Shin Ultraman (2023)

Just as the original Godzilla series quickly backslid from heartbreaking political allegory to novelty children’s fluff, Hideaki Anno’s Shin Godzilla franchise starter has already made way for quirky kitsch in its immediate follow-up – Shin Ultraman.  I could not be happier about it.  While Shin Godzilla is the smarter, more thematically purposeful film, Shin Ultraman is the more fun, breezy, rewatchable one.  It continues Shin Godzilla’s satirical illustration of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy in the face of a kaiju-scale threat, but that governmental buffoonery is more of a background hum here than it is the main show.  Anno’s Ultraman film—which the Neon Genesis Evangelion mastermind wrote, produced, edited and, most surprisingly, mo-capped—is more of an upbeat celebration of both sides of the human/monster divide.  It crams in tons more of the skyscraper CG monsters than Godzilla’s solo outing could manage (although the individual designs of Godzilla’s Pokémon evolutions were a major highlight in the earlier film), and it also celebrates the humans below as adorable dorks who are just trying their best in a world stacked high against them.

If Shin Ultraman echoes any of Shin Godzilla’s high-minded artistic merit (beyond a main-cast performance from Drive My Car’s Hidetoshi Nishijima), it’s in its look & pacing.  Director Shinji Higuchi shoots governmental office scenes like he’s competing with Soderbergh in full showoff mode, finding the most improbable camera angles possible to accentuate the absurdism of modern office work’s fluorescent-lit mundanity.  Anno matches that overachiever energy in the editing room, cutting between Higuchi’s off-kilter shot compositions with a distinct anime sensibility – always going 10,000% hard no matter the occasion, even when depicting paperwork.  That dynamic attention to detail makes this a formidable contender for one of the most visually impressive comedies in decades; it’s just also one of the goofiest.  Instead of trying to conjure realistic-looking CG monsters (which was never a concern in the genre’s early rubber-suit days anyway), Shin Ultraman’s kaiju creatures lean into the uncanny end of the medium. That means it will be taken less seriously than aggressively dour competitors like Gareth Edwards’s American Godzilla film from 2014, but also means it’s a lot more fun to watch.  If it resembles any big-name kaiju movie from the past couple decades, it’s the goofball free-for-all Big Man Japan, which is at least a comparison that does it a lot of favors.

Story-wise, Shin Ultraman returns its titular space alien superhero to his children’s TV roots, pitting him against a series of skyscraper monsters in a consistent episodic rhythm.  Ultraman walks among us in a barely concealed Clark Kent disguise, powering up to kaiju scale whenever another post-Godzilla CG monster emerges to tear up Japanese cities & countryside.  His Earth-saving superheroics are even scored by a tin-canny mix of 60s throwback stock music presumably lifted from the original Ultraman series.  It’s a familiar formula for anyone old enough to remember a pre-MCU media landscape, but in the 2020s its vintage earnestness feels remarkably refreshing.  Ultraman is genuinely fascinated with the go-getter exuberance of the human spirit—especially when threatened by impossible odds—and, by extension, so is the film.  The hook of seeing Shin Ultraman big & loud at the theater is in the promise of weird-looking CG monsters doing battle over miniature cities while shooting laser beams out of their eyes, hands, and mouths.  Once your butt is in the seat, though, the real show is in its celebration of humanity’s adorable perseverance & naivete.  It can’t help but feel a little frivolous in comparison to the political cynicism of Shin Godzilla, then, but that unashamed frivolity is incredibly endearing.

Maybe I’m making Shin Ultraman sound like disposable kids’ fluff here, and in some ways maybe it is.  Its plot machinations surrounding intergalactic superweapons that can transform human beings into kaiju-scale war drones and Ultraman’s superheroic sacrifice in merging his alien DNA with a human’s are all old-hat comic book nonsense.  I’d much rather watch earnest nonsense like this than its ironic callbacks in post-modern works like Big Man Japan & Psycho Goreman, though, which borrow from the pop art beauty of its vintage kitsch but are too embarrassed to be mistaken for the genuine thing.  There’s plenty “adult” material lurking under this film’s Saturday Morning Cartoon surface too – from the governmental bureaucracy satire to the CG psychedelia to the momentary indulgences in sexual fetishism (including some especially shameless pandering to the giantess community).  They’re just not the main draw.  Shin Ultraman is a delight precisely because of its childlike exuberance, which is just as fitting to its titular alien hero’s television origins as Shin Godzilla’s political cynicism is to the original Gojira.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: The X from Outer Space (1967) on the We Love to Watch Podcast

I recently returned as a guest on the We Love to Watch podcast to discuss the adorably jazzy kaiju space adventure The X from Outer Space, as part of the show’s ongoing “Size Does Matter” theme month.

