Two decades after TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto returns to the franchise that he last visited in TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER. The results should please fans eager for another helping of science-fiction body horror, featuring a hapless human transforming from mere flesh and blood into a mutant metallic hybrid, but despite the addition of an American lead and English dialogue, there is little to draw in first-time viewers not already bewitched by the strange spell that Tsukamoto weaves (o r rather welds).
This time out, Anthony (Eric Bossick) is an American salary-man living in Tokyo with a Japanese wife (Akiko Mono) and their son, Tom (Tiger Charlie Gerhardt). Anthony’s father Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) seems peculiarly concerned with the health of Anthony and Tom – a concern that seems mysteriously related to a lifelong admonition that Anthony should never lose his temper. (Fans of the Incredible Hulk, take note.)
Anthony’s eternal calm is put to the test when Tom is deliberately run over by a mysterious driver, known only as the Informant (Tsukamoto himself). Tom seems to take longer to die than one would expect; briefly, his shattered body seems to be retaliating against the car from below (it’s hard to tell with all the shaky camer work). Yuriko is outraged that Anthony doesn’t want revenge, but that changes when a delivery man turns out to be an assassin who attempts to kill Anthony, provoking his body to begin mutating into a misshapen Terminator-like weapon that blows away his opponents.
Eventually, it turns out that Ride was involved with an experiment to create cyborg weapons; after his wife Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura) dies, he created a cyborg duplicate, by which he sired Anthony. Since then, he has worried that Anthony (and, later Tom) could transform into weapons if their anger was aroused. The Informant has been deliberately attempting to provoke this transformation, for vaguely expressed reasons of his own (echoing the first TETSUO film, he tells Anthony to use his love to destroy the world). Anthony must choose between embracing his new power to kill the man who killed his son, or restraining his anger for fear that once unleashed it will lead to uncontrollable destruction.
I fear that my summary has made TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN sound more coherent than it intends to be. Tsukamoto’s directorial approach here is to shoot everything with a bouncing hand-held camera, then splice the footage together with as many micro-cuts as possible, to create a deliberately disorienting experience. The visceral impact is undeniable, but it is also exhausting, making the film feel much longer than its 71 minutes. At a certain point, you want to say to the screen, “Yeah, I get it; let’s move on, okay?”
Consequently, narrative progression is obscured: audiences are not so much watching the story of Anthony’s dilemma as experiencing a delirious surge of sensory impressions that simulates in the viewer’s mind the confusion that must be afflicting Anthony. The revenge story is further weakened by a plot structure that focuses mostly on revealing the mysterious back story of Anthony’s situation, through flashbacks, narration, and glimpses of documents.
The hyper-kineticism pays off in the action scenes, and the final act is interesting an an over-the-top AKIRA kind of way, which maybe sees Anthony resolving his dilemma of whether or not to kill the Informant (SPOILER: Anthony’s new metal body absorbs the Informant, who vows, “You don’t want me inside you – you don’t know what I’ll do” – a threat that remains unresolved by the closing credits, which see Anthony somehow returned to a normal life with a new son.)
Stylistically, Tsukamoto has forged a new metallurgic spectacle with all the white-hot alloys and burning sparks of a foundry running at twice full capacity. It’s crazy enough that those willing to embrace that madness should have a deliriously good time. Just don’t expect much in a way of deeper exploration of themes from the previous films. This is mostly more of the same – just louder, slicker, and hotter than before.
TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009). Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Written by Tsukamoto, Hisakatsu Kuroki. Unrated. 71 minutes. Cast: Eric Bossick, Akiko Mono, Yuko Nakamura, Stephen Sarrazin, Tiger Charlie Gerhardt, Prakhar Jain, Shinya Tsukamoto.
Two decades after TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto returns to the franchise that he last visited in TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER. The results should please fans eager for another helping of science-fiction body horror, featuring a hapless human transforming from mere flesh and blood into a mutant metallic hybrid, but despite the addition of an American lead and English dialogue, there is little to draw in first-time viewers not already bewitched by the strange spell that Tsukamoto weaves (o r rather welds).
Parmount Pictures recently created a new YouTube channel, The Paramount Vault, which streams free films from the studio’s library. Along with clips from classic titles, there are approximately 150 full length movies. Of course, these are not premium titles but lower end stuff for which services such as Netflix might not be inclined to pay licensing fees. However, there are some horror and science fiction films that might be of interest to cult movie enthusiasts and completists: THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, THE SPACE CHILDREN, CONQUEST OF SPACE, THE DEADLY BEES, CRACK IN THE WORLD, BENEATH, THE SENDER, etc.
The Paramount Vault divides its titles into playlists. You can find science fiction films here and horror films here.
Films worth checking out include I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (an tense little thriller despite the title); THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (a gore-filled sequel to the cult original); IN DREAMS (Neil Jordan’s psychic thriller); and SHANKS (an oddity starring mime Marcel Marceau). And of course fans of ’80s cheese from Cannon Films should get a kick out of MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.
Note: The Paramount Vault YouTube channel is not to be confused with the Paramount Pictures YouTube channel. The former is a library of archival titles; the latter offers trailer and promotional videos for Paramount’s upcoming releases.
I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our feelings of apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World’s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard and effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not being and end with seeing an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, providing a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature does his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at the screen for Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroes turn out to be not so much the humans as the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015). Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.
Let the hate mail begin!
In the grand tradition of Cinefantastique (dating back at least to the magazine’s review of STAR WARS), Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski rake the blockbuster box office hit GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY over the coals in this week’s Dossier Fantastique Podcast. Sure, it’s far from the worst movie ever made, nor does it deserve the unqualified adulation heaped on it by fans and critics alike. But at least Rocket the Raccoon is cute – and funny!
Afterwards, the CFQ podcasters offer a 50th anniversary appreciation of the low-budget science fiction film THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING (1964), directed by Terence Fisher. And of course there’s the usual rundown of the week’s home video releases, including DIVERGENT, OCULUS, and 30th anniversary Blu-ray disc of Brian DePalma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974).
Celebrating the Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Films of 1964, Cinefantastique looks back at Ray Harryhausen’s classic adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel.
Fifty years ago, special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen took movie-goers on a memorable trip to the moon – a half decade before Neil Armstrong actually reached the lunar surface. Can the cinematic adventure survive not only the test of time but also the incursion of scientific reality, which has debunked the popular notion of life on the moon as a quaint fantasy? The answer is yes: Despite its flaws, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a charming entertainment that stirs our Sense of Wonder with its fantastic imagery, lifting us out of mundane reality and transporting us into an alternative world of the imagination.
To a large extent, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is an archetypal Ray Harryhausen production, which is to say that it initially confounds our expectations only to ultimately confirm them. Critical consensus has taught us to expect an obligatory live-action story that serves only as a showcase for Harryhausen’s marvelous special effects work. However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON launches with a promising start, raising hopes for a truly good movie, not merely a succession of set-pieces. Although those hopes remain unsatisfied when the curtain falls, the film remains engaging and entertaining, if slightly frustrating.
Utilizing a flashback structure, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins with a contemporary prologue depicting a United Nations landing on the moon. The lunar explorers discover a British flag, next to some kind of legal document with a hand-written note on the back, dated 1899, claiming the moon in the name of the Queen of England.
