GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, the 28th and supposedly last Godzilla film (at least for now), had its world premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Outside the theatre, the sidewalk was blocked off for regular pedestrian traffic, to make room for the runway, which was filled with bright lights and press from around the world. At one end of the barricaded area, the Godzilla float - seen in the Hollywood parade the previous night - loomed over the sidewalk.
Hundreds of fans waited in line outside the theatre for over an hour, their path toward the entrance taking them by Godzilla's new star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, which had been unveiled earlier that day. Once inside, they received complimentary cardboard hats and a tiny Godzilla figure mounted atop a globe. Unfortunately, cameras (even cell phone cameras) were not allowed inside, forcing many viewers to hurry back to their cars to put away the banned devices.
A few minutes after seven, the event got underway, with a raffle to give away some videogames, Bandai collectible figures, and box DVD sets. The excitement soon dissipated, however, when it became apparent that every possible ticket number had been thrown included in the raffle -- including many numbers for tickets that had not been given out. (The turn out was not as good as it could have been, with many empty seats visible, especially in the roped-off sections reserved for special guests. Would it have been too hard to give away tickets to some of those seats on a local radio station?)
The result was that the emcee had to call out, on average, five different numbers before finding a winner to take each new gift. By the time the raffle was over, most of the audience -- far from being disappointed over now winning a gift -- was just glad that they wouldn't have to hear any more numbers being read out.
Some of the cast and crew -- including star Masahiro Matsuoka, producer Shogo Tomiyama and director Ryuhei Kitamura -- came to the front of the theatre. Kitamura and Matsuoka said a few words to pump up the crowd -- as if any were needed -- then the lights went down and the film began.
Without going into details, let's just say that as far as the receptive audience was concerned, the film went over like a non-stop rush of explosive excitement. Kitamura brings a modern, fast-paced unrelenting energy to the screen, with almost literally non-stop action.
The story is essentially a remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, with dozens of creatures, controlled by aliens, decimating the Earth, until Godzilla emerges to save the day. The film benefits from its familiarity by simply throwing audiences into the middle of things and expecting them to sort it out: each monster is given at most a brief introduction, with little explanation or mythology to explain its existence. This allows the film to race through the projector like an unstoppable bullet train, piling one big scene upon the next.
Like many Godzilla films from the 1990s on, GOZILLA: FINAL WARS combines lots of elements, some from older Godzilla films, some from popular American films. Bits from Japanese films like GORATH and ATRAGON pop up. And without looking too hard, you'll see elements of THE MATRIX and X-MEN on view, along with scenes reminiscent of everything from STAR WARS to STAR TREK to ALIEN.
Kitamura takes a modern approach to the battle scenes - both the monsters and the humans, with lots of fancy camera angles and over-the-top stunts. In one funny moment, he even makes the parallel explicitly clear when our hero in the foreground is beating up the villain, while in the background Godzilla is fighting a monster on a video screen -- and both fights are perfectly synchronized.
Perhaps the best and briefest battle occurs between Godzilla (the familiar Japanese Godzilla, that is) and the infamous Godzilla-In-Name-Only (i.e., the giant iguana from the awful 1998 American film). The classic Godzilla easily dispatches his would-be replacement, while the disappointed alien villain grumbles, "I knew that tuna-eating monster was good for nothing."
The lightening-paced, no-time-to-stop-and-think approach to the film is underscored by great soundtrack music from prog-rocker Keith Emerson. Most of the nearly wall-to-wall score has a quick-tempo, techno-industrial sound that makes it feel almost as if you are watching a dozen music videos strung one after the other. Only during the closing credits, underscored by a rousing fanfare, does the more familiar Emerson sound emerge, with a catchy organ-riff beneath the synthesized orchestral swells.
The overall tone of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is dark and tense and grim, seemingly geared to appeal to the key target demographic -- young adult audiences eager for action-packed entertainment. Although surrounded by a supporting cast of familiar character actors, the leads are mostly young, glamorous types obviously meant to lend a little sex appeal. (You expect the television interviewer to look good, but even her sister, the lady biologist, usually finds a way to pose so that her skirt shows off her legs to good advantage.)
Despite this appeal to viewers in their teens and twenties, some elements -- a bit jarringly -- are included to reach the kiddie audience that loves Godzilla too. In particular, the younger Godzilla (here called Manilla) looks just as goofy and cute as he did back in the 1960s, and his scenes almost seem dropped in from another movie.
But even this is not enough to undermine the film, which is a pulse-pulverizing bit of special effects and martial arts mayhem that truly is good enough to deserve a stateside release. Sure, it's over-the-top and utterly fantastic, but even at its worst it is nowhere near as silly as the dreary and unexciting SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW. If Hollywood thought that film as worth releasing nationwide, then it should give GODZILLA: FINAL WARS a chance.
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