Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Class: Staff
Author: Guy Tucker
Score: (3.5/5)
September 12th, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Years ago, the mighty Earth Defense Forces vanquished the seemingly invincible Godzilla, sent writhing to pit unknown deep within the crevasses of the Antarctic. Now years later, as Earth is assailed by legions of monsters both known and unknown, and by an alien force the likes of which our planet has never seen ... is Godzilla perhaps the least evil of what the globe has ever seen, or perhaps the only power that can topple the balance back? Or will melting that pit of icebound cruelty lead merely to more destruction than even the invaders from space and their monstrous puppets had ever imagined on their own? The answer is never so simple when one reaches the end of days, or ... the FINAL WARS.

Almost certainly the most divisive movie of its series yet made, Godzilla: Final Wars opens with a credit dedicating the film, to three of the gentlemen who made the original 50 years back: producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishiro Honda and special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya. It then goes on to produce a spectacle that not one of them could even vaguely have conceived of and very possibly would have hated.

It's difficult to know what to say about Final Wars except that at the very least, it's ingeniously executed; reportedly the largest budget ever assigned to a Godzilla movie was granted to this one (although I'm not so sure that, if one adjusted for inflation, that The Return of Godzilla [1984], the 30th anniversary movie, still wasn't more lavishly appointed). Final Wars is a great deal less traditional than the 1984 movie was, at least superficially; both pictures are balls-to-the-wall, spare-no-expense extravaganzas, but also each are made by filmmakers with tremendously different instincts, and utterly different agendas.

Final Wars director Ryuhei Kitamura is perhaps the most singular, paradoxical stylist ever to work on a Godzilla film; all those who went before him either originated the tradition of how Japanese monster movies were made, or were just copying it. (Okay, there's one exception, the brilliant Shusuke Kaneko, whose 2001 movie Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack is the best Godzilla movie Ishiro Honda never made. Or if not that one, Yoshimitsu Banno's Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1971] is.) Kitamura's skill and dexterity is never in doubt, that he has tremendous ability cannot be denied; the problem could be said to be to what ends he puts this ability. Final Wars is basically three spectacular movies that they've tried to pack into one, and it often seems as if none of these stories even knew how to shake hands, let alone embrace into a comprehensive tale, and more than once one gets the sense that Kitamura's real directive here is not to have made a proper 50th Anniversary Godzilla movie, but to cobble together a product reel showing why he should be directing Hollywood action movies.

I must say that in this regard, Kitamura has succeeded completely. I have never seen more elaborate stunt work in a Japanese movie ever, except ... this is human stunt work. No one goes to a Godzilla movie to see a gigantic motorcycle chase that seems to go on for about twenty minutes, no matter how brilliantly it's done, though perhaps I'd find the sequence more bravura if I even cared about these characters (mutant soldiers, one enslaved by aliens) in the first place. I really don't want to see another eighty minutes of Matrix-like fight scenes ... though maybe I would if there was anything even vaguely resembling character development, or even characterization, in the first place.

Kitamura spends so much time on this kind of thing that the manner in which he cuts the monster sequences is often borderline insulting. This movie is over two hours long (as far as I recall, the longest running Japanese monster movie ever), and is packed with lengthy fight scenes between humans and human-looking aliens, and these parts, however amazingly well done, become particularly annoying because they seem to be eating up so much screen time that should be devoted to the real reason we watch these things: THE GIANT MONSTERS. Granted, I thought the last entry in the series Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) was a drag and a half, and this movie represents something more entertaining, but it's absolutely shocking how cavalierly Kitamura treats so many of these sequences; this was sold as the Destroy All Monsters (1968) of our new era, and while some of the chaos of this comes through beautifully at times, it's often infuriating how the director seems to pick and choose, completely inexplicably, amongst what he decides he wants to show us and what he doesn't. I think the editing is actually superb from the technical point of view, but why does he not show us so much stuff we want to see?

Many sequences are just astounding at the beginning: Rodan's attack on New York, Angilas bouncing through acres of buildings, the mammoth shrimp Ebirah having a showdown with mutant soldiers (the best Ultraman episode that was never made), and I'm only naming three of the beasties who turn up in this (you have to be really dedicated to the series to even recognize who most of these guys are, I suspect). But then we get stupid, cheap stuff like the way Hedorah, the Smog Monster, is polished off within less than a minute, and the way the movie never bothers to tell us whether some of these critters are even definitively vanquished. (One gorgeous long shot, of Rodan, King Caesar and Anguirus all in a pile, after one of the picture's better monster action sequences, wherein Godzilla is of course victorious, misses so many moments it's like an ache you can't get rid of to watch it again; you just know that Eiji Tsuburaya or Teruyoshi Nakano would have inserted close-ups of their eyes fading or something; hell, even Noriaki Yuasa would have done as much.)