Back on Earth, a team of investigators follow a name on the document to track down Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd), an old man in a nursing home, known as a crank for his dire warnings about the moon. Initially panicked about the recent landing, Bedford calms down and relates his story, which becomes the body of the film…
In 1899, after a series of failed business ventures, Bedford is living in a cottage in a the country, where he hopes to write a successful play. His fiance, Kate Callender (Martha Hyer), a Boston actress, comes to live with him, in anticipation of getting married. Bedford continually demurs, citing financial concerns; what sounds like an excuse has an element of truth, because Bedford is indeed hiding from creditors.
Financial rescue comes in the form of Joseph Cavor (Lionell Jeffries), a research scientist who offers to buy Bedford’s cottage, for fear that his experiments might damage the property. Bedford agrees, on the condition that he be allowed to reinvest the money into Cavor’s experiments into an anti-gravity substance dubbed “Cavorite.” There is only one problem: though he claims to have inherited the cottage from an aunt, Bedford is actually renting it. He circumvents this obstacle by “transferring” the title to Kate, who sells it in her name, unaware of the illegality of the transaction.
With one or two mishaps, Cavor completes his experiments; at one point, an explosion of Cavorite literally lifts the roof off his house. While Bedford waxes over the commercial potential of anti-gravity boots, Cavor dreams of flying to the moon – an idea Bedford dismisses until Cavor tells him the lunar surface is rich in minerals such as gold (“Better than boots, isn’t it?”).
Kate objects to the planned excursion, which she considers a pointless risk, and threatens to return to Boston. However, when she is served with papers for the illegal sale of the cottage, she runs to confront Bedford, who is about to take off with Cavor in an iron sphere that will serve as their space ship. (The film gets off one of its few really good jokes here: Anticipating the take-off, Cavor warns, “There might be a violent shock coming” – and we cut to Kate outside, knocking on the sphere.) Rather than risk her being killed in the blast, Bedford drags her inside.
After a mishap or two, the sphere lands on the moon. Bedford and Cavor explore the terrain and plant the flag that we saw found in the prologue. They also crash through an artificial, concave surface, leading to an underground area with breathable atmosphere. They encounter pygmy-sized insectoid aliens, whom Cavor dubs “Selenites” without much explanation. Surrounded, Bedford fights several them off, possibly killing some, while Cavor laments the “taste of human violence” that Bedford has given to this alien civilization.
Back at the landing area, Bedford and Cavor see that the sphere has been dragged away. Returning underground, they encounter giant caterpillars, which Cavor takes to be “moon calves” – that is, the lunar equivalent of cows, bred for food. Chased by one of the monsters, they get separated. Cavor is captured and, along with Kate, is taken to meet some taller, apparently more advanced Selenites, who manage to translate English well enough to ask him about Cavorite.
Bedford rescues Kate, but Cavor wants to continue communicating with the Selenites. While Bedford and Kate fix the sphere (which has been partially disassembled by the aliens), Cavor stands before the Grand Lunar (never so named on screen), who questions him about human society. Cavor explains that, unlike the Selenites, humanity is divided into different countries, who sometimes make war. When the Grand Lunar expresses concern that other men may follow Cavor and make war on the Moon, Cavor points out that only he knows the secret of Cavorite. The Grand Lunar proclaims that Cavor must remain with his secret.
Unable to fix the sphere without Cavor’s help, Bedford returns to rescue the scientist, blasting away at the Selenites with an elephant gun. Though deploring Bedford’s violence, Cavor repairs the sphere. Bedford and Kate may escape. Cavor chooses to remain behind, to prevent other humans from discovering the secret of Cavorite…
Back in the present day, Bedford and the investigative team interviewing him watch the moon landing on live television. As the astronauts descend beneath the surface, they pass areas that Bedford recognizes, but there are no living beings; in fact, the entire civilization has been wiped out as if by some disease. While the others marvel at this unexpected turn of events, Bedford gazes at the moon through a small telescope pointing out his window. Knowing now that the danger he feared will not materialize, he smiles to himself and mutters, “Cavor had such a terrible cold.”
PLOT AND PERFORMANCES
What can you say about a film that treats the extinction of an entire civilization as a bad joke? Ironically, the best thing you can say is that ending does not work – and it’s to the film’s credit that it does not. Bedford’s closing comment is laughable only if one shares his simplistic view that Selenites were inherently evil – a threat to humanity that need to be extinguished; however, the action in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON does not support this reading, and it’s a bit of a wonder that the filmmakers thought they could get a laugh with his smirking bon mot. (Additionally, there is the matter of Cavor’s almost symptom-free illness; his “terrible cold” manifests only as a few coughs dubbed onto the soundtrack near the end.)
In fact, the faux-funny conclusion of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is symptomatic of the film’s schizophrenic nature, which suggests two scripts spliced together: the first half is comedy romance; the second half is serious science fiction. Presumably, the humor was provided by Jan Read (who had co-scripted Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS the year before), and the serious aspects were provided by science fiction specialist Nigel Kneale (who created such thoughtful scripts as THE QUATERMAS EXPERIMENT). However the contributions break down, the two sensibilities wrestle for supremacy, and if in the end, the serious aspect loses out, at least it leaves an impression strong enough to endear the film to viewers willing to overlook a few lapses.
After a clever opening credits sequence (a graphic of a crescent moon is “eclipsed” by ripples as if we are seeing a reflection in a pool of water), FIRST MEN IN THE MOON begins strong with its depiction of a contemporary lunar landing. The international flavor of the crew, including Americans and Russians, is a nice, progressive touch for a film shot during the Cold War, and the sequence not only provides a spectacular opening; it also updates the Wells novel for contemporary audiences, who already knew more or less what to expect on the moon (a lifeless, arid surface with no atmosphere, unlike the blooming plant life depicted in the book). Thus the screenplay provides the scientifically accurate surface while concealing Wells’ marvels below ground, where they seem a bit more credible.
When the action switches to Earth for a few scenes explaining how the U.N. finds Bedford, the script offers what at first seems like a surfeit of comedy relief, as if over-compensating for the obligatory nature of the connect-the-dots narrative. However, once Bedford’s tale takes us back to 1899, we see that the comedy is not merely “relief”; it is in fact the focus. We get comical sound effects for the boiling Cavorite. We learn that working class people are shiftless and unreliable. Laurie Johnson’s otherwise fine score underlines allegedly humorous moments, inadvertently reminding us how un-funny they are. Kate continually says, “We could get married,” to which Bedford replies, “We could, but…”
Essentially, we are watching a Victorian-era Rom-Com, but the situation is not very amusing for two reasons: First, Arnold Bedford is a bit of a scoundrel; second, he never really does anything to deserve Kate’s forgiveness, but she forgives him anyway (a relationship arc that would be more or less recreated in Harryhausen’s 1969 effort VALLEY OF GWANGI).
Actor Edward Judd almost sells Bedford to us as a lovable rogue. Though the script gives us little reason to admire him, Judd shows us the man’s appealing charm, and to some extent gets us forgive Bedford’s deceptions about his embarrassing financial matters. However, the character crosses the line when he talks Kate into “selling” the cottage in her own name – a ruse that puts her in legal jeopardy.
