The End of Evangelion (1997)

As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).

The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.

Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.

I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.

Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno­­ accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno­­ himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

Director Michael Dougherty has gradually made a name for himself in genre nerd circles over the past decade with just three feature films. I can say without a doubt that his biggest budget, highest profile release is the worst of the bunch so far. Lacking the perversely dark humor of his cult classic horror anthology Trick ‘r Treat and the delirious camp of his Christmastime fairy tale Krampus, Godzilla: King of the Monsters displays none of the personality or wit that has earned him goodwill among horror aficionados over the years. Even as Dougherty’s least interesting release to date, however, I still found King of the Monsters to be entraining enough as a big-budget monster flick on its own terms. In fact, I’d even argue that it’s the best entry in its kaiju-revival franchise’s recent run, which began with Gareth Edwards’s “post-human” blockbuster Godzilla in 2014 and continued with the Vietnam War Movie parody Kong: Skull Island in 2016. Whereas Edwards’s Godzilla was punishingly dour & sidelined its own titular monster until the last minute and Skull Island indulged in frequent but short bursts of monster action with no dramatic heft to them at all, Dougherty’s follow-up finds a nice balance between the two approaches. He may have only stumbled into a decent-enough monster movie through the Goldilocks method of finding the perfect temperature for porridge that was already made before he arrived, but hopefully that accidental success will help fund more interesting projects from him in the future – like a Trick ‘r Treat 2.

The standard complaint for all modern Godzilla moves is that they don’t feature nearly enough screentime for Godzilla. It’s as if people are misremembering early entries in the franchise as being all-out monster action from start to end (which they never were). There is plenty else to complain about in King of the Monsters, but I feel like balancing screentime between monster action and human drama is the one thing the film happened to get right. It’s a pretty major detail to nail, at least, and a significant factor in why the film is not a total waste. Dougherty & company take a Pokémon-type approach here in collecting all our favorite skyscraper-scale yokai for lengthy onscreen battles that are only occasionally interrupted by the tedious humans who witness them. Relying on Skull Island & the 2014 Godzilla to justify the indulgence, the film operates in a world where there are seventeen (and counting) kaiju positioned all over the globe, hibernating until it is their turn to battle for our entertainment. Mothra gets an armored makeover, but is still allowed to be a majestic beauty; Rodan looks like a flaming update to the goofball vulture from The Giant Claw; Ghidorah is bathed in a metal-as-fuck swirl of dark clouds & lighting, so that every frame where he’s featured could pass as an 80s-thrash album cover. It almost doesn’t matter how often Godzilla himself appears on the screen, since he has plenty company amongst his loyal (and disloyal) monster subjects. The bare minimum a Godzilla movie must achieve to be worthwhile is striking a proper balance between its human and giant-monster characters. King of the of the Monsters excels only at that singular metric, but the accomplishment is enough to allow it to skate by elsewhere.

I have nothing especially urgent to say about the film’s human characters or its themes of nuclear pollution, since every detail outside the monster action is so thin & half-hearted that it immediately slips through your fingers. From a movie industry standpoint, I suppose it’s interesting that any film with a cast this saturated with familiar faces would’ve been an automatic box office smash in the 90s blockbuster days of megaproducers like Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay. If nothing else, central actors from two of the most widely obsessed-over television shows of the decade (Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things & Charles Dance from Game of Thrones) star in substantial roles and were featured heavily in the film’s advertisement but failed to draw in wide audiences in droves. I suppose you could use that failing as evidence that star power no longer means anything in Hollywood filmmaking, but the truth is that it’s never meant anything in Godzilla films in particular. This franchise lives & dies by the quality & frequency of its monster action, and King of the Monsters tests the limits of that dictum by wasting zero effort on anything else besides collecting various kaiju & parading them around for our entertainment. I had the same reaction gazing at these gigantic, destructive creatures as I did watching the parade of pint-sized cuties in Detective Pikachu – mild, adequate amusement. The only difference is that I’d describe the monsters here as “badass” instead of “adorable,” give or take a Rodan. It’s understandable to want something more from Michael Dougherty after the precedent he set with his two previous, superior films, but I also don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to calculate the exact right amount of kaiju action to include in your kaiju film. No matter what, people will always complain that there wasn’t enough, but I do think King of the Monsters got it right.

