This 50th anniversary grand finale to the long-running series is a rush of explosive excitement that pays homage to what came before but hypes it up into a kinetic brew that feels fresh and exciting — not an obituary-like coda but a glorious send-off. Director Kitamura brings a modern sensibility and fast-paced, unrelenting energy to the screen, with almost literally non-stop action.
Like many Godzilla films from the 1990s on, this one combines many familiar elements, some from older Godzila films, some from popular American films. Bits from Toho efforts like GORATH and ATRAGON pop up. And without looking too hard, you’ll see elements of THE MATRIX and X-MEN, along with scenes reminiscent of everything from STAR WARS to STAR TREK to ALIEN. Of course, the world-wide alien-invasion plot sounds suspiciously similar to INDEPENDENCE DAY, but then ID4 bore obvious structural similarities to DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, the well-loved 1968 monster fest about aliens invading Earth.
In fact, FINAL WARS is essentially a remake of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (dozens of monsters, controlled by aliens, decimated the Earth until Godzilla emerges to save the day). The film benefits from audience familiarity by simply throwing viewers into the middle of things and expecting them to sort it out: each monster is given at most a brief introduction, with little exposition 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.
The film evokes the special effects stylings and more serious approach of the recent Toho films, with Godzilla cast as a sort of dangerous anti-hero not because he likes humanity but because he hates intruders pushing into his territory. But FINAL WARS also harkens back to the colorfully entertaining (if frequently ridiculous) ’60s G-flicks, wherein an anthropomorphised, heroic Godzilla wrestled with his foes to the delight of fans who enjoyed the spectacle even though it undermined credibility.
The special effects are mostly on par with Toho’s previous “Millennium Series” G-films (i.e., those made after the atrocious 1998 American GODZILLA). The miniatures are elaborate and impressive, if not always convincing. The monsters are still men in suits, but the suits are detailed and capable of greater movement and expression. Also, instead of simply using slow-motion to give a sense of scale to the suit-mation, computer-generated imagery enhances the scenes, creating motion blur that gives a greater sense of large objects moving at a powerfully fast speed.
The new Godzilla suit somewhat resembles the look first introduced in GODZILLA 2000, combined with some elements from the earlier 1990s suit. It is also lighter and more upright, moving away from the slouching reptilian walk and returning somewhat to the humanoid swagger of DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, allowing for more fast-paced hand-to-hand combat.
Kitamura takes a modern approach to these battle scenes – both the monsters and the humans, with lots of fancy camera angles and over-the-top stunts. In one amusing scene, he even makes the parallel explicity 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 useless.”
The scene works on a meta-level, with the traditional man-in-a-suit monster vanquishing his CGI-spawned namesake. Ironically, the CGI ‘Zilla (so called to distinguish him from the real Godzilla) is rendered much more effectively here than he was in the American film. In other cases, however, the CGI is not up to such high standards. For example, an early attack by the sea snake Manda is about on the level of a videogame. This is doubly disappointing because the monster looks good at first — when it is realized with a well-manipulated marionette.
The lightening-paced, no-time-to-stop-and-think approach to the film is underscored by great soundtrack music, featuring contributions 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.
As for the human characters, the performers are almost universally engaging and likable. In the Neo role (he turns out to be a “Kaiser,” more or less the same thing as being “The One”), Masahiro Matsuoka is an entertaining Asian equivalent of Keanu Reeves. Special mention should be awarded to the alien villain for his over-the-top temper tantrums every time one of his monsters loses a battle with Godzilla. Even Don Frye, a martial arts instructor, looks properly rough and tough for his role as Captain Gordon; although obviously not a professional actor, he can growl “son-of-a-bitch” really well when something goes wrong.
The overall tone of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS is dark and tense and grim, seemingly geared to the key target demographic: young adult audiences eager for action-packed entertainment. Although surrounded by a supporting cast of famliar character actors (including Akira Takarada, whose career stretches all the way back to the original GODZILLA), the leads are 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 Minilla) looks just as goofy and cute as he did back in the 1960s, and his scenes almost seem dropped in from another movie, or like second-unit stuff inserted at the insistence of the studio. (On the other hand, these comic relief episodes do provide welcome respite from the breathless pace of the rest of the movie.)
These brief missteps are 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. Certainly, the film is over-the-top and utterly fantastic, and it doesn’t provide dramatic closure for the series the way that GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER did in 1995. 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 was worthy of a nationwide release, it is a shame they did not give GODZILLA: FINAL WARS the same opportunity.
GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (Toho, 2004). Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura. Written by Kitamura & Isao Kiriyama, from a story by Wataru Mimura & Shogo Tomiyama. Cast: Masahiro Matsuoka, Rei Kikukawa, Akira Takarada, Kane Kosugi, Kazuki Kitamura, Maki Mizuno, Don Frye.