Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)

Author: Patrick Galvan
May 29, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers

Godzilla 2000: Millennium holds a special place in my nostalgia-prone heart. This was, after all, the film that introduced me to Toho, whose movies I have come to study more than any other Japanese studio. And, looking back on the film again, it still holds up for me; I would even go so far as to call it one of my favorite movies in the Godzilla franchise. That is not to say, however, that I sit through this picture oblivious to its weaknesses and awkward moments; nor do I ignore some noteworthy improvements of its heavily re-edited Americanized version (which I first saw in a theater fourteen years ago). Very much like the American-produced Superman II, this is a film, with two heavily flawed versions, that could probably be combined to form—for lack of a better description—the ultimate edition. In terms of what we currently have, it’s an up-and-down piece of filmmaking with more than enough good material to warrant repeated viewings.

The plot is a casual rewrite of the Godzilla narrative: Godzilla exists, he’s existed for a while, he’s perceived by some as a scientific gold mine, and others regard him as a threat. Just how long this incarnation’s rampages have been going on, we are never told—nor do we particularly care; we have our imaginations, after all. Anyhow, between two of the monster’s most recent attacks, the CCI (Crisis Control Intelligence) discovers a mysterious meteorite in the Japan Trench. As it turns out, the rock from space is a once-dormant UFO. And it’s not friendly—in a Godzilla movie, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The CCI attempts to destroy this unfriendly extra-terrestrial visitor; their every move results in failure; and before long, “You-Know-Who” will rise to save the world.

One thing can be said in favor of  Godzilla 2000: Millennium: it is appealingly subtle. The latter entries in the Heisei series produced so many extravagancies—psychic powers; bonds between man and monster; bonds between monster and monster; atomic meltdowns; enough death-rays to send the Galactic Empire running for cover—that it is rather nice to see a movie in which the science-fiction elements revert to a calm, unpretentious level. As I mentioned earlier, the fact that we are given little information about Godzilla’s reinvented past works in the picture’s ultimate favor. We don’t need a series of big, elaborate speeches to understand what the monster stands for, why he does what he does, and so on. The movie presents us just enough for us to fill in the voids for ourselves. I wouldn’t encourage that approach every time, but now and then, it’s more fun.

This take on Godzilla’s personae is one of the best to date: the monster, except for at the end, doesn’t set out with any apparent motive to claim human lives; the destruction he causes is incidental in his efforts to restore balance—demolishing man’s energy sources—and protecting his own territory—combating the alien menace. But what I adored the most was the filmmakers’ admirable attempt to instill a sense of majesty into the creature—an attempt aided, oddly enough, by the character’s relatively minimal screen time. Godzilla only has three scenes of considerable length, each consummately paced, in which he presents a sense of science-fiction wonder. If Godzilla existed, he would be marveled at as well as feared, and director Takao Okawara plays off that note excellently. One of the best scenes: when Godzilla appears in the waters outside of Tokai and is subsequently attacked by the military. He advances through the barrage of rockets and explosions without making any particularly aggressive motions toward his attackers. The Heisei incarnation would have instinctively started dousing the entire area with heat-rays, but this Godzilla doesn’t turn aggressive until quite late in the scene. As the sequence plays through, the camera lingers, mostly in low-angle wide shots—marveling at the animal’s size, the graceful formation of his dorsal spines, the way the rockets so ineffectively burst upon his alligator-like flesh—absorbing the majesty that would be intrinsic should a gigantic animal really rise from the ocean. Setting the scene in broad daylight adds credibility to the scene. This is where I feel the American distributors, when it came time for them to re-edit the picture, made their biggest blunder. This sequence, to me, is not an edgy action scene; it represents a sense of majesty and importance about the character; and replacing Takayuki Hattori's gentle score with a percussion-heavy piece seemed all wrong and out of place.

But more on the Americanized version later.

The subtlety spreads to Godzilla’s opponent, as well. Alien invaders are hardly a new facet in the franchise, but this is perhaps the most fascinating take on the threat to date. This extra-terrestrial threat is a singular entity; it’s not a group of humanoids cloaked in funny-looking outfits, shelling out ultimatum speeches and phony offers of friendship; it’s an organism concerned about expanding its own territory. Something I also enjoyed was the filmmakers’ decision to keep Godzilla’s biological opponent, Orga, hidden until the very end. As much fun as it can be to see monsters duke it out two or three times in one movie, it can be just as enjoyable to let everything build up to one long, complex action scene at the end. After all, variety is one of the many things that has allowed the Japanese monster movie subgenre to last so long.

As far as tone and ideas are concerned, Godzilla 2000: Millennium is a consummate film. In terms of how that tone and those ideas are executed, however, it’s a rather his-and-miss affair, packed with high points and low points, moments of tremendous power and jabs of clumsiness.

The unevenness begins with the flesh-and-blood elements; there wasn’t a performance I particularly disliked, but most of the human characters are in need of further development. Takehiro Murata does what he can (he makes our protagonist watchable) but nothing about the character sticks out. He doesn’t have a tremendously detailed relationship with his daughter (Mayu Suzuki), in spite of the  camaraderie the two of them display early on. I like Shiro Sano as the kaiju scientist; it’s a shame this good actor is only allowed to deliver monologues and fret when things go awry. The most interesting dynamic exists between Murata and Naomi Nishida, as the griping photographer. Their relationship (transitioning from indifference to tolerance to modest respect—without blooming into flat-out romance) shows promise, delivers a few good scenes, and still begs for more. More screen time, more development. The best performance, however, undoubtedly goes to Hiroshi Abe, who plays the CCI agent bent on killing Godzilla. I can imagine so many ways this performance could have gone wrong; none of which became reality. Abe, who possesses a natural screen presence, enacts the quintessential level of seriousness and creates the most compelling character in the film. His final scene is justifiably memorable. All in all, the human characters are an expected mixed bag.