-Brandon Ledet

Son of Kong (1933)

Most discussions of cheap cash-in horror sequels are framed as if they were a phenomenon born of 70s & 80s slashers that have carried over to the modern day. The truth is that it’s a time-honored tradition almost as old as horror cinema itself. For a classic example of the shameless cash-in horror sequel, 1933’s Son of Kong serves as a fascinating specimen. Rushed to market just nine months after the 1933 creature feature classic King Kong, Son of Kong is a massive, kaiju-scale step down from masterful to cute. At a mere 70 minutes, this incredibly thin sequel aims for a lighter, more comedic tone than its predecessor to cover up the fact that it couldn’t match that picture’s scale of production. Grand sequences of stop motion spectacle depicting tribal warfare & a dinosaur stampede were cut for time & budget, leaving the film hanging without a third act. The titular monster was also a goofy echo of the original film’s infamous ape, offering audiences a cutesy, infantile version of a creature they once feared (like, less than a year earlier). Baby Kong’s adorability is almost irresistible as a novelty, though, and the film that contains him is likewise charming in its own limited, misshapen way. Like most modern horror sequels, its genuine thrills are cheap echoes of its predecessor’s former glories, but there’s something amusingly absurd about the lengths it goes to keep an already concluded story alive & open to profit.

The disappointing thing about Son of Kong is that, on a script level, it has a decent foundation for an interesting King Kong sequel. A month after the city-destroying tragedy of the previous film, Kong capturer/promotor Carl Denham is left in unfathomable debt & legal trouble for the damages caused by his now-dead super ape. It’s the logical fallout of an illogical conflict, one the movie talks itself out of as it constructs a reason for Denham to return to Skull Island to meet Kong’s orphaned baby. Exhausted by his status as a public pariah and fearful of rumored criminal indictments, Denham again sails on an explorer’s mission that leads him back to Skull Island in search of legendary (and nonexistent) treasure. There, he’s met with the consequences of his greedy transgressions in the first film: a mutinous crew that refuses to return to the dangerous island, native tribes that embargo the entrance of white colonists because of his theft, and most notably Kong’s helpless baby ape who can barely fight off the island’s other monsters as a goofball orphan with no parental projection. Denham bonds with this pitiful, adorable creature (as well as a female musician he picked up along the journey), feeling immense guilt for the harm he inadvertently caused it. The trouble is that the return of his presence on the island is still unwelcome and puts Baby Kong in just as much danger as his dead ape father.

Although the reduced shooting schedule & budget wiped out her planned third act spectacle, screenwriter Ruth Rose did a commendable job of both keeping the mood light and upping the active involvement of the female co-lead, dampening the original film’s damsel in distress dramatic impulses. The jokes are plentiful and often surprisingly funny, especially in a pure anti-comedy sequence where a musical band of trained monkeys perform for unenthused bar patrons for a relative eternity. Other deadpan reactions like “My father is dead.” “What a tough break,” and a stammering “Well, uh, captain, uh . . . about that mutiny,” also play surprisingly well as the movie often finds genuine humor without delivering outright jokes. Still, it’s difficult to determine exactly how humorous Baby Kong is intended to appear, as many of his action sequences are repeats of the exact stop-motion dino fights that served as genuine special effects spectacle in the first film. Son of Kong is essentially the opening, island-set half of King Kong without the third-act payoff of the city-destroying conclusion, except now everything is twice as goofy & half as visually impressive. The sequel unfortunately also echoed the racist impulses of the first, even adding to its depictions of native savages & undertones of interracial romance paranoia by introducing the character Charlie the Chinese Cook. As amusing as the film can be at any given moment, its faults are both plentiful and glaring.

Cheap sequels have long relied on audiences’ contentment (and even enthusiasm) for reliving former pleasures on a smaller scale and with a goofier flavor. Yes, the creature battles in King Kong are more technically impressive and lead to a more spectacular end, but Son of Kong still features a sequence where a giant ape fights a giant bear in an all-out brawl. Take your entertainment where you can get it. It also helps that the film is at times genuinely humorous in a way that suggests its overall camp value may be somewhat intentional (for those willing to be a little forgiving). It’s difficult to imagine looking at Baby Kong’s exaggerated, googly-eyed mug and suppose the filmmakers were looking to deliver a serious-serious masterpiece, even if is ultimate trajectory is dramatic. Comparing Son of Kong to the original King Kong does it no favors, but it still has an interesting enough premise for a sequel to a film that obviously didn’t need one. In this way, it persists as a mildly delightfully oddity, which has been more than enough to justify fandoms of other cheap, rushed horror sequels released in the decades since. At the very least, I’d like to submit the film’s musical monkeys scene as a genius stroke of proto-Tim & Eric anti-humor, a 90 second stretch of pure cinema bliss that more than justifies the rest of the film’s existence:

-Brandon Ledet

Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (2000)

