Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Class: Staff
Author: J.L. Carrozza
Score: (3.5/5)
May 5th, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

What is Godzilla: Final Wars? Aside from being Toho's 50th anniversary Godzilla film and likely the last Godzilla film for a while, it's also quite the enigma. It's perhaps simultaneously one of the best and worst films in the whole series and despite the fact that Tomoyuki Tanaka is likely spinning in his grave over it (remember, this is a man who accused Yoshimitsu Banno of “ruining“ the Godzilla series), I absolutely love it.

After showing the famous "TohoScope" logo (a somewhat inappropriate and in my eyes almost blasphemous thing to do, as the film shares little in common with the many Ishiro Honda classics graced with said logo), the film opens sometime in the past, with Godzilla battling a vintage style Gotengo and being buried under the ice caps of Antarctica. Jump cut to the not too distant future, where mankind has decided to stop fighting each other (fat chance) and instead focus on battling the hordes of giant monsters that now infest the Earth. So thus the Earth Defense Force is established, using a group of genetically altered humanoid mutants to battle the beasts. However, soon monsters begin appearing all over the world. No sooner do the monsters mysteriously disappear than a group of aliens, the Xiliens, make themselves known, telling mankind that a giant asteroid by the name of Gorath is on a collision course with Earth. However, once it is revealed that the aliens are in fact up to no good and are insectoid monsters out to harvest mankind's mitochondria, the Xiliens launch a full out attack on mankind. Captain Douglas Gordon, commander of the Gotengo, however, has an ace up his sleeve. He flies the Gotengo to Antarctica to free Godzilla from the ice. Once free, Godzilla travels around the world and mows his way through monster after monster before taking on the Xilien's final straw: Monster X, in Tokyo.

Technically, this is actually a very poor Godzilla film, the monster battles, with the exception of the Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah fight are far, far too short for example and far more attention is paid to the film's human and mutant characters than its monsters, the film relies far more on flash than substance and is awash in various digital color and grain filters that give the movie a very music video like-look. Ryuhei Kitamura, in my opinion, was actually a pretty poor choice to direct this film. Unlike, say, such men as Shinji Higuchi and Shusuke Kaneko, he is obviously not a huge fan of the Godzilla series or the kaiju eiga genre. Indeed, rather than lovingly pay tribute to the Godzilla films he enjoyed as a child, like Kaneko and Higuchi did with the Heisei Gamera trilogy (or as Peter Jackson did with the original King Kong in his 2005 remake), Kitamura crafts what is essentially an ANTI-Godzilla film. Indeed, it feels far more akin to a Hong Kong John Woo film than it does a Godzilla movie, with similar flashiness and breathless, hyperkinetic action. I can completely understand why this film disappointed fans to such a degree. Most of us go to a Godzilla film to see giant monsters go at it, not to see a couple of mutants battle on motorcycles.

However, the thing is that, like Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Godzilla: Final Wars is not a typical Godzilla film in any respect and one should not approach Final Wars expecting that. If you watch the film with an open mind and more as a Ryuhei Kitamura film than a Godzilla film, than the film is actually quite rewarding and fun. In fact, most of my favorite scenes and elements in the movie, such as the motorcycle chase, Don Frye and Kazuki Kitamura's performances, etc, are not really involving Godzilla or kaiju at all. The film also features some surprisingly iconic little moments, such as, of course, the infamous moment where a black pimp's heated argument with a NYC cop is interrupted by the arrival of Rodan and a scene featuring Minira riding in the back of an old Japanese hillbilly's truck. The film does not take itself even remotely seriously. It's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink roller coaster ride with black pimps, a burned out pro wrestler lead, a 30 second battle between the Japanese and American Godzillas, mutants prancing around in jumpsuits and an alien leader who acts like he's under the influence of mind altering drugs.