Aaron & Peter were kind to invite me back after previous discussions of Brigsby Bear (2017), Dagon (2001), The Fly (1958), and Xanadu (1980). It’s always a blast to guest on their podcast, since I also listen as a fan. Their show is wonderfully in sync with the enthusiasm & sincerity we try to maintain on this site (especially when covering so-called “bad movies”), so I highly recommend digging through old episodes & clips on the We Love to Watch blog if you haven’t already. And, of course, please start by giving a listen to their episode on The X from Outer Space below.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974)

I was initially careful not to divulge too many third-act details when reviewing Godzilla vs Kong, but it’s been an entire year since it first premiered so I don’t mind spoiling it now.  The only reason Adam Wingard’s kaiju smash-em-up is the best American Godzilla film to date is that the monster fights promised in its title felt exceptionally tactile & novel for a modern CG blockbuster.  And what really launched those fights over the top was the WrestleMania-style surprise entrance of Godzilla’s mechanized doppelgänger Mechagodzilla in the third act, injecting an excessive rush of adrenaline into a movie was already plenty entertaining before the bionic monster’s arrival.  The delight of that last-minute surprise really leaves audiences on a fist-pumping high, forgiving all the mundane humans-on-the-ground storytelling it takes to get there.

Looking back at the delightful surprise of Mechagodzilla’s most recent onscreen appearance, I can’t help but wonder if the robo-monster should always be presented as a last-minute swerve.  At the very least, I can say for certain that its first franchise appearance in 1974’s Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla would’ve been greatly improved if its existence weren’t teased in the title & poster.  There’s a brief, glorious moment in the film when Godzilla is being framed for mayhem he didn’t commit by the mechanized imposter, frustrated that other kaiju and the citizens below believe he has turned heel.  The film could have been an all-time classic if that conflict was allowed to drive the plot, delaying the reveal of the “space titanium” under the faux-Godzilla’s “skin” as late in the runtime as possible instead of immediately degloving it.  Basically, I wish Mechagodzilla was the Gene Parmesan of the series.

There is plenty of novelty to be found elsewhere in Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla without that surprise reveal.  While Mechagodzilla is almost always a manmade weapon in subsequent films (including in Godzilla vs Kong), it arrives on Earth as space alien tech in its first appearance.  The sub-James Bond espionage antics that thwart that alien plot can be a little dull (an unfortunate holdover from the previous entry in the franchise, Godzilla vs Megalon).  The aliens themselves are amusing knockoffs of the Planet of the Apes creature designs, though, which adds a post-modern mash-up quality to the premise.  The film also doesn’t entirely rely on the novelty of Mechagodzilla to freshen up its monster roster.  It also features appearances from Anguirus (a spiky armadillo) and King Caesar (a personified Shisa statue) in its Royal Rumble rollout of surprise combatants.  It’s a fun picture as is, even if it had much greater potential as a kaiju whodunnit.

To be fair, I’m not sure Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla needed to be especially novel to be worthwhile, considering that it was already arriving fourteen films deep into the Godzilla canon.  Fifty years and twenty-two Godzilla movies later, there have been plenty of boring, uninspired kaiju duds with way less to offer than this standard-issue monster flick.  At the very least, it attempts to establish its own playful sense of style between the kaiju battles in its cave-painting illustrations, Brady Bunch news-report grids, and double-exposure shots of religious prophecies.  It’s no Godzilla vs Hedorah in that respect, but few movies are.  Most importantly, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla gets by on the exact same merits that made Godzilla vs Kong such a delight: the inherent entertainment value of its pro-wrestling style kaiju fights (which are often shockingly bloody in this case, imagery that was often softened in its American edits).  I just can’t help but wish that it also held back Mechagodzilla for as long as possible in the same way Godzilla vs Kong did, though. It could have been an all-timer instead of just another good’n.