The 2016 theatrical release of Shin Godzilla was an incredible experience for varied reasons: it was an excellent course corrective for a series that hit a slump with Gareth Edwards’s lumbering 2014 Godzilla film; it packed a surprisingly acidic taste of unexpected political satire among its kaiju action; Godzilla himself is always exciting to see on the big screen no matter the vehicle, etc. Most significantly, though, as an American audience, I appreciated the chance to see a Japanese Godzilla production faithfully translated in its original tone & intent on the big screen, which is a frustratingly rare experience. From the original 1950s Godzilla to the 1985 American-Japanese coproduced sequel to beyond, the standard for most Godzilla imports is for them to be heavily re-edited & altered in translation in their American dubs. In the case of Godzilla 1985 (titled Return of Godzilla in Japan), many of the scenes not involving the monster itself were swapped out with inserts of war rooms packed with American actors, completely altering the story. There’s no telling to my English-language ear what might have been lost in translation in Shin Godzilla’s journey to America, but I highly doubt that anything so egregious transpired there. It’s something I appreciated even more in retrospect when recently watching Godzilla 2000: Millennium for the first time. While the American dub of Millennium doesn’t quite substitute entire scenes with American actors like Godzilla ’85, it does drastically alter the tone & intent of the original Japanese script in a show of bad faith for the attention spans of American audiences and the inherent appeal of the original work. Shortened by nearly ten minutes and punched up with intentionally campy dialogue not included in the original script, the American release of Godzilla 2000 is yet another example of the typical fuckery this long-running franchise is subjected to in its trips across the ocean and the language barrier.

Luckily for Americans, there’s a baseline enjoyability to all Godzilla movies that transcends these bad faith translations. As the 24th entry in the franchise and the start of its own “Millennium” era, you might suspect hat Godzilla 2000 would find it necessary to change up the basic formula to keep itself fresh. Instead, this is largely the same kaiju action vehicle all Godzilla movies are, just with updated effects. Chronologically a sequel to the 1954 film, Godzilla 2000 finds its titular lizard beast returning to the shores of Tokyo to battle a mysterious UFO that has been terrorizing its people & buildings (mostly the buildings). While different organizations argue over whether Godzilla needs to be subdued or destroyed, the monster busies himself by attacking the mysterious UFO with his kaiju fire-breath, to no avail. For its part, the UFO attempts to absorb Godzilla’s DNA to steal his regeneration powers, making it possible for the alien species to adapt to life on Earth. This culminates in the UFO transforming into the (new to the series) kaiju Orga for a classic big-beast battle among Tokyo’s fragile skyscrapers. The fight is played 100% seriously, but the Humorous Dialogue surrounding it can be try-hard goofy in a way that’s difficult to earn a genuine laugh. There’s enough physical humor & basic absurdity inherent to the original Japanese cut that there’s no need for these additional wisecracks, which include a military general bragging that his missiles will “go through Godzilla like crap through a goose.” Har, har. I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of making a Godzilla film that’s shorter & campier than the series’ dead serious nuclear origins (Godzilla vs. Hedorah is my favorite in the franchise, after all), but the joke-writes on Godzilla 2000 do seem especially hokey, outside maybe the brilliance of the “Get ready to crumble” tagline. Either way, they didn’t cut any of the sweet monster action in the American release, which is a universal pleasure that can never be truly lost in translation.

As frustrating as it likely was to have its Japanese cut goofed-up for its domestic release, I’m sure it was still a massive joy to have a Godzilla picture back in American theaters in the year 2000. The few previous Toho-produced Godzilla films were straight to video affairs (I’m guessing the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla picture gave the series enough of a popularity-boost to transcend that) and kaiju movies are obviously meant to be seen as big and loud as possible. That’s largely because special effects are their main draw, whether or not films like Godzilla ’54 and Shin Godzilla back them up with Big Ideas. Special effects-wise, Millennium offers an exciting mix of the old and the new. Godzilla & Orga are still actors in rubber suits stomping around hand-built miniatures. That original-flavor special effects recipe is spiced up with a more current influence, though, particularly the matte painting & set piece spectacle of the early Spielberg era and the shoddy CGI of post-Spielberg disaster pictures. Godzilla 2000 arrived long after the 90s disaster epics wave of titles like Twister & Independence Day (not to mention Godzilla ’98’s own participation in that aesthetic), so it shouldn’t be so jarring to see Toho’s tried & true brand of Kaiju action mixed with that influence. Still, the visual references (to Twister & Independence Day particularly) are too specific and too plentiful not to stand out in this context. I’m sure that the Japanese cut of Godzilla 2000 is the superior piece of writing (and I probably should have watched it before filing this review) but even the goofed-up American version of the film retains enough visual spectacle, both in classic kaiju action & in its 90s disaster epic aesthetic, to be well worth a look. That was likely especially true for those who caught it on the big screen in its initial theatrical run. It would have been vastly preferable for Millennium to be afforded the Shin Godzilla treatment of a faithful American translation, but this is still a badass monster movie where Godzilla lays an extensive beatdown on a sky scraper-sized UFO beast. It would be near-impossible to ruin that.