All of this would be acceptable if the script were setting up Bedford as a flawed character who becomes a better man after Kate calls him on his bullshit; unfortunately, the only time Kate shows a little willpower is when she threatens to return to Boston if Bedford refuses to back out of his lunar voyage. Why this should be the breaking point is unclear (it’s almost as if Bedford is choosing Cavor over her), but she is given a real reason to be angry when she receives the legal summons. Nevertheless, the most she says during the weeks-long trip to the Moon is that she “shouldn’t” forgive Bedford (her tone suggests she does). That’s the last time the topic is even mentioned; the romantic-comedy story line is forgotten once Cavor’s sphere lands, at which point the science fiction half of the film takes over.
This is when FIRST MEN IN THE MOON becomes truly interesting. At first, the film seems to conform to the traditions of cinematic science fiction at the time, which tended to portray aliens as hostile and dangerous, justifying any “defensove” taken by the humans, not matter how overtly hostile. And indeed, if you saw FIRST MEN IN THE MOON when you were five years old, Bedford’s violent reaction to the Selenites seems justified.
However, one suspects that Nigel Kneale saw things differently. Unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), which depicted the scientist’s attempts to communicate as hopelessly naive, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON gives Cavor a fair hearing; his despair over Bedford’s actions is palpable and, to some extent, justified. Presumably, Nigel Kneale’s first draft was thematically sympathetic to Cavor, and Jan Read was brought in to conform the script to the tenor of the times, presenting the questionable Bedford as the macho hero battling the evil aliens.
Yes, the Selenites want to prevent Cavor from returning home, but only to protect themselves from other humans, who might use Cavorite to invade the Moon. One can hardly blame them after hearing Cavor himself describe the human propensity for war, which is horrible and yet considered heroic and noble, even glorious. Unable to resolve the contradiction, Cavor is reduced to almost pleading: “We’re not perfect,” he admits, but insists, “There are men of peace.” To which the Grand Lunar replies, “My concern is men of violence,” and Cavor knows that concern is justified.1
When Bedford interrupts Cavor’s audience with the Grand Lunar, the scene is staged like a traditional rescue, and perhaps we are expected to cheer as Bedford fires his elephant gun, yelling at Cavor that his “audience” with the Grand Lunar is actually a trial. On the other hand, Bedford’s actions seem to confirm the Selenites’ view of humans as dangerously violent,2 and a moment later we are given further reason to doubt Bedford’s character: when Cavor says he did not want to be rescued, Bedford responds, “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t risk my neck for you. I need you to repair the sphere.”
Pushing the hapless scientist around and even threatening him, Bedford reveals himself once and for all to be a total ass, loosing any sympathy he may have earned, and when Cavor voluntarily decides to stay behind, it is a truly grand gesture. The young handsome Bedford may conform to the stereotype of a movie hero, but it is Cavor who ultimately behaves heroically, sacrificing his return home both to preserve his secret and also to undo some of the damage Bedford has done.
Much of the credit for this goes to actor Lionel Jeffries, whose sincere performance helps Kneale’s intent shine through. Jeffries perfectly embodies Cavor, first as an absent-minded eccentric in the comical half of the film, then as a dedicated man of science in the latter. His frustration over defending the human race’s less noble characteristics is heartfelt, and his initial reaction to the Selenites’ attempt to translate English is splendid (or “imperial” as the character would say – and let’s not forget the irony of the word in the context of a story about aliens wary of Earth’s intentions).
Jeffries wins us over to such an extent that we cannot laugh at Bedford casual disregard for the extinction of the Selenites, which registers as a tragedy instead of a relief. In this context, one should note that the international nature of the contemporary lunar expedition belies the Grand Lunar’s fear of Earth: humanity has outgrown the war-mongering divisiveness, and one suspects that, had the Selenites survived, the meeting may have gone off peacefully.
The supporting cast is strong, filled with reliable British character actors such as Miles Maleson and Michael Ripper, not to mention a young un-credited Peter Finch (who would eventually win a posthumous Oscar for his role in NETWORK). Martha Hyer deserves some credit for playing the rather thankless leading lady role: though Kate is too gullible and forgiving, Hyer almost makes something of the character. In particular, she pulls off scenes that have defeated many an actor in a Ray Harryhausen film: while staring silently at the off-screen special effects, she actually seems to be looking at something, not just waiting for her cue; while Jeffries is given all the dialogue expounding on the wonders being viewed, Hyer seems on the verge of speaking, as if itching but unable to articulate her reactions.
Still, it is Jeffries show, as far as the live-action actors go. Our final image of Cavor shows him crouching before two Selenites as the sphere takes off in the background, leaving him behind on the Moon. Somehow, the character deserves more.
BEHIND THE CAMERA
Like the majority of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects epics, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was produced by Charles H. Schneer for Columbia Pictures,. The duo had previously collaborated on an adaptation of a Victorian-era science fiction novel, Jules Verne’s THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), and Harryhausen had long wanted to film Wells’ War of the Worlds, even going so far as to shoot test footage of the tentacled Martians (though the film ended up made by Paramount instead). Like THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON benefits from the source material, which provides an imaginative, fanciful narrative to which Harryhausen can apply his visual effects magic, though in this case the screenplay is a bit more obviously compromised.
Though shot on a modest budget, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON looks grand in scale. As producer, Schneer kept costs down by putting most of the budget below the line, spending money on the actual production rather than on big-name stars. Wilkie Cooper’s Panavision cinematography (in “Lunacolor”) is beautiful, despite an occasional lapse (e.g., a slightly jittery tilt-down in Bedford’s nursing home). Sets and locations (including some beautiful caverns) effective convey the subterranean lunar landscape with a vividness absent from today’s digitally created backgrounds.
Nathan Juran, who earned a reputation as one of the worst directors ever thanks to his involvement with the bad-movie classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (helmed under the pseudonym Nathan Hertz), proves here that he was actually a competent craftsman, who knew how to stage and shoot a scene with narrative efficiency, if not with a recognizably personal style. Though he resorts to the occasional cliche (the hand that reaches on screen to startle our hero is revealed to belong to a friend)3, Juran also manages a few suspenseful moments (rare in Harryhausen films, which were always wary of scaring off younger viewers), including a nice bit of foreshadowing when we – but not the oblivious characters – first glimpse the lunar inhabitants only as shadows on a cave wall. The script’s comedy may not be particularly funny, but thanks to Juran, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON seldom drags, and once the characters reaches the orbiting orb, the film becomes a non-stop tour of wondrous sights.
Those sights are enhanced by Laurie Johson’s music, which is suitably grand when not obligated to underscore the comic high jinks (the orchestra sounds slightly drunk during the zero gravity scenes). Early on, Johnson uses the recurring motif of a British anthem to tie together the discovery of the British flag on the moon with the presentation of that discovery to Bedford. Later, he offers a stately march as Cavor ascends the stares of the spectacular set for his audience with the Grand Lunar, dotted with strange angular crystals that seem otherworldly but believable.
