Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Produced by Shōgo Tomiyama
Screenplay by Kazuki Ōmori
It’s World War II. The United States Navy is working their way through the Gilbert and Marshall Islands and it’s Lagos Island’s turn to take the brunt of their military might. There is a pause in the fighting, the Navy content to sit in their warships and wait until morning. A group of Japanese soldiers on Lagos knows they’re screwed and that this is likely their last night in this life. Their leader, Yasuaki Shindo, delivers a speech about sacrifice and honor.
In the morning, they go out to fight their last fight. The Americans arrive on the beach and proceed to tear the Japanese apart.
And then a dinosaur shows up to save them.
The dinosaur stomps the life out of the American soldiers but he cannot defeat a warship, and as the long-range mortar puts holes in him, the dinosaur eventually succumbs, collapsing to the ground.
Shindo and his soldiers give the dinosaur a salute befitting a brother-in-arms. Full of emotion, Shindo tells the fallen dinosaur that he is unable to heal his wounds, but he hopes the dinosaur recovers.
Almost 50 years later, that dinosaur has become Godzilla. Rampaging through a nearly empty city, Shindo stands alone to face the dinosaur that once saved his life, allowing him to help build Japan into a modern power.
Man and former dinosaur look at each other, one inside the building and one standing outside. There is something akin to recognition in Godzilla’s eyes and a bond between man and beast is intimated.
The beast opens his eyes … and roasts Shindo with his atomic heat beam, before stepping forward and leveling Shindo’s building to the ground as Godzilla continues to cut his own path of destruction.
I bring up these paired scenes because they demonstrate that even in a clunker of a movie, there exists the possibility for real pathos. Shindo survives World War II because of a dinosaur and dies in 1992 because of a radiated version of the same creature. Our fate is in Godzilla’s hands (and feet and atomic breath) and it’s a rare moment of intelligence in a film that feels like a franchise regression.
GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH is not a good movie, but there are fine aspects to it. Ghidorah and Godzilla both look awesome, and their individual romps through cities and their battles with one another are fun to watch, shot competently by Yoshinori Sekiguchi. The human aspects of the film …
Well, it depends which half you’re referring to, and that gets into the “what the hell were they thinking?” part of GHIDORAH.
GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH is the 18th movie in the franchise, and the 3rd of the Heisei era. It is a movie filmed in the early ‘90s that is partly a product of its modern times and partly a throwback to the 1960s, and not in a good way. The film is hopelessly torn between these competing desires and the end result is an uneven film that every time I wanted it to be over, it would pull me back in, and every time I was ready to commit to the story, it pushed me back out. It’s not hard, given the return of writer/director Kazuki Ōmori on the heels of the excellent Godzilla vs. Biollante, to see the 90s/60s divide as one between artist and studio. Biollante underperformed at the box office, and so the studio retreated back to what had worked in earlier days, instead of sticking with their modern vision of what a Godzilla movie could be.
This feels like a movie partly made for kids, where the monsters show up and destroy things and we don’t have to worry so much about motivation or consequence. They fight because that’s why people buy tickets, and if the film had embraced that approach, perhaps it would have worked better. The film pairs the action with a convoluted time travel plot that feels totally out of place after The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante firmly grounded the series in a realistic approach to what a kaiju movie meant to the 1980s. Both Return and Biollante are smart movies full of smart people, but smart people are in short supply this time around.
There are, as I alluded above, two sets of human characters. There are the 1990s characters: Kenichiro Terasawa (a reporter), Miki Saegusa (a psychic who was introduced in Biollante), Hironori Mazaki (a professor), and Shindo, and for the most part, they continue Ōmori’s use of smart characters. They are not as memorable as the crew from Biollante, but when they’re on the screen, I get drawn into the movie. They all feel like real characters, and each of them have their own connection to Godzilla, which adds layers of depth to the film.
The other human characters, however, are written broad and thin, and they are less characters as they are plot devices.
They’re also from the future.
These Futurians (Wilson Grenchiko, Emmy, and M-11) arrive in a UFO from 2204, and pitch a story that Godzilla has ravaged their world, so they’re going to go back to 1944 in order to move the dinosaur that saved Shindo to the Bering Strait to prevent him from being irradiated in 1954, when Lagos Island is used as a test site for bombs. Two of the Futurians (Emmy, a Japanese woman, and M-11, an android) take Terasawa, Saegusa, and Mazaki back to 1941 so we can see Shindo’s battle with the Americans play out in front of their eyes.
Before they get in the time machine, I have to say that I’m not buying this plot, at all. It’s unnecessarily busy and tonally disjointed. The 1990s characters feel like people and the 2204 characters feel like clichés. When we get to the past, however, the characters sell the story hard and I bought into it. It’s a long road to set up the inevitable swerve, but it’s an engaging watch.
The dinosaur that will become Godzilla saves Shindo’s men, and after the Japanese forces leave, M-11 teleports the dino to the Bering Strait and they return to the present.
But not before Emmy releases the Dorats.
What’s a Dorat?, you ask.
Dorats are adorable little cuddly dragons that look like something the Disney would have created if they did “Duck Tales” with Figment and his three grandnephews instead of using Scrooge McDuck and Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They make the trip with the team to the past under the auspices of being good for morale, but really, they are part of the sneaky evil Futurians plan.
The Futurians, you see, are liars. They are here to save the future, but to do so they want to destroy the present. By removing pre-Godzilla from Lagos and replacing him with the Dorats, the Futurians are counting on the bomb testing to create a monster even greater than Godzilla, which will level Japan much better than Godzilla ever could.
And that’s how we get King Ghidorah and don’t get Godzilla.
Except, of course, Godzilla has to happen because his name is in the title. While the Futurians moved his body to the Bering Strait, they did not count on radiation being present in those waters. Shindo sends his company’s nuclear submarine to get the sleeping Godzilla to awaken by feeding him more nuclear energy, and thus Godzilla arrives on the scene as the hero who will save Japan from Ghidorah.
Which he does. Hooray. The end.
Except Not The End.
The unnecessary and busy plot sees Godzilla go from hero to destroyer and Emmy go from villain to hero as she (… deep breaths …) goes to the future to find Ghidorah’s body at the bottom of the ocean, turn it into a cyborg, and then bring it back to 1992 to destroy Godzilla and test my patience with seemingly endless scenes of destruction and fighting and please just make it stop.
It’s proving difficult to sum up my feelings about the film in a short soundbite. KING GHIDORAH is bad but it has its redeeming moments. It has good scenes but it lacks momentum and a consistent tone. It has a time travel plot that doesn’t really work, except it also delivers the best sequence of the film. When the film gets tedious, it delivers its best overall scene. It has good fight scenes and fantastic-looking kaiju and I wanted to see less of them.
GODZILLA VS. KING GHIDORAH wants to be about the national pride of the Japanese people but it falls flatter than Tokyo after Godzilla has come stomping through.