be made within a paradigm that presumes the villains must die. This is something that’s always bothered me about feature adaptations of superheroes, and I’ve always found it hypocritical that the movies’ Tony Stark supposedly gave up the weapons business due to a crisis of conscience but still routinely uses lethal armaments as Iron Man. But it seems we’re finally starting to see a movement toward heroes with more of a resistance to killing. In Ant-Man, Scott Lang was pretty firm about being opposed to violent methods (although there was dialogue there suggesting that the Avengers were presumed to use lethal force by default), and on Netflix, both Daredevil and Luke Cage are firmly against killing (though in the former case that seems to waver where ninjas are concerned) and Jessica Jones avoided it except in one special case. I do find it ironic that the supposedly darker Netflix shows have more non-lethal heroes than the supposedly light and fluffy MCU movies, although that’s going to change somewhat now that there’s a Punisher series in production. But maybe the movies are starting to turn away from lethal heroes somewhat. I certainly hope that’s the case with Spider-Man: Homecoming, at least.

As far as the visuals and the depiction of magic are concerned, I admit I’m not a big fan of the kaleidoscopic urban-origami Inception-ish stuff that’s featured in all the trailers. It’s certainly a fresh way of depicting magic, but it’s just too overcomplicated in its execution, all these pieces of buildings folding over and reduplicating and tessellating. I mean, these are supposedly changes that the sorcerors are making to the environment to benefit themselves and confound their foes. That much makes sense. But it doesn’t seem necessary to make all those thousands of nibbly little changes to the environment to achieve one specific effect, and it’s hard to believe one person could have the concentration to initiate and control all those individual changes at once. So I might’ve liked it better if it had been a little less overdone, less mechanical-looking, less cluttered with detail.

But I really liked a lot of the other things they did. There’s some very clever stuff here. I liked the way Strange integrated his sorcery and his medicine, using his “Sling Ring” to teleport to the hospital and draw on his colleague/ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) for help in key moments. It helps explain why he holds onto the title “Doctor Strange” instead of Master — he’s not giving up that side of himself completely, but is finding ways to integrate the old and the new. There was some clever stuff in the astral-body battle, and the final scene between Strange and the Ancient One was beautifully done, both visually and in writing/character terms. The battle in Hong Kong was inspired, the way they integrated the combatants moving forward in time with the environment moving backward, including some very clever ways of using the time inversion against the villains. I’ve never seen anything like this in a movie before, and it was delightful. The climax with Strange confronting Dormammu was also excellent, and it really showed how far Strange had grown, to the point where he’d finally set aside his ego completely for the good of the world. That was really effective.

I decided to splurge on seeing the movie in 3D, to get the full effect of the visuals, and it did add to the experience somewhat. Still, I’m not sure if the problem is with the theater or my eyes, but I had the same problems with depth of field that I’ve had with other 3D movies, in that things seem to be closer than they should — a lot of things seemed to be right in front of my face when they should be at least a bit further back, and characters in long shots often seemed tiny and close rather than normal-sized and distant. The theater also had a pretty bad sound mix that made some of the dialogue hard to hear, though it wasn’t as bad in the film as in the trailers.

One thing’s for sure — Cumberbatch definitely looks the part of Dr. Strange. And judging from the mid-credits scene, he’s wasting no time involving himself in the business of the superhero community going forward. I do look forward to seeing where he and Mordo go from here. (And Wong. Wong is cool. I should’ve said that.)

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Thoughts on SHIN GODZILLA (Spoilers)

October 24, 2016 2 comments

That’s right, kaiju fans, I’ve seen the new Godzilla movie! I was fortunate that Funimation’s limited release of the Japanese Godzilla reboot Shin Gojira — which was originally going to be released in the US as Godzilla: Resurgence but was instead released as Shin Godzilla — happened to be showing at a theater just half an hour’s drive from me this past weekend (actually right by the place I took my car when its odometer broke down a while back). I was also fortunate that they decided to extend the run after I missed my chance last week, and that they included a Saturday matinee showing so I didn’t have to drive in unfamiliar territory after dark. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Japanese Godzilla film in the theater before — certainly not uncut and undubbed — so it was good to get the chance. Though I was a bit late getting started and I made the mistake of taking the shortest route rather than the faster but more circuitous freeway routes, so I just barely got into the theater in time for the opening Toho sunburst.