The cumulative effect is quite impressive, eclipsing the somewhat mundane aspects of the film’s first half. But of course the star of the show remains Harryhausen himself…
THE SPECIAL EFFECTS
Ray Harryhausen is relatively unique in the annals of cinema – a special effects artist who not only provided technical excellence but also contributed to the development of his films, sometimes conceiving sequences that would showcase his visual effects process, which he dubbed Dynamation (short for “Dynamic Animation” or “Dimensional Animation,” to distinguish the work from hand-drawn cartoon animation). In the days before computer-generated imagery, Harryhausen’s specialty was stop-motion, in which miniature creatures, built from foam rubber laid over metal armatures, were manipulated by hand and photographed one frame at a time; the resulting sequence, when projected at regular speed, gave the illusion of motion. Though time-consuming compared to CGI, stop-motion provided a hand-made charm, allowing Harryhausen to work as an artist and almost an actor, imbuing his characters with amazing semblance of life and personality.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is somewhat atypical, in that little stop-motion is utilized; the only animated creatures are the giant caterpillars and the larger Selenites. Despite a weak sound effect for their snapping mandibles, the caterpillars are impressive monsters, nicely detailed and animated, their menace enhanced by Johnson’s ponderous score, but essentially they are a throw-away plot device to get Bedford and Cavor separated, and to showcase the technology of the Selenites, who are able to fell the beast with some kind of ray gun. (We later see its skeleton is picked neatly clean – so much for the voracious monster!) The special effects equivalent of a bit player, the caterpillars do not provide Harryhausen with much opportunity for virtuoso work; the lead Selenites; however, are another matter.
The smaller Selenites are portrayed by children in rubber costumes, which are fairly well utilized, though the rubber faces sometimes bend awkwardly. (Harryhausen uses his special effects to increase their numbers, filming the same dozen or so three or four times and matting them into different parts of the frame.) The later Selenites are achieved with stop-motion, which gives them an entirely different character – more insect-like and alien, able to walk on spindly legs that would not support a human actor’s weight.
They also have a peculiar, almost analytic personality, emphasized in a wonderful shot as one of them peers curiously through a distorting lens while observing Kate (who comically appears only as a talking skeleton, as if being examined via some kind of x-ray device). Harryhausen’s staccato stop-motion emphasizes the inhuman aspect of the Selenites, whose portrayal conforms with the attitude of the time, which often depicted alien life forms as emotionless “brainiacs,” who might be able to run an efficient society but would probably rob it of any soul, turning people into mindless drones.4 Perhaps the Selenites could have been portrayed with masks and makeup, but it is unlikely they would have achieved the same unearthly effect.
Other than that, Harryhausen restricts himself to depicting the wonders of a lunar voyage, putting his special effects in the service of the story instead of generating set-pieces to showcase his work. The results are spectacular to behold.The matching of miniatures to full-scale settings is marvelous, shifting seamlessly back and forth, and the composite work is convincing except for a few matte lines betraying the juncture between elements shot separately from each other. (There is also one weird jump-cut as Cavor and Bedford explore the lunar caves: while the angle angle moves in from long-shot to medium-shot on the actors, the matte painting in the background remains at the exact same distance.)
Five years before the first real-life moon landing, Harryhausen does a fine job of visualizing the event in the modern-day prologue, including a reasonably accurate depiction of a lunar module that separates from the mother ship to touch down on the surface. That the astronaut descends from the vehicle by hanging from a wire like a trapeze artist is eccentric but not enough to ruin the spectacle of the moment.
The 1899 landing is a bit less elegant – the bouncing of the sphere betrays its miniature nature – but the trip through space is convincingly rendered. As Cavor and Bedford explore the Moon, the script provides several wonders beneath the surface, which Harryhausne realizes to perfection, including a gargantuan glass cylinders that provide oxygen for the Moon’s subterranean atmosphere and an enormous rotating orb that generates energy from the sun (yes, the 1964 film predicts solar power!). Hell, even the lunar surface is beautiful – more beautiful than the real thing, filled with eye-catching colors that are consistently amazing in both the live-action and the special effects.
Harryhausen’s hand-crafted techniques have their limitations. When combining live-action, matte paintings, miniatures, and models into a single shot, proper alignment usually required the camera to remain motionless (unlike the sweeping crane shots seen in today’s CGI spectacles). Yet this static quality created its own sense of style, forcing Harryhausen to fill the frame with dynamic action and to avoid letting any shot run on too long. Of all his work, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one of those that best disguises this shortcoming.
Perhaps this is due to the Panavision aspect ratio. FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is the only film Harryhausen ever made in a widescreen format, which allows filmmakers to squeeze more onto the edges of the frame without having to pan back and forth. Though Harryhausen felt the process was too cumbersome for his techniques, he filled the frame with such wonders that they eye is seldom aware that the camera has become locked down to enable the special effects.
Typical for its time, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is a bit dodgy in its science. Although NASA receives a thank you in the credits, implying a level of authenticity, the film makes several unapologetic errors, assuming that viewers are not familiar with even the fundamentals of astronomy.
- During the lunar flight, Kate touches the controls, sending the sphere careening off course. Cavor shouts angrily that the ship is now heading “straight for the sun!” His tone somewhat overstates the danger: whereas the Moon is a mere 237,000 miles from Earth, the Sun is 93-million miles away. Assuming the sphere is traveling at the “speed of a bullet” as Cavor says (approximately 800 miles per hour, depending on the bullet), it would take 116,250 hours to reach the sun – that is, 4,843 days or a little bit more than 13 years. Even if the sphere were traveling ten times as fast (which it would need to do to make the lunar voyage in the few weeks the film implies), Cavor would have over a year to readjust the trajectory before falling into the sun. (On another note, though lip service is paid to the issues of food and oxygen, the lack of bathroom facilities is politely overlooked.)
- When confronted with the first Selenite, Bedford remarks on the creature’s diminutive stature, to which Cavor replies, “It’s the low gravity” – as if the statement provides some kind of explanation. If low-gravity results in smaller life forms, one wonders how Cavor accounts for the giant caterpillars.
- During Cavor and Bedford’s initial moonwalk, the film seems well aware of the low gravity; for instance, the not particularly athletic Cavor leaps into the air like John Carter of Mars. Yet when Kate and Bedford are re-assembling the sphere near the conclusion, they lug the items around as if they were at full weight.
- The modern-day expedition beneath the lunar surface is conveyed to Earth via live television broadcast, but we are left to wonder: Who are manning the cameras that film the astronaut’s escape as the Selenite city collapses around them?
- I suppose I should mention Cavorite. Back when Wells’ novel was published, Jules Verne (who strove for scientific accuracy in his own work) derided the concept of the anti-gravity Cavorite, famously demanding, “Show me this metal.”
LOOKING BACK FIFTY YEARS LATER
Like much of Harryhausen’s oeuvre, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON falls short of being a masterpiece but remains a joyful entertainment. To some extent its appeal is rooted in nostalgia: a generation of viewers who saw it at an early age recall it fondly and enjoy revisiting it; some of those now-grownups have graduated to making their own science fiction and fantasy films, keeping the Harryhausen legacy alive through the next generation and beyond.
However, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is not merely a museum piece. Its power to captivate an audience remains intact. Though today we are (justifiably) less inclined to forgive Bedford for his dishonesty, and more inclined to question Kate’s devotion to him, the film’s charm lays elsewhere, with Cavor and his mission to the Moon. The fanciful depiction of lunar travel has aged well, partly because the narrative’s framing device accounts for the archaic elements, which were always supposed to look like a leftover remnant from an earlier era. Perhaps more importantly, FIRST MEN IN THE MOON creates its own stylized semblance of space travel. Like the Wells novel, it presents a fantasy rather than believable science fiction, and fantasy’s power to entertain is unchecked by decades of real-world advances in science (unlike the more realistic approach of 1950’s DESTINATION MOON, which seems rather dull now).