This must sound like I'm angry with the picture, and at some levels I am, perhaps all the more so because of all the stuff that works so well. I do think Kitamura is a first-class director, I have not seen his work before, but I wish he had taken less of a punk-rock attitude (as I see it) to what should have been a tribute, not a strange sort of mockery. Who didn't love the idea of this movie when we first heard of it? All those monsters coming back, how cool is that? Yet there seems to be so much almost deliberate misjudgement in the way it's executed, what, after three viewings am I going to say? On the one hand I'm delighted to see such a modern-looking, handsomely produced entry into the series; none of the movies since 1984 have been made with so much money, and I'll tell ya, for the reported $18 million that this cost, plus extra CGI work and title design commissioned from Hollywood (the latter executed by Seven's own Kyle Cooper, although I can't fathom why he — or Kitamura — decided it should go by so fast and be so hard to read), your average Hollywood movie that attempted this would cost at least three times as much, I bet. But again, to what end?

There are many things to love here, and I bet some of the things I'll single out will surprise people. The score by Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) actually somehow works for this ideally, it's exactly the score this weird picture wants and I can't imagine anything else that would match its tone so well. (Two Japanese composers Kitamura uses a lot are also credited, but I have no idea who wrote what.) What we're allowed to see of special effects director Eiichi Asada's work is first-class, and there are many brilliant ideas in the monster sequences (one of the frustrating things about the movie is that I never understood why we get tons of one such scene and maybe a fingerful of another). I admired the much derided, vaguely decolored photography of the human scenes, and the sets were terrific.

As well, the acting is mostly terrific. I thought for a while there that Kitamura was going for realism, and then I recognized his style is actually "heightened realism," though not all the leads are up to it. But the supporting players are ideally chosen. I don't know if Akira Takarada, who starred in the original (it was only his third film and his first as a lead) has had a better role in decades; he plays a UN functionary who turns into an alien-controlled freak, and for a man pushing 80, he looks terrific, and is clearly enjoying himself immensely, as he certainly didn't seem to be doing in his phoned-in semi-bit-part in Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992). As well, genre goddess Kumi Mizuno, not as old as Takarada but despite her age still looking gorgeous (she has fortunate cheekbones and a still-lovely smoky voice) has more to do in this genre part than she's been granted since her own youth. Kenji Sahara (who also appeared, for a split second, in the original Godzilla) is more shortchanged as usual, but man, always great to see him. Latter-day character favorite Akira Nakao also has a limited but nifty part.

However, the performance kudos really belong to Kazuki Kitamura (no relation to director Ryuhei, as far as I know), who pretty much steals every scene he's in as the haughty, epicene alien who casually kills his superiors and takes over the show (and goes into repeated, increasingly hysterical hissy fits every time Godzilla slaughters one of his deployed monsters), and Don Frye, not really an actor (as his line readings indicate), but a hell of a presence; I was not surprised to discover later that he is originally a professional athlete, since I did wonder how someone so beefy moved so fast in those action scenes. Frye always seems to be in on some joke that the rest of us aren't, and when in the film's final act he more or less says "We're going to wake up Godzilla just to screw with the aliens, even though almost everybody else on earth is dead," the picture's indifferent nihilism almost obtains a sort of screwball comedy.

And screwball comedy is not what should have been attempted in this barely explicable, so-called tribute to Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya, but if nothing else, I can't say the thing is boring. Disappointing? I guess so. Yet I wonder how time will judge this particular entry in this particular and unusual series; it's so rare for anyone on the staff to have tried something so radical and different, and enough of it works that I don't think it automatically to be dismissed. If I could have been there to review Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) when it came out, might I have hated it? I did as a child. As an adult, I think it a masterpiece of sorts. I think I'll never think of Godzilla: Final Wars as a masterpiece, but I can't deny there's tons of brilliant filmmaking in it; I just, again and for the last time, wish that it had been focused a bit more clearly.

This review can also be found in the final 2005 issue of Cult Movies Magazine.