Godzilla: Final Wars – Toho’s Legend Comes to a Close

Toho marked Godzilla’s 50th anniversary with a hi-tech reboot of a classic, then called it quits. Sort of.

When Toho put their then-20 year old Godzilla franchise on hiatis in 1975, it was an act of desperation more than anything. The series was beaten and tired and a little punch drunk. The films had become an international joke: cheap, silly kiddie fare, and fewer and fewer people cared about Godzilla. The producers at Toho wanted a little time to retool and revamp the Big Guy, try and get him back into fighting shape before sending him out again in hopes audiences would start coming back to the theaters.

In 1985 Godzilla returned as badass as ever and a smarter, louder franchise caught a second wind. The decision to send him on another vacation in 1995, this time after a ten year run, was both conscious and self-conscious. They had that Sony deal after all and knew they had to give up the rights for a stretch, so they brought the series to a close with a bang, killing Godzilla quite thoroughly dead onscreen for only the second time in his career. But they did it with a nod back to Ishiro Honda’s untouchable original, by snuffing the King of the Monsters after he battles a creature evolved from the same Oxygen Destroyer that melted him in 1954. Before wheezing out that radioactive death rattle, however, Godzilla passes along the last of his strength to his young son, offering more than a hint the franchise would be back.

Sure enough it was, and a bit sooner than anyone expected. When the Sony deal didn’t exactly pan out to anyone’s liking, Toho rushed Godzilla back in 1999, just in time for the Millennium.

Godzilla’s third vacation, this time after only five years, was equally both conscious and self-conscious. 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the original film, and was celebrated with film festivals, academic conferences, the release of the original Gojira in the US for the first time, and hoopla aplenty. It only seemed appropriate that Toho would release a new Godzilla film, and use that moment to bring the series to what may or may not exactly be an end. Given everyone was using the anniversary to celebrate the whole long crazy run of the franchise, why not have this last film do the same? The result was Final Wars, a film overloaded with nods to Godzilla’s own past, and what might be a few worrisome hints about his future.

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As the prologue informs us, forty years in the future pollution and nuclear testing have left the planet overrun with more giant monsters than you can shake a stick at. On the bright side, this little kaiju infestation prompts the nations of the world to set aside their differences, pool their resources, and form the Earth Defense Force to confront these ornery and clumsy thyroid cases.

That same environmental trouble has also led to a crop of mutant humans. An extra protein base in their genetic structure, see, has left a lucky few with super powers. Since most of them seem to be violent assholes by nature, the mutants are recruited by the EDF and turned into the paramilitary M Organization. Never the most sociable types to begin with, they become a battalion of trained killers whose job it is to terminate the monsters with extreme prejudice.

Okay now. Up to this point in franchise history, apart from a few clear and winking nods to Spielberg, the films, in style and form, were unique unto themselves. They existed in their own self-created universe and on their own terms. They were insular pictures adamantly refusing to acknowledge anything outside the topsy-turvy Toho cosmos, and remained quite unlike anything else as a result.

Here, just six or seven minutes into Final Wars, we’ve already seen the influence of the Matrix films, X-Men, anime, videogames, Hong Kong action flicks, and nearly every superhero movie released after 2000. While those influences remain obvious through the rest of the picture (along with a heavy dose of the V. and Alien Nation TV series), Toho’s own influence finally kicks in with the arrival of the Mothra Twins (bless them) and the mummified corpse of Gigan.

Gigan was an alien kaiju who made his first appearance in 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, in which he was a weapon controlled by  a group of evil extraterrestrial cockroach people. Their insidious plan was to use Gigan to help them take control of Japan’s (and soon the world’s) real estate market (there’s no real need to get into details here). He would make a brief appearance again at the end of the following year’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, but hadn’t been heard from since.

Here, however, we learn he’s not only a cyborg, he’s been on the earth some 12,000 years (which may be a reference back to 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra: The Battle for Earth). Amazingly enough, the meatier parts of Gigan also contain that same extra  protein base which, according to the Mothra Twins, is evil by nature. So you know what that says about those asshole  mutants, right? All except for our unlikely protagonist, M-Organization Ensign Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka), who seems to be a decent and pleasant enough fellow.