Though the film will never stand as Harryhausen’s shining moment – others showcased his talent for amazing animation far more memorably – FIRST MEN IN THE MOON remains a job well done, its old-fashioned approach retaining a special charm five decades later. As Cavor transports himself and his comrades to the Moon, so Harryhausen transports the audience into a world of imagination where scientific impossibility takes a back seat to our Sense of Wonder.
A trip worth taking!
- One of the screenplay’s more felicitous decisions was incorporating this material into the main body of the story. Wells’ novel, originally published in serial format in a magazine, was intended to conclude with the sphere taking off and leaving Cavor on the moon, but the author decided to extend the story with three additional chapters in which the scientist sends wireless messages to Earth, offering an anthropological account of Selenite society. Communication is suddenly terminated when the Selenites realize that Cavor could transmit the formula for Cavorite, potentially paving the way for an invasion of the Moon. This extended epilogue worked in the literary format, expanding and deepening what had been up to that point an imaginative adventure rather than science fiction. This structure would have been dramatically anti-climactic in the film, which benefits from using Wells’ sociological ideas in the third act.
- This tactic used four years later with the character of Taylor (Charlton Heston) in PLANET OF THE APES (1968).
- Juran pulled a similar stunt in the earlier Harryhausen film, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH.
- Which is almost literally the case here: when the Selenite chemists have finished their failed attempt to analyze Cavorite, they are cocooned into hibernation. Cavor at first seems to approve of this method for “dealing with unemployment,” until Kate suggests the Selenites may do the same to them. Cavor is suitable horrified – the only time he truly seems wary of the Selenites.
FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (Columbia Pictures, 1964). Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Directed by Nathan Juran. Screenplay by Nigel Kneale and Jan Read, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. 103 minutes. Not rated. Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries, Miles Malleson, Norman Bird, Gladys Henson, Hugh McDermott, Betty McDowall, Michael Ripper (uncredited), Peter Finch (uncredited), John Forbes-Robertson (uncredited).
Anybody remember CAPTAIN EO? I do, because I covered the event’s debut at Disneyland, for Cinefantastique magazine back in 1986. The science fiction short subject starred Michael Jackson as the titular space hero, confronting Anjelica Huston in a wicked Giger-esque makeup as the Supreme Leader. Francis Ford Coppola directed for his friend, executive producer George Lucas. If you have never seen CAPTAIN EO, the reason is that the film screened in “4D” at Disney theme parks (meaning that, in addition to 3D photography, the attraction featured live, in-theatre effects, such as fog to simulate the smoke from explosions). It ran for about ten years, then made a comeback after Michael Jackson’s death, but it’s never been easily available anywhere outside of Disneyland and Disneyworld.
Fortunately, you can now watch in online for free, courtesy of YouTube. The impact is considerably diminished by the absence of 3D (the asteroid, which seems to linger pointlessly on screen in the opening shot, was pretty cool when it seemed to float out of the screen to a point about an arm’s length in front of your nose). Jackson is an awkward actor at best, but needless to say he shines when he begins to sing and dance. All in all, this is a curio, not a masterpiece. Enjoy!
See a larger version of the video below.
No one went to see it, but EDGE OF TOMORROW is one of the most clever and interesting science fiction films of the summer, outdistancing the more successful X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. In Cinefantastique’s Spotlight Podcast Number 5, Volume 2, Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski explore the virtues of the worthy effort, which has become a critical darling in spite of audience indifference.
One of the interesting aspects of last month’s theatrical release of GODZILLA (2014) was the critical reaction, which turned out to be both gratifying and frustrating. How did it manage to be both? Well, let me explain…
On the one hand, it was gratifying to see GODZILLA taken seriously by the mainstream press. Yes, many of these critics disliked the film; however, their criticisms were, by and large, based on dramatic shortcomings, not on the mere fact of its being a monster movie. For good or bad, they assessed what was on the screen, and did not mock the filmmakers’ efforts to craft a somber, more realistic version of a character often (if unfairly) associated with camp.
On the other hand, it was frustrating to see GODZILLA summarily dismissed by critics who specialize in cinefantastique. Yes, some of these viewers liked the film; however, their criticism was sometimes based less on actual flaws than on the fact of seeing an unfamiliar adult rendition of a familiar, childhood icon. They were less interested in what the film actually achieved than in faulting it for not conforming to their mental template of what a new-millennium Godzilla film should have been.
That’s right: as counter-intuitive as it seems, the famous radioactive reptile got a fairer shake from mainstream critics than from genre specialists. Many viewers with a Sense of Wonder seem to have checked that sensibility at the door, replacing it with symptoms of Early Onset Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (also known as: All You Kids Get Off Of My Lawn Syndrome).
Of course I’m over-generalizing here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve done a statistical analysis of every critical comment, fair or foul, lobbed at GODZILLA. Nevertheless, I am interested in the sensibilities underlying these reactions, which I see as another example of the Tribalism that permeates modern film-going, in which the actual quality of the film is frequently less important than how well the film acts as a Tribal Identifier that helps “Us” define ourselves as different from “Them.”
GODZILLA FILM COMMENTARY – THEN AND NOW
Before delving into those murky depths, it might be instructive to look at the reactions to the previous Americanized adaptation of Japan’s most famous monster: Sony Pictures’ GODZILLA (1998), from Dean Devlin and Rolland Emmerich (the team who brought you INDEPENDENCE DAY). Back then, we were still at the dawn of the Internet era, and Hollywood, with its lock on old media, thought it could sell audiences anything by keeping a lid on it so that viewers would purchase tickets before realizing they had been hoodwinked.
In this case, Sony kept the Godzilla design under wraps, lied about it when it was leaked online, and avoided press screenings. Nevertheless, within minutes after the premiere at Madison Square Gardens, word was out on message boards and forums, informing fandom that their hopes and dreams had been betrayed.
Mainstream critics were in agreement about GODZILLA’s low quality, though for different reasons. For instance, Owen Gleiberman, who gave the film a mixed but mildly positive review in Entertainment Weekly, dismissed the the subject matter as a “$120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash,” suggesting that the very concept of Godzilla, as much as the handling, was at fault.
This is what Hollywood has come to, the Disgruntled Critics seemed to say: Spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie about a giant monster destroying a city. Which rather overlooks the fact that to do a film like GODZILLA well, would require a substantially larger budget than that of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.
With this kind of attitude, it is understandable that fans might have looked elsewhere for insightful critical commentary, from people who actually knew and understood the subject matter as something more than Saturday matinee kiddie fare. I like to think we provided a little bit of that in Cinefantasitque magazine (thanks to a review written by Steve Ryfle, author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star), but there were other venues available, thanks to that new-fangled world wide web thingy, where you could find such site as Barry’s Temple of Godzilla and Monster Zero News (lamentably gone since web-master Aaron Smith passed away in 2006).
Sixteen years later, we are in a very different landscape. Critics at major print outlets no longer have a lock on the national conversation; insightful voices are everywhere on the Internet – on websites, on YouTube, and on social media such as Facebook. If you want to read a review of the new GODZILLA, written by a confirmed Godzilla Geek or at least a dedicated sci-fi fan, you have a multitude of choices.
Unfortunately, this advantage is somewhat mitigated by another shift in the cultural landscape: the rise of Film Tribalism. I date this phenomenon to the release of STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE, a film that was obviously awful to everyone who saw it and yet earned billions of dollars anyway, because the faithful Lucasoids bought tickets again and again, to prove their fealty to their Tribal Leader, George Lucas.
