Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Random Movie Report: Godzilla vs. Megalon

Poster and Amazon link

Every series has its nadir, and after a few years of falling budgets and a lack of interest, something had to give for Godzilla and company. Godzilla vs. Megalon is doubly an embarrassment for Toho, being not only its worst entry in the Godzilla series, but also one of its most widely seen abroad. It's arguable that this junky, cheaply made drag is responsible for most of the English-speaking world's perception of Godzilla films as campy trash. The poor thing never really had a chance, and while its ubiquity gives it a certain nostalgic charm for those of us (un)fortunate enough to have seen it as children, said charm wears off pretty quickly.

An underground nuclear test causes earthquakes halfway around the globe, draining a lake dry in Japan and angering the underwater kingdom of Seatopia. Inventor Goro Ibuki (Katsuhiko Sasaki), who lives with his son Rokuro (Hiroyuki Kawase) and swinging bachelor friend Hiroshi (Yutaka Hayashi), has been working on a grinning multicolored robot named Jet Jaguar (for reasons nobody has ever been able to explain.) Seatopian agents break into his lab and take control of Jet Jaguar, intending to use him as a guide for their subterranean monster Megalon, whom they plan to use to destroy the surface dwellers. Eventually Goro and company manage to regain control of Jet Jaguar, and send him to Monster Island to fetch Godzilla in hopes of stopping Megalon's rampage.

There's not a lot of Godzilla in this movie, largely because it was never supposed to be a Godzilla movie to start with. In fact the impetus for the whole thing was a design contest for children, with Toho letting the youngsters brainstorm their newest henshin superhero to compete with Ultraman and the like. Knowing he was designed by a kid makes the rainbow-colored perpetually-grinning Jet Jaguar a little more understandable, though one wonders which entries didn't win. The film was supposed to be a vehicle for the new hero, but Godzilla was basically thrown in for star power. So he has a couple of short appearances early on, but it's not until the final battle that we get the kaiju action we were promised. Godzilla films often don't give a lot of screen time to their star attraction, but that's just the beginning of this film's problems anyway.

This is a strangely desolate movie, seeing as it's supposed to be a colorful romp for kids. The lack of money translates to a small cast, a limited number of sets, and even a significant lack of extras in many scenes. Goro, Roku-san, and Hiroshi live in their own little world, and the only other non-Seatopians are two truck drivers, a couple of random military personnel, and various fleeing townsfolk appearing via stock footage from other kaiju movies. It's almost as though the picture takes place in some post-apocalyptic wasteland. The visuals have a sickly, washed-out look even on the restored DVD, the music relies heavily on fuzz-tone guitar and a theme for Godzilla that sounds like the horn section had a few before recording, and the preponderance of grainy recycled footage contributes to a downright ugly aesthetic.

As with Godzilla vs. Gigan, the film does at least take care to make its final battle tense, with some nice reversals, but it doesn't overcome how shabbily made everything is. Godzilla has been redesigned to look like an adorable puppy dog, while Megalon is an interesting design rendered in a junky way. There's a strange atmosphere to the picture and a certain kitschy charm that's hard to entirely deny, it's just mixed in with a lot of boring stuff.

The sad thing is this was, for a long time, one of the most easily seen and prominent of Godzilla films in America. It premiered on television, cut to under an hour and hosted by John Belushi in a Godzilla suit, and Toho neglected it enough that many distributors got the idea that it was public domain. Low quality VHS copies flooded the market (as well as a notoriously bad DVD long since vanished), the film appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and nobody knows how many people first saw Godzilla in the context of a cheap, slipshod children's movie. (To be sure, it was one of the first Godzilla films I ever saw and the first I owned on home video, so the damage was not irreparable.)

In any case, it's now on a decent DVD, with rumors of a Blu-Ray release, and I'm glad it's getting a proper treatment even if I don't think it's a very good film at all. It's significant as the nadir of the Godzilla series, though; after this film's poor performance, Toho made sure to invest a little more care into their next Godzilla movie. Sometimes to get better you have to hit rock bottom.

Story by Shinichi Sekizawa and Takeshi Kimura
Written and Directed by Jun Fukuda

Grade: D+

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