-Brandon Ledet

The Photocopied Mayhem of Monster Island Entertainment

I’ve been long-overdue for a nostalgia-check rewatch of the 1998 Godzilla film, directed by notorious Hollywood dingus Roland Emmerich.  Since it was the first fully American Godzilla production, the hype leading up to that film’s release was immense and—a child at the time—I bought into all of it: the tie-in Saturday morning cartoon, the rap-rock soundtrack CD, the Taco Bell-exclusive merchandise, all of it.  The film was a critical flop and a commercial disappointment, but I was young enough (and offline enough) to remain blissfully unaware of its reputation as the biggest embarrassment to-date in Godzilla’s 30+ film franchise.  That tainted rep has been difficult to ignore in recent years, though, as other 90s Kid™ nostalgia traps like Mortal Kombat, Space Jam, and Spice World have enjoyed retroactive critical appraisal from goofball Millennials (myself included, on all three counts) while Godzilla ’98 has maintained its cultural standing as one of the worst blockbuster misfires of all time.  I had to revisit the film to see for myself whether it was the monstrously entertaining creature feature I remembered watching as a kid or the putrid, bloated travesty everyone else reports it to be.  As per usual, the truth is that it falls somewhere between those two extremes.

The 1998 Godzilla isn’t especially horrendous nor especially great by any particular metric; it’s passably entertaining for a goofball blockbuster spectacle marketed almost exclusively to children.  I honestly believe that the film would’ve been remembered fondly if it had just been a dinosaurs-attacking-NYC movie instead of dragging Godzilla’s name into its CGI buffoonery, since the creature’s legendary run with Toho set an expectation it was never going to meet.  A $100mil Roland Emmerich production was never going to sincerely grapple with the post-nuclear emotional devastation of the original 1954 Godzilla, nor was it ever going to indulge in the wildly imaginative free-for-all of weirdo outliers like 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah.  It basically just uses the Godzilla name as an excuse to stage one-off, city-crushing gags with a square-jawed T-Rex that has practically nothing to do with the creature’s post-War Japanese origins.  I can see how that half-hearted appropriation of the Godzilla legacy was insulting to adult fans of the original Toho series, but I can also personally report that it did not matter at all to the dipshit 12-year-olds the movie was marketed to, at least not while we enjoyed watching a CGI NYC get smashed up real good by a giant dino.  In retrospect, both sides of that level-headed critical divide were likely exaggerated responses to what the film could and did deliver.

The reason I’m suggesting that Godzilla ’98 might’ve fared better as a dino invasion movie is because that’s where it’s heart clearly was anyway.  It borrows practically all its ideas, images, and musical cues from the first two Jurassic Park movies, announcing its intention to outdo the iconic Spielberg series in an early teaser ad that showed Godzilla’s gigantic foot crushing the museum-residing skeleton of a T-Rex.  It recreates the first Jurassic Park‘s raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence, its street race T-Rex chase, and even its gender-reveal pregnancy twist – all ported over to the city-invasion context of The Lost World.  Tri-Star Pictures could’ve saved a lot of money and a lot of critical grief if it had just set gigantic dinosaurs loose in modern Manhattan instead of bothering to license the Godzilla name.  The film is basically an overly expensive mockbuster version of what Jurassic Park had already accomplished, except with a novelty urban setting that adds a fun new bubblegum flavor to the mayhem (like the gag where the central group of heroic New Yorkers drive a Yellow Taxi cab directly out of Godzilla’s mouth onto the Brooklyn Bridge).  What’s amusing about Godzilla‘s function as a shameless Jurassic Park knockoff is that it was a big enough production to inspire its own parasitic mockbusters – copies of a copy.

Enter notorious schlockteur Charles Band, whose long-running exploitation enterprise Full Moon Features was no stranger to producing straight-to-VHS, proto-Asylum mockbusters of legitimate Hollywood films.  Smelling chum in the water as soon as Godzilla‘s production was announced in the mid-90s, Full Moon rushed to establish a kaiju-themed sub-label called Monster Island Pictures, offering kid-friendly, straight-to-VHS alternatives to the incoming Roland Emmerich behemoth.  As the major-studio Godzilla film failed to produce its own sequels, Full Moon’s Monster Island Entertainment also failed to sustain itself long-term – throwing in the towel after just two films.  It’s safe to say that neither 1996’s Zarkorr! The Invader nor 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster had much of an impact of the pop culture landscape at large, only registering with the naive, kaiju-hungry children who happened to rent them from video stores at the height of Godzilla fever.  In retrospect, however, they hold a kind of vintage kitsch appeal as lost 90s Kids™ relics.  They’re the exact kind of real-deal VHS schlock ephemera that now gets ironically spoofed in retro throwbacks like PG: Psycho Goreman but rarely get revisited in earnest.  I couldn’t help but fall further down that Godzilla mockbuster rabbit hole myself, though, especially since they’re also the exact kind of cultural runoff that’s readily streaming for free on Tubi.