Now, I know what you’re saying: This “Film Tribalism” thing is just another term for Fandom. But it’s not. Fans watch movies because those movies satisfy their love for and devotion to particular styles, genres, or artists. These movies may not be very good, but at least they deliver what is expected of them, whether it’s amazing special effects, exciting action, or beloved performances.
Film Tribalism does not demand such satisfaction. It’s all about proving one’s bona fides as a card carrying tribe member. In fact, there is a certain advantage to an unsatisfying film, because it helps weed out the fair-weather friends from the true believers. What better way is there to prove your Geek Cred than to dismiss someone who dislikes a film by insisting, condescendingly, “You just don’t get it”?
The flip side of Films Tribalism is that, whereas it absolves all flaws in a film that adheres to Tribal Orthodoxy, Tribalism reviles perceived iconoclasm and even minor doctrinal deviation. Being a “Good Film” is less important than being “Our Kind of Film,” the latter determination usually based on whether the filmmaker is considered “One of Us.” Thus, fair to middling works such as THE AVENGERS and PACIFIC RIM are embraced because directors Joss Whedon and Guillermo Del Toro, respectively, are deemed Fans Like Us (making Films For Us), whereas the superior STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is dismissed because director J.J. Abrams is regarded as an Outsider Who Does Not Adhere to the True Meaning of Star Trek.
All of which, brings us, in a roundabout way, to the new GODZILLA from Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures, which has provoked a critical response somewhat the opposite of that which greeted the 1998 film.
MAINSTREAM GODZILLA REVIEWS
After months of anticipation, including an effective advertising campaign, fans were eager to find out whether they would be burned again, as they had been by the 1998 GODZILLA fiasco. Would the early reviews confirm their hopes or reinforce their fears? Would mainstream critics give the film a chance or dismiss it as a second attempt at something not worth doing the first time?
The “Bottom Line” assessment from Todd McCarthy’s review in Hollywood Reporter succinctly states: “On a second try, Hollywood does the behemoth justice. Almost.” The review itself sums up the film’s strength’s and weaknesses: great production values, good pacing, serious tone, on the one hand; and ho-hum characters and performances, on the other. McCarthy praises director Edwards for not over-exposing Godzilla but does suggest that the film could have used just a bit more of its star on screen. If you want the basics, McCarthy tells you what you need to know, and really, none of the negative reviews have much more to say on the subject, other than to emphasize flaws already noted by McCarthy.
Likewise, Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips is aware of GODZILLA’s shortcomings but manages to look past them, giving an even more positive assessment:
There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of “Godzilla” works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.
Wow. Two mainstream critics, one for a trade publication and one for a consumer publication, think GODZILLA is a good movie, flawed but well-made and entertaining. Who would have believed it? These are not fan boy gushings but sober reviews by professionals. Considering how much ill will and disrespect fantasy and science fiction films have received over the years, this is rather impressive.
You would think we could all sit back, relax, and enjoy the radioactive glow of a good Godzilla movie. But not quite…
As a transition into the response from science fiction specialists, I next want to mention “Waiting for Godzilla,” by Christopher Orr of the Atlantic Monthly. Although writing for a mainstream publication, Orr claims (in a response in the comments section) to have loved the Toho Godzilla movies for forty years, and his article has been approvingly linked by Godzilla experts disappointed with the film, so presumably it expresses their opinions.
Essentially, Orr complains of Godzilla’s limited screen time, without giving the film credit for carefully building up to the the monster’s revelation or pacing the action to increase its impact (unlike Phillips, who noted that director Edward gave his creatures “room to breath and bide their time between clashes”).
In a follow-up article, Orr clarifies his first response, noting in the headline: “It’s not the Screen Time; It’s the Focus.” Here, Orr expresses sympathy for Edwards’ stated strategy of attempting a slow revelation of the monster, a la JAWS, ALIEN, or the original GODZILLA (1954), but faults the director for focusing too much attention on the MUTOS (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which drive the plot – a criticism endorsed by my esteemed colleagues Steve Ryfle and Tim Lucas (of Video Watchdog), who sarcastically called the film “The MUTO Movie” and “MUTO Love Song,” respectively.
Orr notes that JAWS is always about the shark, even before the audience sees the lethal creature, and the same goes for other films that sought to keep their monsters under wraps till late in the running time. This is true more or less, but when you think about it, even ALIEN isn’t about the Alien from start to finish. It’s initially a rescue operation, responding to what the crew of the Nostromo believes to be a distress call; and the early sequences are filled with sights of other creatures: the famous and mysterious Space Jockey; and the Face Hugger, which is not the alien per se but its progenitor. Which leads to my next question:
Haven’t Orr and others who share his outlook ever heard of an opening act? One that primes the audience for the headliner, who stays backstage as long as possible, building anticipation to the point where the audience erupts with joyful applause when he finally takes the stage? This is the strategy that Edwards uses, and it is not exactly new. In fact, Godzilla’s flying cousin gets similar treatment in RODAN (1956), which focused its first half on over-sized insects attacking miners, before eventually revealing the titular terror midway through.
Orr at least notes that the new GODZILLA is not so different structurally from the monster-battle sequels he enjoyed in the past, but he loves those films for their “campy grandeur,” suggesting that nostalgia has blurred his vision and that he is holding the new film to a different standard. He is not exactly a Grumpy Old Man complaining “they don’t make ’em like the used to,” but you do get the feeling that for him GODZILLA is failing to live up to some illusory yardstick that mis-measures the current film’s qualities while inflating the virtues of its antecedents.
I suppose this is all a matter of opinion, so I should cut Orr and his acolytes some slack, but Orr’s initial review displays a symptom plaguing other negative commentary: mis-statements of fact that make the film sound worse than it is. In this case, Orr claims:
Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot.
Apparently, Orr missed the sequence in which Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fries the MUTO’s egg sack, saving San Francisco from being overrun by monstrous insectoid off-spring. Not only that, the explosion distracts the female MUTO, who along with her mate has been double-teaming Godzilla. This distraction allows Godzilla, who has been on the ropes, to make a comeback, besting his male opponent with a well aimed tale-strike. And as if that were not enough…Ford gets the ticking nuclear bomb (a bungled strategy by the military to defeat the monsters) onto a boat headed out to sea, before it can detonate in downtown, where it would kill tens of thousands of people and irradiate countless more. I’d say Ford has more than a little impact on the mechanics of the plot.
My point here is not to diss Orr (who is actually quite complimentary to those who disagree with him in the comments section of his review). Rather, it is to express my surprise that genre experts, especially those with an appreciation for Godzilla, would point to his review as if it perfectly articulated flaws to which the rest of us were blinded by our overwhelming fan adoration.
As we will see, there is blindness involved, but it’s mostly on the other side of the aisle.
THE GENRE PRESS AND GODZILLA
Okay, we’re finally getting closer to my point, such as it is. But first, a brief recap: A major Hollywood blockbuster, based on a beloved genre icon not usually taken seriously by mainstream audiences and critics, marches into theatres to the tune of a $93-million opening weekend while simultaneously earning a 73% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes from critics (72% from audiences). It seems, for once, that viewers and reviewers are in accord, and everyone is happy if not ecstatic.
Everyone except for the Godzilla Experts, that is. Their reactions are a bit peculiar – unless you recognize Tribal Film Criticism when you see it.