This movie is written and “executive directed,” whatever that is, by Hideaki Anno, creator of the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I’ve been curious about but haven’t actually seen as of this writing. The other director, also the director of visual effects, is Shinji Higuchi, who was the effects director on the superb Gamera trilogy in the ’90s. That’s some impressive talent.

Shin Gojira means “New Godzilla” or “True Godzilla,” with a bit of a wordplay suggesting “Divine Godzilla.” It’s something unprecedented since the 1954 original: A Japanese Godzilla film that isn’t a sequel to that original, but a complete reboot in which Godzilla is something never before encountered. Indeed, that’s arguably unprecedented even if you count the two American attempts. The creature in the 1998 TriStar version was newly evolved, but named in reference to an existing Japanese legend called Gojira, which could conceivably have been the actual creature (and the 2002 GMK did imply that the TriStar movie happened in its continuity); and the Godzilla in the 2014 Legendary Pictures reboot had been secretly known to the military and governments since 1954. Even in the original movie, Gojira was known and worshipped as a sea god by the native tribe of Odo Island.

When I first heard that this, the seventh continuity reboot in Toho’s Godzilla series, would break with the tradition of making every reboot a parallel sequel to the ’54 original, I was disappointed. But as it turns out, this is a film whose story depends on Godzilla being a black swan event, a totally unprecedented problem that catches everyone in authority completely unprepared. It couldn’t really have been told any other way. “New Godzilla” indeed. (And perhaps it explains why the Resurgence title was dropped. It would’ve been false advertising.)

The film opens found-footage style with a Coast Guard investigation of an abandoned boat, the Glory-Maru, which is destroyed by a mysterious steam eruption at the same time an auto tunnel below Tokyo Bay is flooded. Opening with an abandoned boat is no doubt meant to evoke the ill-fated boats that opened both the ’54 original and the ’84 Heisei reboot, but remember it — there’s more to it than that.

The opening minutes are somewhat dry and tedious as the vast government bureaucracy moves from meeting to meeting and clumsily tries to figure out what to do, but it soon begins to become clear that the tediousness is the point, highlighting the inefficiency of a bureaucracy so top-heavy and complacent that it can’t react promptly to a crisis. The lead character, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is a young government official who chafes at the inefficiency and bureaucracy, and once the scope of the crisis becomes clear, he takes charge of a task force of nerds and rebels (by Japanese standards) who operate informally and free of hierarchy, working as a team to figure out the nature of the creature and how to fight it. But they still have to contend with the rest of the government, not to mention the Americans and other world governments, playing politics as usual.

Yaguchi is eventually contacted by Kayoco Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), supposedly a third-generation Japanese-American whose grandmother came to the states after WWII and whose father is a U.S. senator. The odd spelling of her given name (seen printed in her file) is perhaps meant to be an Americanization of “Kayoko.” Unfortunately, Ishihara speaks English with a very heavy Japanese accent, so she’s unconvincing as a U.S. native. (She is gorgeous as hell, though.) Kayoco brings Yaguchi the files of Goro Maki, a missing scientist who owned the Glory-Maru and who shares his name with the protagonists of both 1967’s Son of Godzilla and the ’84 reboot. Maki’s notes confirm that the creature chowed down on nuclear waste dumped on the ocean floor, presumably mutating it. Kayoco also establishes the creature’s name, and it’s odd how it’s explained in the film: The American code name Godzilla is introduced first, explained as a variant of Maki’s coinage Gojira, meaning something like “wrath of God” in the language of Maki’s native Ohdo (or Odo) Island, with the American spelling thus influenced by the word “God.” It seems convoluted, but I suppose it’s necessary to justify the “Godzilla” spelling in a modern context. That spelling is based on a romanization scheme that was preferred in the ’50s (in which it would be Gozila or Godzila) but has since fallen out of use in favor of the scheme that romanizes the same name as Gojira.