Although Kraa! The Sea Monster was the Monster Island Entertainment title released the same year as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Zarkorr! The Invader is the one that feels like its direct knockoff.  The titular Zarkorr is a gigantic reptile with magical fire breath and metal-on-metal roars, which makes him pretty indistinct as a Godzilla alternative.  All the film’s city-crushing monster action is fairly limp as a result, despite the inherent cuteness of a rubber-suit dragon creature stomping down a dinky miniature of Newark, NJ.  Thankfully, the film does indulge in plenty of goofy Charles Bandian bullshit outside of those tedious monster attacks, even if it’s not quite enough to make up for the giant-reptile mediocrity.  Its on-the-ground humans plot involves a gone-postal mailman who’s selected by an invading alien race for a kaiju-themed experiment specifically because he’s the most Average man alive.  As a test of humanity’s collective wit & resolve, its most unremarkable specimen is alone tasked with the destruction of the dragonlike Zarkorr, who’s stomping his way to the man’s shitty New Jersey apartment for an inevitable showdown.  The Charles Band-specific novelty of that set-up is in the presentation of the aliens’ message, which is delivered by a doll-sized Valley Girl teenager on a set with jumbo-scaled prop kitchenware.  That familiar Full Moon obsession with dolls & miniatures doesn’t do much to jazz up Zarkorr’s mediocre kaiju mayhem, but it’s at least a momentary distraction from the tedium.

Monster Island Entertainment didn’t really go off the rails with its Godzilla mockbusters until 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster, which feels more like a pilot for a Power Rangers-style action series than it does a proper kaiju film.  Its plotting is deliciously, deliriously inane.  A space warmonger named Lord Doom (costumed to look like Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom, naturally) sends the kaiju-scale fish monster “Kraa The Warbeast” to Earth to steal the planet’s warmth so his own homeworld doesn’t freeze into oblivion.  Earth’s only protectors are a small crew of Power Rangers-style space cops who lurk just outside of orbit but cannot reach the planet’s surface due to a malfunctioning spaceship.  They have no choice but to enlist on-the-ground help from a wisecracking crab creature with an obnoxious Italian accent, their only nearby agent who can pitch in to stop Kraa before it’s too late.  The kid-friendly punchlines and visual gags are just as eyeroll-worthy in Kraa! as they are in Zarkorr!, but the fanged-fish kaiju design and deranged Full Moonian plotting go much further in distinguishing it as a stand-alone novelty.  If it weren’t for its rushed-to-market 1998 release date and its Monster Island Entertainment production title, you might not even recognize it as a Godzilla mockbuster; it’s its own uniquely goofy thing, which is more than you can say about Emmerich’s extensively market-tested Jurassic Park knockoff.

The most sublime moment in this entire trio of photocopied kaiju novelties can, of course, be found in Kraa! The Sea Monster.  During the first monster attack, Kraa takes the time to destroy a building that prominently features a billboard advertisement for the 1998 Godzilla, starting with a close-up shot of the better-funded film’s iconic logo before it’s ripped to shreds by the rubber-suited fish monster.  In another meta-referential visual gag, Kraa! The Sea Monster spotlights a theatre marquee advertising a screening of Zarkorr! The Invader.  The best any of these three films could hope to accomplish is as a memorably goofy byproduct of corporate synergy.  I had fun revisiting a few individual gags in the 1998 Godzilla film, but none are as fun to think about or revisit as the film’s extratextual tie-in marketing, where Godzilla squares off against the likes of Puff Daddy, Charles Barkley, or the Taco Bell chihuahua to cash in on the momentary kaiju craze it stirred up in American pop culture.  As a shameless exploitation filmmaker of the lowest order, Charles Band inherently understood the novelty value of that kind of pop culture cross-over synergy, something his Monster Island Entertainment sub-label pushed to its goofiest extreme with Kraa! The Sea Monster.  None of these movies are essential viewing, but Kraa! is the one that’s the most honest & playful with its kaiju mockbuster appeal.  To match those dubious creative heights, Godzilla ’98 would’ve had to fully commit to a Jurassic Central Park premise it was too timid to openly indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

Lagniappe Podcast: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, BoomerBrandon, and Alli discuss the psychedelic kaiju classic Godzilla vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, 1971).

