Monday, June 23, 2014

Random Movie Report: Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth

Japanese poster for Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth

The most commercially successful entry of the Heisei Godzilla series, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth is also its weakest; not a bad movie, but less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Toho went to Godzilla's past and resurrected one of his most durable foes, reinventing the giant flying insect as a mystical Earth god(dess?) engaged in an eternal struggle to protect the planet. With Takao Okawara taking over the director's spot, the film feels a little unsteady, but does manage to introduce a few new things in amongst references to classic kaiju films and American blockbusters.

An asteroid hits Earth in the Pacific Ocean, kicking up storms, landslides, and further disturbing an ecosystem already made fragile by manmade pollution. International artifact thief and adventurer Takuya Fajita (Tetsuya Bessho) is enlisted by his ex-wife Masako (Satomi Kobayashi) to investigate disturbances at Infant Island, where it turns out storms have uncovered a giant egg. Meanwhile, the melting of polar ice releases the insectoid monster Battra, who rampages across Japan. Two tiny fairies, the Cosmos, explain that Battra and Mothra are both the guardians of an ancient race that destroyed itself long before the rise of man, and that environmental catastrophes have brought the monsters back to life. Godzilla rises from the deep to attack the egg, which hatches, releasing Mothra, and soon the benevolent insect is battling both its dark counterpart and the King of Monsters.

If the film has a fundamental problem it's that the story is not really clear on its narrative drive. There's some kind of environmental disaster at hand, but that's mostly just a pretext for Mothra and Battra to show up. Godzilla looks like the main antagonist for a while, but is swallowed up by a lava flow and stays offscreen for a while as the plot takes a side-tour into the abduction of the Cosmos by a salaryman eager to impress his bosses. When that gets resolved, Godzilla and Battra appear again, but the climactic throwdown suffers a little from the prior lack of focus.

The Heisei series had an odd tendency to directly riff on popular American movie imagery; just as M-11 in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah was a less intimidating Terminator, our protagonist is basically Indiana Jones (fedora included), and there are two major setpieces involving his cliffhanging adventures. While there's some tie-in to the film's environmental themes, with Takuya as a thief plundering the world's past to enrich himself, the faux-Spielberg scenes come off as clumsy and tedious, especially an overlong sequence on a rope bridge.

I can't help but feel that the direction is partly to blame. This was Okawara's second film and he lacks Kazuki Omori's visual flair; he would go on to do better work in the series, but here he's clearly learning the ropes. The photography is mostly uninspired and the pacing is slack. But then Omori, who wrote the script, also shares in the blame, because as said above, the story never develops a central focus. Lip service is paid to environmentalism and corporate greed (the latter having been such a major factor in Mothra's Showa-era outings), but the metaphor isn't quite there.

But hey, we're watching this for the kaiju, right? While an early battle between Godzilla and Battra on the ocean floor doesn't quite work (owing to a bubble screen overlay that really obscures the action), the monster action is solid, with Battra impressing both in design- all gnarled and black, with glowing red eyes- and character, turning out to be a little more complex than the force of pure evil we expect. Mothra's update is solid, even if his (or her) butterfly form looks a little bit like a plush toy. (Toho officially calls Mothra a "he", but the monster has always coded feminine as a kind of Earth mother goddess.) Godzilla's design is tweaked a bit from the last movie, but only in a way the true kaiju nerd will even notice.

Overall there's just enough visual sparkle and flair to make this a passable monster romp. We get a genuinely cool new monster, some good effects setpieces, and the introduction of magic and mysticism into the Heisei series. It just feels a little dumbed down compared to the surprising ambition of Biollante and King Ghidorah, focused on delivering what it thinks the audience expects. To be sure, it got results, and Mothra would end up with her own trilogy after Godzilla packed it in; you can easily see the giant bug's appeal, and it doesn't seem entirely fair to complain about sparkle over substance in a movie where giant flying insects battle a radioactive dinosaur. It's just that we've already seen the series capable of better.

Written by Kazuki Omori
Directed by Takao Okawara

Grade: B-

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