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From this point on the picture becomes a hurricane of Godzilla references, when monsters who’d only been seen in one film some 30 years earlier suddenly start cropping up in major cities all over the world to cause terrible traffic problems. Among them, if you look carefully, you might even spot the Smog Monster Hedorah, even though Toho had banned him from ever appearing in another film, and Zilla, the dinosaur who appeared in the ‘98 Emmerich film.

(Let me try to give you a sense of the level of fan-targeted in-jokes at play here. The Toho Godzilla films took their share of swipes at the ‘98 US version. The story goes that yes, there was a giant monster in NYC in 1998, but it was just a plain old dinosaur the stupid Americans mistook for Godzilla. Sony and Emmerich had in essence taken the God out of him, hence in the mythology he’s been dubbed Zilla. See? But I digress.)

In short we get a menagerie of pretty much every monster Godzilla has ever battled onscreen. Once that’s established, Final Wars becomes a reboot of what is generally accepted as the greatest of all the sequels, 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, together with a few hints of Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster and Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster.

Oh, I could go on listing the hundreds of references packed into Final Wars’ two-hour run time, but however much fun that might be, it’s something you can do yourself at home with a legal pad. Better yet, get some geeky drunks over and you can turn it into a drinking game. Knock yourself out. The film still has a few major problems to contend with, and that’s without even bringing up the fact that a few of the monsters are CGI instead of the traditional rubber suits.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy if you will (I wouldn’t suggest it), but the last three films of the third Godzilla cycle came to focus so completely on top-heavy Transformers-style military technology they almost lost sight of the monsters. In fact the films seem to be focusing on everything except kaiju. While the extra-monster plots in the Godzilla films have always fascinated me they remained secondary to the widespread screaming chaos and destruction being dealt out by, oh, a giant dragonfly or anklyosaurus or mantis. The human (or in this case mutant) stories are dominant here, and given the human characters toward the end of the cycle tended more often than not to be soldiers instead of the more traditional eccentric scientists or reporters, I find myself far less interested in them and anything they might have to say.

More troubling though, and this is on display in Final Wars perhaps even more clearly than in the two preceding films, director Ryûhei Kitamura seems to be slavishly aping the styles of every other popular film of the day. Time was the look of a Godzilla film was unique. Turn on the TV, see two characters talking in a bare room, and you could still tell immediately you were watching a Godzilla picture.

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But with its shaky cam and quick cuts and gray digital grain, not to mention all those enormous clanking and buzzing machines, Final Wars could be any action film of the era (so long as you don’t see Godzilla). Yes, the action sequences are loud and exciting and crazy and full of huge explosions, but so are everyone elses. Even though Final Wars is CGI on only a comparatively small scale (oh, I guess I brought it up after all), the whole damn thing looks and feels like it was generated within a computer.

My point being, I guess, that the originality of the Godzilla franchise, it’s naive individual magic,  seems to be getting subsumed by the market, and as a result Godzilla films are starting to look and feel and sound like every other damn thing out there. Yes Final Wars offers up some great sequences, some clever in-jokes, and it was fun to catch all the references, but it felt like the whole damn film was a diversion, a video game for geeky fans that overwhelmed the story, those annoying characters, and Godzilla himself. It may have been an absolutely appropriate way to bring things to a close, but more than anything (and this may have been intentional) it left me nostalgic for those long gone classics directed by Honda, and saddened by the knowledge we’ll never see anything like them again.

At films end, Godzilla and his latest son are walking off into the sunset much as they did at the end of Son of Godzilla (just to squeeze one more reference in). Echoing my own thoughts, one of the humans watching the scene says, “Thank goodness it’s all over at last.”

As is to be expected at the end of a series, another counters (echoing my own fears), “No it’s not. It’s just a new beginning.”

As much as I hate to say it, that’s what worries me, and it actually gave me hope for the Gareth Edwards reboot.

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