00:00 Welcome

01:20 Guy Maddin
02:30 White Rock (1977)
04:28 Ariel (1988)
07:10 Return to Oz (1985)
09:55 Logan Lucky (2017)
10:50 The New Mutants (2020)
14:40 Mr. Roosevelt (2017)
20:25 Starstruck (1982)
32:30 Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
36:22 Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

41:20 Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– The Lagniappe Podcast Crew

Godzilla vs Megalon (1973)

The last time WrestleMania came through New Orleans, I indulged in a few of the smaller satellite shows that popped up around the city, including one put on by an extremely nerdy promotion out of NYC called Kaiju Big Battel.  Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium after midnight, watching a kaiju-themed wrestling show with a shockingly sober, wholesome crowd, was a one-of-a-kind delight — an experience I doubt I’ll ever be able to fully replicate.  The wrestlers were mostly costumed in giant plush outfits—dressed as hamburgers, 1950s robots, literal dust bunnies, and cans of soup—smashing each other into the cardboard cities that decorated the ring they used as a goofball playground.  I guess it’s possible to take an unfavorable view of an American company boiling down the kaiju genre to such broadly silly terms, considering its heartbreaking origins as an expression of post-nuclear Japanese national grief in the original Godzilla.  However, the further I dig into the Godzilla canon in recent months, the more I’m starting to realize just how faithful the Kaiju Big Battel brand of novelty wrestling is to its Godzilla roots; it’s just calling back to a later, decidedly kid-friendly era of Godzilla filmmaking detached from the giant lizard’s grim-as-fuck origins.

If there’s any one Godzilla movie that could be blamed for cheapening the monster’s brand with broadly silly slapstick comedy, it’s likely Godzilla vs Megalon.  Thanks to an ugly pan-and-scan transfer with an English dub that was allowed to temporarily slip into the public domain, it’s the Shōwa era Godzilla film that was most widely available to the American public for decades — lurking in creature-of-the-week television broadcasts, gas station DVD bargain bins, and MST3k target practice.  Godzilla vs Megalon appears to have a dire reputation as a result, diluting the larger Godzilla brand with misconceptions that the series was always dirt-cheap and aimed at little kids’ sensibilities.  I can’t personally attest to the quality of that much-seen pan-and-scan edit of Godzilla vs Megalon, but the Criterion restoration that’s currently steaming online is both beautifully colorful and wonderfully goofy. It was obviously a rushed, cheap production, but the kaiju battles have a distinct pro wrestling charm to them that makes for great late-night viewing, transporting me back to that Kaiju Big Battel show in the best way possible.  I can’t say the movie doesn’t deserve its reputation as the bottom of the kaiju media barrel, but now that the more important, prestigious Godzilla films are widely available in their original form, I think there’s a lot more room for audiences to appreciate the film’s delirious, Saturday Morning Cartoon silliness for what it is.

The humans-on-the-ground plot of Godzilla vs Megalon feels like repurposed scenes from a 1970s live-action Disney espionage comedy, by which I mean they’re not very memorable or worthy of discussion.  What’s really worth paying attention to here is the pro wrestling booking of the monster fights.  The film is a tag team match.  In one corner, we have the debut (and final) match of Megalon, a profoundly idiotic beetle worshiped by the underwater occultists of Seatopia.  In the other corner, we have the movie’s face: Jet Jaguar, an Ultraman rip-off robot with an insanely wide grin — also appearing in his debut (and final) match.  Neither contender is enough of a draw to carry the movie on their own, so they’re paired with charismatic tag team partners to help get them over with the crowd.  Megalon is paired with Gigan, a much lesser robo-Godzilla derivative than Mechagodzilla, whose non-presence essentially turns this into a squash match.  Jet Jaguar, of course, is paired with Godzilla, a legitimizing tag team partner whose popularity should have been able to forever endear his new robo-friend to children everywhere.  That proved to be an unsuccessful gamble in the long run (Jet Jaguar was never seen or heard from again), but Godzilla appears to have fun trying.  He performs here with the broadly expressive physical language of a wrestler playing to the backseats in a packed auditorium, aiming for big laughs and even bigger wrestling maneuvers that any kid should be delighted cheer on from the crowd.