From a technical standpoint, this looks and feels almost nothing like a Godzilla movie. Rather than shoot on 35mm like all previous 27 films, Kitamura instead opted to shoot the film on HD. Yet oddly enough, in what is certainly one of the strangest artistic choices in any film, Kitamura chooses to make the HD look like film by adding a layer of grain to the whole movie. And then of course, there's the color filters, which are quite tacky looking. It's a far cry from the meticulous digital grading done on many Hollywood films in that the hue of everything is just one color. The inside of the Gotengo is blue, the inside of the Xilien mothership is bright orange, etc. Yet somehow, these visual flaws only aid the film in it's bizarre charm.

The music by Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer), who also scored Dario Argento's Inferno, is quite frankly terrible and feels totally out of place in a Godzilla movie. But like Riichiro Manabe's cacophonous score for Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), it is strangely appropriate to what is in essence not really a Godzilla film at all, but a 128 minute action music video.

The acting is, like the film itself, simultaneously the worst and the best in the entire series. First off, we have Masahiro Matsuoka and Rei Kikukawa in the leads, as Ozaki and Miyuki Otonashi, respectively, both of whom are serviceable but unremarkable and don't make very much of an impression at all. The real treat here is pro-wrestler turned actor Don Frye's performance as Captain Douglas Gordon, which is no doubt the most memorable performance by a Caucasian in a Japanese film since Robert Dunham tried to steal the yakuza's diamonds in Dogora (1964), Nick Adams' howled “You stinkin' rats!“ in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965) and Vic Morrow drunkenly stumbled across the screen in Message From Space. His performance is so awful yet so incredibly charming that one cannot help but absolutely adore it. Also contributing a wonderfully hammy performance is Kazuki Kitamura (who prior to this film appeared in Ryuhei Kitamura's sword flick Azumi and played a Crazy 88 member in Quentin Tarantino's grind house film tribute Kill Bill), who just chews the scenery as the Xillian leader, throwing a Rita Repulsa-like hissy fit every time one of his monsters loses to Godzilla. Kane Kosugi is another major player here. The son of famous martial artist Sho Kosugi, Kane first appeared opposite his father as a child in 1983's Revenge of the Ninja and since then has appeared in everything from the failed American Ultraman spinoff Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero (or in Japan Ultraman Powered) to sentai shows such as Kakuranger. He very amusingly manages to throw the occasional English one liner into his mostly Japanese speaking performance. The film also features such familiar faces as Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno and Kenji Sahara, but they are also more or less overshadowed by the likes of Frye, Kitamura and Kosugi.

In terms of character development, there isn't much of it in Godzilla: Final Wars, though Ozaki and Kazama have a sort of rivalry that peaks when Kazama is put under mind control and the two square on the motorcycles. Feeling extreme remorse, Kazama then decides to sacrifice himself to destroy the Xilien mothership's shield. A slight romantic interest is also hinted at between Douglas Gordon and Anna Otonashi, Miyuki's news anchor sister, but the film otherwise focuses almost entirely on action.

There are several films that this film highly reminds me of. One is Hua Shan's 1975 Shaw Brothers superhero opus The Super Inframan. The film boasts a similar breathtaking pace, also features an entourage of wild monsters that are dispatched in a very quick amount of time by the title character and not to mention a similar tone and feeling of constant insanity. Another is Kinji Fukasaku's grand space opera Message From Space, again, for its general tone. The scene where Kazama suicide pilots his ship through the Xilien mothers even closely resembles the “chicken run” through the Gavanas' palace in Message (though it is likely that this scene may very well be simply a reference to Return of the Jedi, which also contains a similar scene). And just as films like Message From Space and Bye-Bye Jupiter (1984) perfectly reflected the post Star Wars “space movie” craze of the 80's, Godzilla: Final Wars so perfectly reflects the action, video game and flashy music video crazed 2000's.

So all in all, the film is absolutely no masterpiece, but it is such insane fun that's quite frankly it's hard not to adore it. Godzilla: Final Wars could be the ultimate party film as well, it's the kind of film one could invent a drinking game around. Did I also mention that it contains a black pimp?