I hate it when I accidentally step on a tank.
Made in 2003 and 2004, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars are the last two of the “modern” Godzilla films cranked out by the legendary Toho Studios. With a brand-new Hollywood version of Godzilla coming out in 2014, the originals are all getting Blu-ray releases. How do these later entries match up?
* Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
It’s been a year since MechaGodzilla defeated Godzilla, sending the big G back to the ocean. While MechaGodzilla undergoes repairs, the fairies who speak for Mothra appear, warning the people that MechaGodzilla must be destroyed because it is partially built from Godzilla’s bones. When Godzilla returns, he first battles Mothra, and then must face a newly-rebuilt Mechagodzilla.
* Godzilla: Final Wars
The Earth Defense Force is an international organization devoted to protecting the world from giant monsters, such as Godzilla and his kin. The EDF’s elite fighting squad is the M Organization, made up of super-powered mutants. They’re needed, as all the world’s major cities fall under attack by giant monsters, all at once. That’s when aliens come down from space, saying they’re here to help save the Earth, but really their goal is conquest. It’s not long before the monsters are on the move again, so the EDF launches a desperate plan—revive Godzilla, and hope he can singlehandedly defeat all his greatest foes in one final brawl.
These later-years Godzilla films are really interesting. By this point, the “Japanese giant monster movie” had become its own genre, with its own long list of established tropes. By now, everybody knows that it’s really a guy in a rubber suit knocking over model buildings and smashing toy tanks. These things are so ingrained in the genre that instead of trying to make a guy in a rubber suit knocking over model buildings and smashing toy tanks look realistic, filmmakers instead sought to make them look really cool. It’s a great example of how the best special effects are the ones that serve the story. No attempt is made to make the effects believable. Instead, the effects have a gleeful extremism to them, which is just what these movies require.
Every Godzilla movie has to deal with those pesky human characters. Traditionally, the humans are tangential to the action, and are pretty bland when compared to the monsters. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. sidesteps this by having a human pilot controlling MechaGodzilla, and his romance with a female fighter pilot figures into the climactic battle, with them having to rescue one another. For the Mothra part of the story, actor Hiroshi Koizumi reprises his role from the original 1961 Mothra. He’s not given much to do, but it’s cool to see him reunited with the big bug.
My secret confession: I’ve never been a fan of Mothra. The idea of a giant moth leveling Tokyo is just too hokey. In these two films, Mothra and her two fairy princess friends act as mystic soothsayers, providing dire warnings to humans, and acting as angelic forces for good. In Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., Mothra gets taken out in spectacular fashion, only for two Mothra larvae to rise in her place and join the fight, emphasizing the movie’s “have respect for the dead” theme. But, really, Mothra is a supporting player in this one, as the conflict is mostly between Godzilla and MechaGodzilla. I’m assuming that the previous movie explained how MechaGodzilla could be built from Godzilla’s bones while Godzilla is still up and walking around. The final battle has some great moments, including MechaGodzilla using his drill attack to rough up Godzilla big time.
That brings us to Godzilla: Final Wars. It was the big G’s 50th anniversary, and producers were looking to tie a bow on the series. As a result, this movie pulls out all the stops. The “boring human characters” problem is dealt with by making the characters superhuman mutants. So, yeah, it’s almost Godzilla vs. The X-Men. We see the mutants battle and even defeat one of the giant monsters, proving how badass they are, and from there we get a lot of martial arts action with them duking it out with the aliens. There is no down time in this movie. When we cut away from the monsters fighting, it’s to the humans (mutants) fighting. The movie is relentless in its drive to provide huge thrills, and it doesn’t stop for a second. The producers pulled off a casting win with former MMA fighter Don Frye as a gruff military captain. The guy steals every scene he’s in, as he’s every bit the cartoon character that Godzilla is.
Godzilla: Final Wars is often described as having all of the Godzilla-related monsters in one movie. That’s not true, but there is a lot of them. Mothra is back, along with favorites like Rodan and Anguirus. The cyborg-like Gigan gets a lot of screentime, as the creators dreamt up a variety of moves and attacks for him. The more obscure King Caesar is also fun to watch. His more human-like form allows him to run and jump around, which makes for a nice contrast to the other slow-moving monsters. That’s scratching the surface there are about ten more giant beasts that have cameos. One of the movie’s most celebrated moments is when Godzilla comes face-to-face with “Zilla,” a.k.a. the Godzilla from the 1998 Roland Emmerich/Matthew Broderick movie. The original Godzilla laying waste to the Hollywood version is a real stand-up-and-cheer moment if there ever was one. On the down side, we’ve also got a subplot with Godzilla’s son, here named “Minilla,” the Jar Jar Binks/Wesley Crusher of the Godzilla franchise. Minilla is here to provide some sort of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial sense of wonder, but he gets lost amid all the crazy action.
We’re a long way from the original Gojira here. The ominous tone and ruminations on the nuclear bomb are mostly lost in these later films. Purists who prefer the original will likely look down on the “comic book crossover” feeling of these newer ones.
The 2.35:1/1080p HD transfers to Blu-ray are good but not spectacular. In some shots you can make out remarkable detail on the monsters’ textures and the models they smash apart, but other scenes tend to be flat in color and detail, lacking that visual “pop” we’ve seen on the best Blu-rays. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks are similarly decent, making the most of the big, booming explosions. Audio is in both the original Japanese and the classically cheesy English dubs. Both discs contain making-of featurettes which compare raw behind-the-scenes footage with the finished product. Each disc also has theatrical trailers for their respective films.
The folks at Toho wanted to end this era of Godzilla with a bang. And that they did, with two huge actioners. The title “King of the Monsters” is well earned.