To its credit, Godzilla vs Megalon does vaguely motion towards the eco-conscious concerns of larger Godzilla lore in its early goings, pitting both the kaiju and the underwater sea cult against us surface humans after our nuclear tests pollute the atmosphere.  The film isn’t earnestly about those themes, though, no more than it’s earnestly about Godzilla or Megalon.  This is Jet Jaguar’s show through & through, as evidenced by the grinning robot closing out the show with his own badass theme song — the same way pro wrestlers replay their entrance music while they lift newly-won championship belts in victory.  Jet Jaguar was created specifically for the film as contest entry from a small child (explaining the not-so-vague resemblance to Ultraman), which is a pretty blatant excuse to sell new kaiju toys & merch.  Because the production was rushed, underfunded, and marketed specifically at little kids’ sensibilities, there isn’t much destruction of towns or cities (outside some crudely inserted stock footage from better-funded Godzilla films), so most of the monster action is staged in an open field, away from the necessity of expensive miniatures.  The result is basically the movie version of Kaiju Big Battel: dudes in goofy costumes body slamming each other in fits of broad, slapstick humor.  It sucks that the kaiju genre was once only associated with that kind of silly novelty entertainment, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, especially now that the more serious end of the genre is more widely respected and readily accessible.

-Brandon Ledet

Ape vs Monster (2021)

Between the Shōwa era Godzilla films becoming widely available for home streaming via The Criterion Channel & HBO Max and Adam Wingard finally delivering a decent MonsterVerse film in Godzilla vs Kong, I’ve caught a touch of kaiju fever this year.  Whenever I’m soul-tired and not sure what to watch, I find myself throwing on a giant monster movie to blankly stare at, the same way a lot of pandemic-fatigued audiences have been looping old episodes of The Office & Friends ad infinitum.  It’s hasn’t exactly been a bad or unhealthy coping mechanism as far as I can tell, but I will say I hit a new low in the indulgence recently when I watched the generically titled Ape vs Monster.  A rushed, made-for-TV cash-in on the Godzilla vs Kong box office success, Ape vs Monster has absolutely no redeeming qualities worthy of discussion besides the temporary novelty of watching two more CG creatures fight for my half-interested “amusement”.  I wish I could say I didn’t enjoy the experience.

A chimpanzee launched into space as a failed Cold War science experiment crash-lands back to Earth decades later, covered in a glowing green ooze that exponentially mutates it to kaiju-size.  A nearby Gila monster drinks the same ooze (intercut with the same insert shots of the moon looking spooky over their shared desertscape setting) and grows to the same towering scale.  They fight.  Meanwhile, lady scientists and macho military men bicker at the creatures’ feet about the ethics of euthanizing them before the fight changes venue to a nearby city.  One of the scientists also reconnects with her estranged father for a vague motion towards pathos, but who in the audience could possibly care?

Ape vs Monster is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a made-for-TV Asylum mockbuster “starring” Eric Roberts, at least in terms of its unenthused tone, awkwardly performed dialogue, and lingering shots of nothing that long outstay their welcome to stretch out the runtime.  Still, there is something special about its slapdash kaiju creature effects.  The studio’s cheap-o CGI has an absurdist cut & paste aesthetic to it that’s difficult to look at directly without your brain leaking out of your nose.  The Gila monster looks like a discarded video game prototype adapted from the American Godzilla film from 1998.  Meanwhile, the ape monster doesn’t look like anything in particular, and the longer you stare at its awkward magnificence the less its primatial design makes any sense.  Watching the two computerized abominations struggle to make tactile, physical contact is like trying to explain the finer details of a half-remembered dream; the audience doesn’t actually care, but that doesn’t make it any less surreal.

If anything has become clear to me as I’ve been indulging in disposable kaiju novelties in recent months, it’s that I don’t need much out of a movie to enjoy myself beyond a goofy-looking onscreen monster.  That’s clearly the only saving grace of Ape vs Monster, which delivers two fascinating-looking goofballs and not much else.  The movie does have the gall to tease a queer-bait romance shared between lady scientists on opposite sides of an ongoing Cold War, but it’s frustratingly uninterested in following through with that impulse.  I even thought I was mistaking the Russian character’s sultry accent for queer tension at first, until one of the would-be couple’s macho military-man adversaries complains “Those two seem . . . unusually chummy.”  If it had committed to staging a lesbian romance at the feet of its disgraceful CG kaiju creatures, it might have had something special on its hands.  As is, it’s thoroughly unremarkable beyond the accidental surrealism of its monster designs, which is only to be enjoyed by the easily amused — i.e. me.