I’ll start with “Why Godzilla Kicked Pacific Rim’s Ass at the Box Office,” by Annalee Newitz at io9, which despite the implication of the title is actually a Tribal Shout-Out to Guillermo Del Toro’s disappointing and inferior film from last year. Newitz’s essential point is that PACIFIC RIM is “arguably a more original and complex movie than GODZILLA,” the latter of which “succeeded because it treated its audience like kids.”
Yes, you read that right. According to Newitz, GODZILLA’s success is really a symptom of its inferiority; in this case, “inferiority” roughly translates as “accessibility to a mainstream audience.” The alleged superiority of PACIFIC RIM lies precisely in the fact that many viewers didn’t like it or didn’t get it – which suggests that those who did get it are smarter and more perceptive, able to appreciate a film that is “more interesting” and “complicated.”
To be fair, Newitz’s analysis of the difference between the two films is accurate and even insightful, and she does use the word “mistake” to refer to some of PACIFIC RIM’s elements, but it is clear from her description that these mistakes are actually not bugs but features that appeal to a more sophisticated science-fiction-savvy audience.
Yes, My Tribe is smarter than Your Tribe.1
Less overtly tribal, but still telling, is Evan Dickson’s “How Does Godzilla Stack Up Against Pacific Rim” at Bloody Disgusting. Having given GODZILLA a straight-down-the-middle review (2.5 out of 5 stars), Dickson returns to answer readers seeking a comparative evaluation of the two films. Evans notes a few ways in which GODZILLA is superior but winds up proclaiming “As it stands now, PACIFIC RIM beats it out for me as a movie” – without offering a tangible reason.
Ironically, the combined impact of the i09 and Bloody Disgusting articles is to convince me that GODZILLA is the superior film precisely because it does not provide fan-service at the expense of good filmmaking. Instead, it plays against expectations, synthesizing elements familiar to fans but using them as if for the first time – in other words, working them into the story so that they fit, instead of simply throwing them up on screen so that the Tribal Members can feel validated when they recognize their favorite tropes. That reluctance to offer nothing but dedicated fealty to Tribal Orthodoxy is what diminishes Godzilla in the eyes of True Believers.
PACIFIC RIM, on the other hand, gets a pass, precisely because it pays homage to the Tribe. Sure, the film has intriguing ideas, such as “The Drift,” but those ideas are drowned in a repetitive series of mindless monster battles, and ultimately Del Toro’s film hews closer to the Hollywood blockbuster formula, right down to giving the Idris Elba character a rather weak variation on President Whitmore’s rousing pre-battle speech from INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). But you won’t see that acknowledged by either Newitz or Dickson.
GODZILLA, on the other hand, lets Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) say all that needs to be said in three simple words: “Let them fight.” Let’s award a few points for a level of understatment that avoids hokey melodrama. And while we’re at it, for all of GODZILLA’s dramatic faults, let’s note that PACIFIC RIM is not exactly loaded with credible characters. The two scientists (rendered in hammy performances) are less characters than on-screen avatars for geeks in the audience, and the male lead in is even more forgettable than the one in GODZILLA; in fact, he embodies one of the worst cliches in the history of cinema: the reluctant hero who drags his heels while we wait for the inevitable plot device that will finally motivate him to fight, which is what we know he’s going to do eventually if we just wait long enough. It’s a colossal and stupid waste of screen time – the kind of nonsense that GODZILLA wisely avoids.
In “Godzilla Whitewashed: A Special Report,” which posted at World Cinema Paradise a couple days after GODZILLA opened, Steve Ryfle takes the film to task for subverting the metaphor of the original GODZILLA, directed by Ishiro Honda, which presented its beast as a walking embodiment of the horrors of the nuclear age. Unlike the other negative reviewers I’ve mentioned, Ryfle has a point worth considering, and truth be told, I too would have preferred a new film hewing closer to the powerful and dramatic original, one that boldly confronted our legacy as the only country to use nuclear bombs in warfare (on a civilian population, no less).
However, Ryfle’s justifiable concern leads him to underestimate the extent to which the film does question the wisdom of America’s nuclear arsenal, which is portrayed as ineffective at best and counter-productive at worse (to put it mildly). The scenario tells us that nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s was a covert attempt to destroy Godzilla – an attempt that failed. When the MUTOS and Godzilla converge on San Francisco, the military, in the form of General Stenz (David Strathairn), concoct a plan to eliminate all three radiation-hungry beasts by luring them out to sea with an atomic warhead, which will then be detonated. Dr. Serizawa points out that this tactic failed repeatedly in the past, and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) storms out in frustration over the futility of the plan, leading to a key moment.
Serizawa then tries to spur Stenz’s conscience by displaying a watch that belonged to his father – a watch that stopped when his father died in the blast at Hiroshima, its hands frozen forever like a fateful reminder of that terrible day. Stenz understands the point but proceeds anyway, for lack of a better (or indead any other) military option. Even so, in a later scene, Serizawa begs him again not to go through with the use of a nuclear warhead.
Despite this, Ryfle conclueds that Serizawa and Stenz “share a hope that it never happens again, tacitly accepting the gospel of Hiroshima as necessary evil.” Having seen GODZILLA a second time, I can say with certainty that no such scene exists in the film, which in no way pushes that message that Ryfle attributes to it. In fact, the watch scene is a far more direct indictment of the Hiroshima bombing than anything in Honda’s GODZILLA, which was more focused on H-Bomb testing in the Pacific than on the A-Bomb attacks on Japanese soil.
Rather than necessary evil, GODZILLA portrays the use of nuclear weapons as unnecessary insanity – a point driven home when the military’s plan goes horrible wrong, with the male MUTO2 hijacking the warhead and giving it to his mate as an offering, which she then uses as a “food” source for her eggs. Clearly, nuclear power is adding fuel to the fire, making a horrible situation exponentially more catastrophic.
Though Ryfle insists that GODZILLA “is about nothing” and that the film does not meaningfully comment upon its scenes of destruction, I find the meaning perfectly clear: nuclear proliferation has come back to bite the U.S. on the ass; the weapons that exist allegedly to protect us actually attract more trouble than they repel, and by creating and using them we have set in motion events that we are powerless to stop – unless we get a little assistance, in the form of Godzilla, to reset the balance.
Underscoring this theme, our hero Ford Brody is not a conventional warrior; his specialty is defusing bombs. The human story of GODZILLA’S third act (as opposed to the over-sized monster battle) focuses on his attempts to stop the bomb from detonating or, failing that, to get it safely out to sea, where it can do no harm to the inhabitants of San Francisco. This is definitely a movie that advises us to start worrying and stop loving the bomb.
On another level, it is significant that only the combined efforts of Ford and Godzilla save San Francisco from nuclear annihilation.
Which brings us to…
JOE BRODY IS GODZILLA (SPOILERS)
One aspects of GODZILLA that seems to be universally disliked is the death of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is killed when the dormant MUTO hatches; ironically, Joe’s death confirms the conspiratorial ramblings that have alienated him from his son Ford but severs any possibility of father-son reconciliation. Or does it?
Cranston gives the best performance in the film, emerging as the most (some say only) memorable character. So why kill him off? Before advancing my argument, first let’s hear director Edwards on the subject:
[…] we tried versions in the screenplay where he survived. And in every one we did that with, there was nothing else that character could do without being silly. If he sticks with Ford, it becomes Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, and the tone of the movie becomes fun, but not the tone we were trying to do. And if he sticks with the military guys, he’s like a fifth wheel. His job was done in the story line there.
