Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Random Movie Report #22: Godzilla vs. Biollante

And we conclude my recent sojourn into R3 territory with GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE, the sequel to THE RETURN OF GODZILLA and by far the most imaginative entry in the "Heisei" series of Godzilla films. Unlike RETURN OF GODZILLA, this film wasn't altered for its US release, but that release, ultimately direct-to-video and cable by Miramax in 1993 (it came out in Japan in 1989), was so limited that it remains one of the harder-to-find G films in America. (It has yet to receive a Region 1 DVD release.) It also suffered from a poor dub job done by Toho's default "international" dubbing service (I'm not entirely clear on who these people are), a group of voiceover artists and technicians with bizarre voices and no access to decent sound mixing. (Sadly, all of the Heisei films post-GODZILLA 1985 were released with dubs from this same team.) To see this film subtitled on DVD is a substantial improvement, all things considered. This is one of my favorite Godzilla movies and one of my favorite films overall, so let's just dive into it.

The film starts in the immediate aftermath of Godzilla's 1984 rampage; among the ruins, scientists collect samples of the monster's hide to harvest his cells. Some of these samples, gathered not-too-covertly by armed mercenaries working for an American biotech firm, are stolen by a mysterious hitman when he kills the merc team, and end up in the Middle Eastern Republic of Saradia, where Japanese scientist Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika (Yasuko Sawaguchi) are working on trying to develop wheat that will grow in the desert. The research lab is bombed by the American firm, and Erika is killed. Five years later, psychic youngsters at a Japanese research facility detect that Godzilla, still in a volcano, has awakened. The government starts mobilizing to prepare for his possible return, and one of their defenses is a project to develop Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, which should help to sap the atomic beast's power. To make it, they need to use Godzilla's own cells, and fortunately a private Japanese foundation has a supply. They also enlist the help of Dr. Shiragami, who has moved back to Japan and now spends much of his time tending roses.

The American genetics firm has again sent agents to monitor Dr. Shiragami and the rest, and they eventually get word of the anti-nuclear bacteria. Planting explosives at Mount Mihara, they threaten to cause an eruption that will release Godzilla unless the bacteria is handed over to them. The buy goes wrong, the Saradian hitman gets the bacteria, and the explosives go off anyway. Meanwhile, Dr. Shiragami has been doing his own experimentation with the cells, combining them with the roses which he had, in turn, combined with cells from his deceased daughter in an attempt to give her new life. The result is a giant, seemingly immortal plant creature called Biollante that escapes from the lab and takes root in a nearby lake. Drawn by the creature's calls, Godzilla takes a break from battling the military to confront his plant kingdom counterpart. Everybody with me so far?

After the simplicity of RETURN OF GODZILLA, GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE's dense and at-times-absurd storyline is quite an abrupt change of pace. And yet, it's not really a bad thing. The storyline, originally conceived by dentist and part-time screenwriter Shinichiro Kobayashi and chosen via a nationwide contest held in 1986, throws plenty of neat things at us, from corporate espionage, to a giant plant-monster, to psychic powers, to an elaborate military storm creation system, to a series of "G" alert protocols used in case of Godzilla-related activities, to the Super X-2, a cousin to RETURN OF GODZILLA's Super X flying weapons platform, this version equipped with a synthetic diamond mirror that reflects Godzilla's flame breath back at him. Somehow, it all holds together; it actually makes sense if you watch it, it's just hard to sum up. (The film does have one of the weirder endings of the Godzilla series, but after multiple viewings I think I understand it. Maybe.)

The film is also a treat for the senses, beautifully shot and with a score that, while strongly Americanized, has some nicely poetic moments. In place of the fiery oranges and greys of the last film, we have lush green and blue vistas that speak to the beauty of the natural world. Godzilla himself received yet another redesign for this picture, and the "Biogoji" suit is a fan favorite, distinguished by a fierce, vaguely feline visage. Biollante's initial "rose" form is interesting enough, but for the climax it transforms into a giant toothy monstrosity, one of my favorite designs ever for a movie monster. The effects, this time by Koichi Kawakita, are consistently strong, and a number of mattes are used to put human characters in the same shot with giant monsters and laser tanks and so forth, making the fantasy more vividly real. There are also some beautifully composed individual shots and entertaining montages.

The human story of the film is largely driven by Dr. Shiragami, a sedate and sympathetic mad scientist who doesn't fully understand the responsibility he has to take for what he creates. Takahashi gives a strong performance, outshining the two young leads. Also entertaining is Toru Minegishi as the cynical and wisecracking Lieutenant Goro Gondo, and the film features the first appearance of Megumi Odaka as Miki Saguesa, a young psychic girl who would become a continuing character throughout the Heisei series. (One drawback to the subtitled version is that a decent portion of the dialogue in the film is actually in English, and the difficulty the original actors had with delivery is all too obvious.)

GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE is an odd and slightly awkward beast, top-heavy with plot and taking a while to get to the first proper appearance of our hero. But I love it; it's crazy, convoluted and just neat to look at and listen to, with some interesting characters and cool monster battles. It's one of the weirder Godzilla films, and when you're dealing with a giant mutant dinosaur who breathes blue flame and eats nuclear energy, that's probably the best way to go.

Story by Shinichiro Kobayashi
Written and Directed by Kazuki Omori

Grade: B+

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