-Brandon Ledet

Mothra vs Godzilla vs Godzilla vs Mothra

Keeping track of which titles are available to stream on what platform when is a constant struggle for sub-professional movie nerds.  This has been doubly true in the past year, where the COVID-19 pandemic has blurred & warped the traditional theatrical window into near oblivion.  That might explain how I showed up to HBO Max intending to watch the new Godzilla vs Kong film a week early, confusing the date of its Chinese market theatrical debut for the date it was supposed to start streaming on HBO Max in America.  Getting jazzed to watch a big-budget kaiju spectacle only to discover I’d have to keep that excitement on ice for an entire week was a letdown, and I was determined to do something with my giant-monster energy in that moment of panic so as not to waste it.  I needed to watch Godzilla fight a formidable foe that night, so I scrambled to come up with which opponent would be a worthy replacement for the mighty Kong.  The answer was immediately obvious, as the last time I saw Godzilla breathe atomic fire in 2019’s King of the Monsters re-sparked my interest in the mystical femme kaiju Mothra, who I’ve seen in too few of her own onscreen epic battles.

Choosing to watch Godzilla battle Mothra might’ve been a quick, easy decision, but it immediately led to another, trickier what-to-stream crisis.  Having appeared in 15 feature films to date, Mothra is second only to Godzilla in her number of onscreen battles in the sprawling Zillaverse.  Whittling down the list of options from there was a complicated process.  I removed titles where Mothra appeared on her lonesome, terrorizing only the puny, Earth-polluting humans in her path.  I was looking for a fair fight.  I then discarded titles like Destroy All Monsters & Giant Monsters: All Out Attack where Mothra had to share the screen with the dozens of other kaiju baddies who have beef with the King of the Monsters.  That left me with two clear contenders for the perfect Godzilla vs Mothra match-up, which should’ve been obvious by their titles alone: 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla and 1992’s Godzilla vs. Mothra. Choosing between the two of them was essentially a coin-toss—given their near-identical titles—so I did the only sensible thing: I watched both.  And they were both great.  All I can really do here is attempt to distinguish them from one another in case someone else finds themselves in that hyper-specific scenario – wanting to watch Godzilla fight Mothra and having to make a snap decision on where to satisfy their kaiju craving.

The 1964 film Mothra vs Godzilla is the platonic ideal of what you’d want out of a retro kaiju battle film.  A beloved classic from Godzilla’s Shōwa era, it’s earned both populist praise as a fun action romp featuring two of the greatest movie monsters of all time and the recent stamp of approval from The Criterion Collection as a culturally significant work of Art.  In the movie, Godzilla is a monstrous personification of nuclear waste & coastal erosion who can only be vanquished by the righteous Earth-protector Mothra.  Only, the corporate greed of the smiling chumps at Happy Enterprises make Mothra question whether humanity is worth saving at all.  The foot-tall fairy women from Infant Island who represent Mothra’s wishes (as Happy Enterprises jokingly declare have “the power of attorney” over the beast)—and can summon her in song—eventually broker a deal for Mothra (and her freshly-hatched larvae) to fight Godzilla to protect humanity for destruction.  In the ensuing battle, she flaps up punishing winds with her wings, puffs out a poisonous pollen, and drags Godzilla around by his tail until he retreats back into the ocean.  It’s wonderful.  The entire movie is a pure, kitschy delight, registering as the Godzilla equivalent of The Bride of Frankenstein in its balance between cutesy humor and retro terror.

1992’s Godzilla vs Mothra (marketed in America as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth) is a little clunkier in its build-up to its titular monster battle, even though it repeats most of the 1964 film’s broader details.  The Infant Island fairy women (originally played by The Peanuts) may have been replaced by a new generation of foot-tall mystic beauties called The Cosmos and the easy-target villain Happy Enterprises may have been replaced by the hubris & pollution of Humanity as a species, but story-wise Godzilla vs Mothra is near-identical to Mothra vs Godzilla, just as it is in title.  Only, it delays that traditional story with some hokey Indiana Jones-style adventurism and the crash of a CGI asteroid in its early goings, needlessly inflating its runtime.  That unnecessary delay may mean that Mothra vs. Godzilla ’64 is the better film overall, but once it fully unleashes its monster mayhem Godzilla vs. Mothra ’92 has much more exciting kaiju fights, which is a pretty major qualifier.  Mothra fully emerges into battle about an hour into the film in a cloud of poisonous, glittering pollen, and attacks Godzilla with sparks, lasers, and underwater brawling in a huge step up from her original move set.  She’s also teamed up with a goth frenemy named Battra (decorated with Guy Fieri flame decals on its wings) who adds an entire new dynamic to the titular fight.  Together, they shock Godzilla into submission, smash a Ferris wheel into him, and ultimately, as the kids would say, “throw the entire man away” as a team.