When Godzilla first appears, it seems oddly comical, a snake-headed, fish-eyed juvenile form that galumphs clumsily on all fours, ill-suited to movement on land. But it quickly gets less comical as we see the sheer size of it and the destruction it wreaks, and it soon visibly mutates into a second, upright form better adapted to land. As with prior reboots, this one has evolved the concept of Godzilla, adding something new to the mythos. Originally, Godzilla was just a surviving dinosaur species turned radioactive by nuclear testing. The Heisei series retconned him into a therapod dinosaur mutated to giant size by radiation. The Millennium series introduced his super-healing ability, allowing Godzilla to regenerate from near-total destruction if any part of him remained (an idea cribbed from Toho’s ’60s Frankenstein films). Now, Godzilla’s gained the ability to evolve into new forms at will — reminiscent of Iris in the Heisei Gamera trilogy, although it also kind of makes Godzilla a Pokemon now, or a Digimon. As with those franchises, it seems the sort of thing designed to let them sell lots of Godzilla toys by giving him various different forms.

Another idea this film shares with the Gamera trilogy: The Self-Defense Force is initially hampered in fighting the kaiju because the treaty only allows it to use force if fired upon first by an aggressor. They figure out they can make an exception for “pest control,” so the helicopters are sent in, but when it turns out a few civilians remain in the area, the Prime Minister chokes and refuses to give the fire order, allowing the creature to retreat to the sea.

Godzilla’s eventual mature form is more than twice its previous size (and taller than any previous Godzilla, in a bit of one-upmanship on Legendary Pictures, the previous record-holder), and it heads for Tokyo for unclear reasons (except, well, where else would Godzilla go?). Yaguchi’s team and the SDF have had time to organize a systematic attack, but none of their weapons leave a scratch, and it takes some American stealth bombers dropping bunker-buster bombs to pierce Goji’s hide. But that injury just prompts its next mutation, and it unleashes a devastating fire breath that then becomes an even more devastating atomic ray, and that’s just the start of a sequence of truly massive devastation on a scale beyond what we’ve ever seen in a Godzilla film, destroying three whole wards of Tokyo in moments and killing the Prime Minister and much of the government. Its energies depleted, Godzilla then freezes in place to recharge.

Yaguchi and half his team manage to survive (including all the speaking characters therein) and try to pick up the pieces. They have a plan: They’ve figured out that Godzilla’s nuclear reactor is blood-cooled, and they intend to use a coagulant to shut down his metabolism and force a “scram” (i.e. an emergency reactor shutdown). But the U.S. plans to nuke Godzilla — and Tokyo — to prevent it from evolving into a form that can reproduce and spread worldwide. Naturally, the prospect of America nuking a third Japanese city evokes a lot of pain and soul-searching from the characters. Yaguchi’s team has to race against time and pull every official and back-channel string they can to get the time to finish the coagulant, and the appointed replacement Prime Minister, who initially seemed like a flake, rises to the occasion and helps them get the time they need. Along the way, they figure out — this is a little unclear — that Goro Maki was somehow responsible for unleashing and possibly even creating Godzilla, perhaps as vengeance on Japan for his wife’s death, or perhaps a test of humanity’s worth to survive. If they are saying that Godzilla was a genetically engineered organism, it would be another parallel with the Gamera trilogy, and the first time that idea has ever been applied to Godzilla, although there was an unmade 1994 American remake that would’ve explained Godzilla as the creation of aliens.

The final battle with Godzilla is actually rather anticlimactic, since it’s basically just a matter of pinning Godzilla down and spraying the coagulant into its mouth, and the plan succeeds a bit too easily. Kayoco reminds Yaguchi that the nuclear countdown is only on hold as long as Godzilla remains dormant. But there’s a final shot showing… well, I’m not quite sure what it shows, but it may be a hint that this is not the only Godzilla out there.

Even though this is a total reboot, the film has a lot of references to the history of the franchise. I’ve mentioned many of them already. The score, by Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu, makes use of a number of Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla motifs and military marches at appropriate points, while also basing a number of original cues on a 6-note ostinato prominent in his Evangelion scores. (Some sources say he reused the actual cue from NGE, but I listened to the tracks on YouTube and they have distinct melodies, sharing only the ostinato underneath.)

