Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Random Movie Report #100: Destroy All Monsters
This is what I've been building up to. Though I've long since stopped numbering features, I figured the 100th installment of Random Movie Report ought to be something especially neat, hence, the Godzilla film to end all Godzilla films. (Granted, this undermines the concept of randomness, but never mind.) Destroy All Monsters took forever to get a proper DVD release in this country, but though I've had the DVD since Christmas, I decided I had to build up to it. It deserves it.
Destroy All Monsters was a climactic blowout for the golden age of Toho's SFX films; the last film to be fully overseen by Eiji Tsuburaya, and Honda's last entry until Terror of Godzilla. The film marks the passing of an era with the biggest spectacle in the entire series, unleashing 11 Toho monsters on a worldwide rampage. There are aliens, rockets to the moon, shootouts, and cities being flattened, building up to a gigantic battle that's arguably the best in the series. It's a gorgeous and satisfying epic that serves as a capstone for the work of some of the era's finest purveyors of mayhem.
The year is 1999, a wondrous future in which the UN has established a moon colony and all the Earth's monsters have been rounded up on an island complex known as, appropriately enough, Monsterland. The creatures are kept confined by a series of chemical barriers and radar screens, and scientists underground study the creatures and also do some important aquatic farming in the nearby seas. The complex is attacked by a strange yellow gas, and when contact is lost, the crew of the moon rocket SY-3 (captained by Akira Kubo) head down to check it out. They find that the apparently unharmed monsters have now been let loose on the world, remotely controlled by the Monsterland scientists (including the captain's girlfriend), who themselves are under the control of the Kilaaks, a race of asteroid-dwelling aliens intent on colonizing Earth. Under Kilaak control, Godzilla terrorizes New York, Rodan attacks Moscow, Mothra rolls through China, etc. The only way to stop the creatures is to find a way to foil the aliens' control system, and to see if they themselves have any weaknesses.
Toho apparently intended this to be the last Godzilla film, hence the futuristic setting; if so it explains why they went for broke, turning in the biggest spectacle they could and using as many monsters as they were able to round up. Anguirus returns for the first time since Godzilla Raids Again, in a spruced-up suit, non-Godzilla-series critters like Baragon, Varan, and Manda make appearances, and there's even room for Gorosaurus, a dinosaur from King Kong Escapes. Not all the monsters get decent screen time and it's clearly Godzilla's show to carry, but some of the more obscure ones make an impact nonetheless. The film's major effects setpiece has Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Manda descending on Tokyo and tangling with the military, but it's far from the only big monster sequence.
The human-scale action has been pumped up as well. The adventures of the crew of Moonlight SY-3 and their battle against the Kilaaks are a mini sci-fi saga of its own, whether it's dodging Godzilla in an attempt to infiltrate the base or chasing down flying saucers. There's one attempt at a suspense scene involving a laser cutter that doesn't really work, but for the most part it's dazzling and engaging stuff. The movie takes place in a bright, pastel world, pitting the best of man's progress against alien invaders in the tradition of Battle in Outer Space and The Mysterians.
Indeed, what pervades this movie the most is a sense of cautious optimism about the future. Now over two decades after the atomic bombing of Japan, in an age of nuclear power and new technology, but still with the Cold War looming, Toho was looking to finish its series based on a literal embodiment of nuclear terror with the hope that the terror might be tamed, controlled, even turned to a positive use. It's mostly a bright future, with men on the moon, food production projects to solve the world's hunger problems (as in Son of Godzilla), and of course, the monsters all locked away until space aliens decide to let them out.
Some critics have suggested that the round-up of monsters on a remote island is a metaphor for nuclear disarmament, and in that context, the monsters being loosed is a reminder that a power controlled can still be dangerous. Control seems to be the movie's central theme, as humans and Kilaak alike struggle to master forces that perhaps can't really be tamed.
Destroy All Monsters is one of the most fun movies in the entire Godzilla series and one of the all-time great monster epics. For the series' increasingly young target audience it delivers a bunch of shiny toys and monstrous playmates, and for the adults there's an air of sophisticated absurdity, the kind of controlled chaos that Toho at its height delivered better than anyone. It looks amazing, has a gloriously chirpy martial score, and never stops for a moment to let you realize how loopy it is. The "Showa" Godzilla series would go on, but never quite achieve these heights again. But with a celebration this grand, I can't blame Toho for wanting to continue.
Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeshi Kimura
Directed by Ishiro Honda