I’m not enough of an expert in the kaiju battle genre to declare a clear victor here.  All I can report is that the two Godzilla vs. Mothra films have their own distinct flavors despite the ways they overlap in narrative and lore.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) is a perfectly calibrated rubber-monster creature feature from start to end, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of surprise in what you’d expect from a Shōwa era kaiju picture starring these particular two monsters.  By contrast, Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992) is a much more uneven picture that spends a little too much time building up to its creature-feature payoffs.  However, its actual kaiju battle scenes are much more exciting than its predecessor’s, staging absolutely gorgeous rubber-monster battles within the hyper-femme color palette of a teen girl’s bedroom.  Choosing between the two movies is no easier now that I’ve watched them both, so my selection process would have to revert to the kinds of arbitrary filters that narrowed down my field of options in the first place.  Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64) is ten minutes shorter, currently streaming in HD, and carries the art-film prestige of Criterion Collection canonization.  It wins by default, but Godzilla vs. Mothra (’92) put up a hell of a fight.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

The X from Outer Space (1967)

The standard complaint about most kaiju movies is that they feature too much human-to-human interaction and too little Giant Monster action. There has never been a single Godzilla movie that hasn’t suffered complaints that there wasn’t enough Godzilla in it, regardless of how that true that is in its specific case. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a pure 100% Monster Action kaiju movie would almost certainly be a repetitive bore. Yes, the heavy metal imagery & cheap-thrills payoffs of watching a giant creature smash buildings to crumbs is inherently more exciting than listening to scientific government types cook up a plan to stop it (expect maybe in the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla), but if kaiju movies didn’t break that mayhem up with something, the spectacle would quickly become a monotonous bore.

What I love most about The X from Outer Space is that it breaks up its Monster Mayhem spectacle with so much on-the-ground human drama that it feels as if it’s actively trolling its audience. If it weren’t for the monster on the poster, there’d be no implication that this was a kaiju movie during its opening hour, two-thirds of its total runtime. In the meantime, the movie putters around outer space to a snazzy samba score – like a hip, jazzy update to vintage Flash Gordon radio serials with a (mostly) Japanese cast. There are a few run-ins with “space sickness,” love-triangle melodrama, and a UFO that’s shaped like a glowing pot pie to drum up some conflict before the monster arrives, but it all registers as lighthearted fluff – deliberately so. By the time the film’s doomed space crew pauses their mission for a fun, carefree holiday at their company’s moon base it’s clear no one is in a rush to fight off any giant monsters, at least not while the party vibes are still alive.

Once “the space monster Guilala” does hatch from its space-spore incubator, he does go full Monster Mayhem on any and all Japanese infrastructure he can smash by hand, laser beam, and fireball. By saving all its kaiju spectacle payoffs for its final half hour, The X from Outer Space can afford to allow Guilala to rampage on uninterrupted for long stretches, as there’s little time for his mayhem to backslide into monotony. Even then, the character design for Guilala has too much Big Goofball energy to be taken fully seriously – falling somewhere between the dorky giant-bird looks of Big Bird, The Giant Claw, and Q: The Winged Serpent. His motivation for smashing up Japanese infrastructure is that he’s just a little hangry. The fictional compound the space cadets synthesize to stop that temper tantrum is somehow even sillier than his motivator: guilalanium. Watching Guilala smash the miniature sets beneath him is absolutely adorable, which might not be the exact effect most kaiju movies are aiming for.

The X from Outer Space is too purposefully, flippantly campy to be taken seriously as the pinnacle of the kaiju genre (at least not while Godzilla vs. Hedorah outshines it in every conceivable way). Between its adorable miniature space rockets, its goofball bird monster, and its willingness to pause any conflict for a jazzy soiree, the movie’s overall tone is decidedly Cute. The movie only makes vague gestures towards the Horrors of the Atomic Age that usually concern the genre, while it mostly busies itself by having a swinging good time. Still, I do think there’s something to the peculiar way it withholds all of its kaiju action for its third act, where it unloads its rubber-suit monster mayhem in one continuous, concluding flood. That choice sidesteps the usual complaint about lack of kaiju action in kaiju movies by leaving the audience with the strongest dose of the stuff at the very end, making for a potent final impression. This particular kaiju action just happens to be very, very goofy – adorably so.

-Brandon Ledet