Shin Godzilla is certainly the most serious, dark, and allegorical Godzilla film since at least GMK. It’s also very much a rumination on the state of Japan as a society, perhaps because it’s in some ways a reaction to the new American Godzilla franchise. Although using Godzilla as a metaphor for the contemporary zeitgeist of Japan itself is something done by many of the most effective Godzilla films — and some of the less effective ones. The original film was a protest of American nuclear testing and its unconsidered impact on Japan, and a rumination on the ethics of weapons of mass destruction from the perspective of a nation still healing the wounds from their recent use. The 1984 reboot took a critical look at the US-Soviet Cold War from the perspective of one of the smaller nations caught in the middle, with Japan’s history giving it a unique moral authority to take a stand against the superpowers’ nuclear gameplaying. The problematical Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a jingoistic celebration of Japan’s Imperial history and its rise as an economic superpower in the ’80s and ’90s. Conversely, GMK a decade later was an indictment of that same Imperial history and the way the modern generation had chosen to forget the nation’s past crimes and horrors. Following those precedents, Shin Godzilla is a commentary on the state of Japan in the post-Fukushima era, an expression of frustration at the governmental bloat and inefficiency that hampers the protection of the public against disasters, and at the way Japan’s political and military autonomy is still restricted even generations after WWII, a period of penance and dependence that seems like it may never end. While GMK criticized the Japanese for forgetting the lessons of their forebears’ misdeeds, this film makes the counterargument that the current generation doesn’t deserve to keep being punished for them, not if it inhibits Japan’s ability to defend itself and stand as an independent nation rather than a client state. Still, it’s more nuanced than the rah-rah pro-imperialist politics of GvKG, making a case for Japan as an equal partner among cooperating nations.

Still, as somber as it gets, I feel there’s a certain superficiality to it, due to its unrelenting focus on government officials. Aside from the early found-footage scenes, there’s little sense of ordinary people’s reactions to the disaster. The action scenes are mostly quite bloodless, with the population largely or fully evacuated before the battles, and with little in the way of onscreen death or the loss of established characters other than the first Prime Minister. This is actually pretty typical for Godzilla films, but it kind of belies the publicity saying that this was going back to the spirit of the original film, because that film focused heavily on the human cost, the terror of the victims and the suffering of the survivors. That was what made it so powerful and poignant. Similarly with the Shibuya sequence in Gamera 3 — what made it horrifying was not all the buildings the kaiju destroyed, but the focus on all the civilians fleeing and dying underfoot. The Tokyo cataclysm here is visually and stylistically potent, beautifully made and striking, but a bit sterile in contrast, because it’s a mostly empty city being destroyed and there’s little sense of a human cost aside from the loss of the PM. Other Godzilla films may rarely feature as much onscreen death as the original, but there are usually at least some civilian characters to offer a more street-level perspective.

Still, from a stylistic standpoint, it’s a well-made and effective film. The VFX, done mostly with CGI, are quite good overall, although the “baby” Godzilla doesn’t look quite as solid and real as the later models. The music is used fairly deftly; at first, in the dry, documentary-like opening minutes, there is no music, but a score finally begins to emerge once the proto-Godzilla makes landfall, and the Ifukube themes kick in once the mature creature appears. The editing is quite fast-paced, sometimes maybe a bit too much so, but it helps keep the energy up even in all the scenes of meetings and dialogue. There are captions everywhere, identifying characters by name and government title (including several captions for Yaguchi as he’s promoted to more and more responsibility) and the various offices and task forces and even military vehicles, and it’s hard to pay attention to the subtitle translations of both dialogue and captions at the same time. I’m glad I was sitting toward the back of the theater so that I could at least fit both sets of captions into my field of view. Still, watching this movie with subtitles might be more rewarding on home video with freeze-frame capability.

All in all, I’d call it one of the better Godzilla movies. I think the film it most reminds me of is the ’84 reboot — also a rumination on Japan’s relationship with nuclear superpowers, and the last time that a Japanese Godzilla film was strictly about Godzilla vs. humanity, with no other monsters or giant mechas involved. It does a good job feeling grounded and naturalistic, even if it is a bit sterile. It’s certainly raised the effects game to a new level, perhaps even enough to compete with Legendary’s efforts. Apparently it’s been quite a critical and box-office success, the best-attended Godzilla theatrical release in Japan in 50 years, and its limited US run has done better than expected. I’d say that means the prospects of a sequel are pretty good, although the next announced Godzilla project from Japan is, surprisingly, a CGI anime film slated for 2017. If there is a sequel in the Shin continuity, hopefully we’ll get a bit more explanation of Goro Maki’s role in unleashing Godzilla. I’m sure we’ll get further mutations of Godzilla as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rival monster or two. It’d be nice to have an ongoing continuity again, although next time I’d like to see the perspective broaden beyond the government.

And I’m probably not the only one wondering if there’s a way to do a Shin Godzilla vs. Legendary Godzilla crossover…