The mixed bag facets extend to the physical production. Let’s begin with Godzilla himself. Design-wise, this is one of the better incarnations yet. Godzilla now boasts a larger head, jaws which look powerful enough to deliver actual damage, serrated dorsal spines, and an impressively organic tail. However, the suit is a little too stiff for my liking (I still cringe at the fact that Godzilla still needs to turn his entire body in order to look in a different direction). The miniatures are impressively detailed; the cities do resemble actual metropolises, ones that stretch back and back, seemingly without end. American reviewers writing about the monsters kicking over cardboard boxes and Styrofoam models clearly never saw the film. The Orga suit is well-realized, especially in its facial features (the raising eyebrow during the monster’s final moments is a great touch). My only main gripe is that the staff did not add a few mechanisms to the monster’s hands to give them some articulation; as presented in the film, they just sort of hang on his arms like a pair of oversized gloves.

Sound design also runs hot and cold. Very often, the misses come immediately after the hits. A first-rate example: during the opening scene, when Godzilla is rampaging through Nemuro, we transition to a long shot of Godzilla’s feet kicking through some buildings. Cut to a medium close-up of the monster walking through power lines. The first shot is graced with some excellent Foley: the shatter of collapsing rubble. But the second is accompanied only by a few soft, barely detectable wisps.

Onto the musical score. I’m prepared to be singled out for saying this, but I feel Takayuki Hattori is one of the better composers to work in the Godzilla genre. I was a big enthusiast for his work in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994), and I’m just as pleased with what he accomplished here. For it shares the film’s strongest asset: it’s subtle. Godzilla’s new theme, very often pitched at a slow tempo, is—again, for me—about as consummate a piece of film scoring as can be. It is leisurely paced; it builds; it conveys a tremendous sense of majesty and wonder; that always-welcome choir, so present in so many modern movies, works to the score’s advantage. Scenes set underwater, especially when the UFO is first discovered, also demonstrate Hattori’s flair for subtlety. In general, Hattori’s music does exactly what it needs to. His only lapse: the piece that plays during Orga’s first appearance, which is much too soft and anticlimactic.

We might as well tackle the English re-edit now. As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla 2000: Millennium is a potentially great movie existing between two heavily imperfect cuts. So no, I don’t view the re-edit as a significant improvement; on the contrary, I actually like it a little bit less—and yes, I’m willing to go down the road alone on that statement, too. But it’s not entirely meritless; there are moments of monumental improvement. A good majority of the sound effects have been improved. Orga has been given a more menacing bellow; the explosions strike with more resonance; and the Foley utilized when Godzilla whacks the UFO with his tail is, for lack of a better word, beautiful. I wasn’t too crazy about the bleeping noise used whenever the UFO took flight (I very much preferred the menacing hum it made in the Japanese print), but, in general, the new sound effects are top-notch.

The English cut also tightens the pacing. Pointless scenes of Naomi Nishida wandering through a manufacturing station and newscasters babbling about the UFO were tossed out. Good scenes became better by knocking out a few seconds here and there. Also wiped away, however, was one of the movie’s best moments. In the original cut, after the roof-planted explosives fail to destroy the UFO, the alien invader dispatches a series of images and words throughout Tokyo’s monitors, detailing its plan for a kingdom on earth. Coupled with another segment of Hattori’s wonderful score, it truly was one of the film’s highlights, and it was a shame to realize it had been taken away from American audiences. Other good scenes, such as Godzilla attempting to blast the missile squad with his death-ray (watching the English version, I always wondered why he didn’t attempt to fight back once he started suffering physical damage) were also unwisely removed.

Speaking of the music, the English print replaces a few bits of Hattori’s score with new themes by J. Peter Robinson. Robinson, incidentally, composed the score for a 1998 television flick called Gargantua and reused a few clips here. But how do his contributions hold up? I already expressed my thoughts on their choice to beef up the music for Godzilla’s appearance at Tokai. That scene is followed by a good moment of the main character climbing into one of Godzilla’s footprints. The original version, which was silent, worked so much better—the dominant sound were the ocean waves hitting the shore. As a result, the music added for the English edition saps some of the scene’s serenity. Robinson does make a few good contributions, though. He composed better, more electrical notes for Orga’s first appearance and provided an eerier feeling when Orga attempted to devour Godzilla whole. Actually, Robinson’s contributions for the final battle is a tad better than Hattori’s—combined with the improved Foley, the English version actually boasts the better climax.

But I must be honest. As good as some of these edits are, I can’t help but feel more satisfied when watching the original Japanese print. So in naming my preferred cut, I must risk sounding like a purist and go with Toho’s release.

Still, as is the case with Superman II, I feel both prints, demonstrating their pros and cons, could potentially be combined into an ultimate version. If somebody preserved the Japanese speech, created an appropriate mixture of Hattori and Robinson’s scores, used the American Foley, and took more care in the editing process, maybe Godzilla 2000: Millennium would come closer to realizing its full potential. As it is, it’s still a noble, very entertaining, and appreciatively subtle motion picture. Yes, I would still call it one of my favorites.