“We did try to make it work. […] But as a story beat, he becomes redundant once he’s handed over the baton to the rest of the cast.
Edwards explanation is good as far as it goes, but he leaves deeper questions unexplored: Exactly why does Joe Brody become redundant, and to whom is he passing the baton?
As you may have guessed, I have a theory, and it goes like this:
Joe Brody is Godzilla.
Okay, I do not mean to be taken seriously – or at least not literally. Previously, the Toho production GODZILLA VS BIOLLANTE (1989) depicted a monster infused with a human spirit (through gene splicing). That is not what is happening here. Rather, Joe Brody has to disappear from the narrative because his role is being assumed by Godzilla; it is to the mysterious sea beast, rather than to the human characters, that he is passing the baton.
Unfortunately, the film does not do as much as it could to support this reading. I would like to have seen Joe perish by disappearing into the ocean shortly before Godzilla emerged from beneath the waves; perhaps a few familiar character tics – gestures, expressions – could have been imbued into Godzilla to drive the point home.
Nevertheless, there are a few hints:
- Joe makes his exit before Godzilla enters the picture. Except for brief news reel image of dorsal spines in the Pacific during a nuclear blast decades ago, Godzilla is off-screen until after Joe dies. Only then do we learn that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOS, which is not, I think a coincidence, because…
- The MUTOS are responsible not only for the death of Joe’s wife but also for the death of Godzilla’s ancestor. In the traditional action scenario, it is the hero’s duty to exact vengeance for this kind of thing. Godzilla takes out the MUTOs, doing what Joe would have done if he could.
- At one point, referring to his late wife, Joe tells his son that she is “still out there,” suggesting a continued spiritual presence even after her death. This hints that, even after his own death, Joe is “still out there,” though now embodied in Godzilla. Not literally in the sense of taking possession, with his intelligence intact, but metaphorically, his goals fused with those of the prehistoric apex predator.
- Ford and Godzilla share a strangely intriguing moment of eye-contact, suggesting some kind of bonding. Interestingly, Godzilla’s looming face disappears as it is engulfed in billowing clouds, almost as if the creature were de-materializing – a guardian angel evaporating into the ether.
- Godzilla very pointedly saves Ford’s life at the end – again, something Joe would have done if he could. This later point is particularly significant, because the film starts with a nuclear catastrophe that Joe fails to prevent, loosing his wife in the process; the conclusion neatly bookends the opening, with another nuclear disaster, this time averted without loss of life.
In effect, Godzilla takes on the mantle of protective parent after Joe’s demise. Earlier in the film, Vivienne Graham refers to Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes,” which dove-tails nicely with a quote from Sigmund Freud, which I am going to paraphrase slightly to suit the occasion:
“A personal God[zilla] is nothing more than an exalted father-figure.”
In GODZILLA, the King of the Monsters assumes the father-figure role, but that role has greater resonance when you see him as the embodiment of Joe Brody’s need to protect his family, to succeed where he failed previously. Again, this is to be taken figuratively, not literally.
Generally, I think reviewers have not given the film enough credit for a solid structure that makes sense of elements like this, regardless of whether the dialogue and characterizations are as compelling as we might like. Joe Brody is a nuclear safety expert; his son attempts to diffuse a nuclear bomb at the end; individually, they fail, but united (at least insofar as Godzilla represents Joe), they succeed.
Sure, the getting-back-to-my-family story line is banal, but it serves a function as a microcosm of the larger problem: nuclear radiation has not only upset the balance of nature on a large scale, but also split the nuclear family; the reuniting of Ford’s family is a small scale symbol of the restoration of balance.
One last point (I can hear you sighing, “Finally!”). Ryfle objects to the conclusion of GODZILLA, which sees the purloined warhead detonating harmlessly out to sea, with no threat of sickness from what should be massive fall-out. This is clearly in line with America’s myopia about nucleaweapons, which we prefer to regard as high-yield explosives while we ignore the insidious effects of radiation poisoning, which continues to kill long after the smoke has cleared (a pointed made with disturbing poignancy in Honda’s film).
However, I am going to give the new film the benefit of the doubt, because it has laid the groundwork for an explanation. Earlier in the film, we learn that Dr. Serizawa and company have been nurturing the dormant MUTO because it has been absorbing the radiation from nuclear plant it destroyed; the surrounding area, which should be toxic, is actually clean.
Godzilla, like the MUTOs, feeds off radiation. After defeating his opponents, Godzilla collapses, exhausted and spent, apparently dead (in a nice touch, his fall to earth after a heroic victory mirrors Ford’s slipping into unconsciousness, the actions synchronized to once again emphasize the connection between Ford and Godzilla). The next morning, with people swarming the beach around the fallen titan, and Dr. Serizawa gazing in wonder upon what is for him the equivalent of the Holy Grail, Godzilla’s starts to breath again, rising in triumph to head back to the ocean.
I think this is why there is no danger of radiation poisoning: as the MUTO did with the radiation from the reactor, Godzilla has absorbed the fall-out from the warhead; this is what brought him back to life. As he returns to the depths from which he came, the implication is that a sort of symbiotic relationship exists between humanity and Godzilla. Just as plants live on the carbon dioxide that we exhale, purifying the atmosphere for us, Godzilla is taking our nuclear poison with him and leaving a purified world behind.
It’s not all that far removed from the ending of GODZILLA VS HEDORAH (a.k.a. GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER), whose writer-director, Yoshimitsu Banno, serves as executive producer here. The difference is that Edwards’ GODZILLA takes a potentially silly idea and presents it with a straight face, free of camp or irony. We may chuckle to ourselves after the curtain has dropped and the theatre lights go up, but while the film is actually unspooling we can enjoy the delicious experience of taking Godzilla seriously.
- I would be a little less snarky here if some of Newitz’s points were not so specious. For instance, she praises PACIFIC RIM’s “bold decisions,” such as starting the film ten years after the first appearance of the kaiju. Actually, this not so much bold as safe: it gives the film an excuse to start with monster mayhem from the very first frame, to capture audience attention before boring them with the exposition and “drama” that follow. GODZILLA is bolder in strategy, daring to tease its audience along, resisting the urge to go full-on monster mayhem from beginning to end.
- By the way, Ryfle objects to acronym, referring to the “laughably named M.U.T.O” and expressing pity that “the fine actor David Strathairn had to utter those words without chuckling.” I just want to say that MUTO sounds quite like UFO (Unidentified Flying Object, pronounced “YOU-FO”), a term coined by the U.S. military and used for decades (in official documents such as Project Bluebook) without provoking laughter.
The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast returns with Part 2 of our look at the new GODZILLA film, this time with guest Joe Sena and host Steve Biodrowski leaving the heavy thematic discussions behind to focus on the film’s strengths as joyful genre entertainment. This episode follows after 5:19.1, in which guest Steve Ryfle dissected the film’s short-comings vis-a-vis Godzilla’s history as a metaphor for nuclear destruction. Ideally, the two parts would have been synthesized into a single podcast, as they balance each other nicely; unfortunately, scheduling and technical difficulties presented this. If possibly, we recommend you listen to them back-to-back.
Capsule commentary, with clips and trailers, for GODZILLA. Read the full review here.