-Brandon Ledet

Colossal (2017)

With his intricately-constructed time travel thriller Timecrimes, director Nacho Vigalondo found dark humor in the depths of selfishness in human self-preservation, exposing the ugliness of humanity as a species through the mechanism of a sci-fi fantasy plot. His American language debut, the kaiju-themed black comedy Colossal, shifts its genre & intended targets just slightly, but mostly repeats the trick. Through an outlandish genre film scenario, Colossal gradually strips away the veneer of polite smiles & social niceties that makes human beings appear to be kind, empathetic creatures to reveal the giant monsters lurking underneath. The destructive behavior of alcoholism & pretty selfishness in particular is giving an a measurable, kaiju-scale impact of real world damage. Much like in Timecrimes, the inner lives of Vigalondo’s characters aren’t given nearly as much attention as the implications of their actions within the larger, metaphor-heavy sci-fi plot, but the mystery of how that premise works & what it implies about the ugliness of humanity is enough to leave a lasting emotional bruise on the audience.

Anne Hathaway stars as a New York City socialite whose alcoholism finally crosses the threshold from “fun drunk” to full-on dysfunction, a conscious departure from the A-type personas she’s been saddled with since The Princess Diaries. Kicked out of the apartment she shares with an uptight boyfriend (Dan Stevens in full Matthew Crowley mode), she finds herself with few options but to move back to her small town childhood home. She’s employed as a barkeep by an egotistically sensitive childhood friend (Jason Sudeikis), which affords her way easier access to a steady stream of working class staples Jack Daniels & PBR than is likely healthy for her. The nightly blackouts that her addiction downturn sparks start to branch out from pure self-destruction to negatively affecting millions of people: namely, the city of Seoul, South Korea. Whenever our drunken anti-hero finds herself wasted in the playground near her childhood home at the crack of dawn, a corresponding kaiju appears in Seoul and mimics her exact, stumbling movements, blindly killing anyone in its path. Once these repeating scenarios become undeniably linked, she must face hungover epiphanies like, “I killed a shitload of people because I was acting like a drunk idiot again.” Getting sober & improving herself isn’t enough to solve the problem entirely, though. As soon as she starts to get her life back together, a second monster appears in Seoul, challenging her sense of control in an increasingly ugly situation.

What’s most fun about the metaphorical sci-fi plots of Vigalondo’s work is that they continue to develop & complicate after their initial reveal. It’s not enough that the connection between the protagonist’s alcoholism and the giant monster terrorizing Seoul is made explicit. The film also pushes through to explore why the playground location & time of day correspond with its appearance, why Seoul in particular is connected to her in the first place, and what is implied by the appearance of the kaiju’s robot challenger. The answers to this mystery are lazily revealed through the device of a decreasingly cloudy repressed memory, but are satisfying enough in their impact to justify the transgression. Complicating the kaiju metaphor detracts tremendously from the energy spent on potential inner conflict & emotional depth, but also expands the film’s themes beyond the selfish destruction of addiction to include crippling jealousy, the cycles of physical abuse, and a myriad of other forms of destructive behavior. By the end of Colossal you have to ask if the bigger monster is the protagonist’s addiction or the poisonous group of self-serving men that populate her life. It’s a testament to how strong the mystery & provoked themes of the central metaphor are that it doesn’t at all matter that the characters remain surface level deep. Vigalondo’s ideas are intricate, plentiful, and mercilessly cruel to the virtues of humanity enough to carry this small scale kaiju narrative on their own.

-Brandon Ledet

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

The big risk in me venturing out to see the latest King Kong reboot was that my love for loud & dumb movies about giant monsters might be crushed by my ever-growing boredom with war narratives. Kong: Skull Island made no secret of its Vietnam War cinema aesthetic in its advertising, promising to be something like an Apocalypse Now With Kaiju Primates genre mashup. The actual film is something more like Platoon With Kaiju Primates, but the effect is still the same. Skull Island‘s main hook is that it uses the traditional King Kong narrative as a thin metaphor for U.S. involvement in Vietnam (and other unwinnable, imperialistic conflicts of world-policing), declaring things like “Sometimes the enemy doesn’t exist until you’re looking for them.” It’s the same exact themes that are hammered to death across nearly all Vietnam War movies with the exact same Love The Smell of Napalm imagery (ever seen an explosion reflected in aviator sunglasses before?) and more or less the same needle drops (don’t worry if they don’t immediately play CCR; it’ll eventually happen twice). As an audience, I’m missing an essential Dad Gene that enables people to care about a very specific end of Macho Genre Cinema (including war films, submarine pictures, Westerns, and, oddly enough, the James Bond franchise). If there’s anyone out there with that Dad Gene who still enjoys the occasional Vietnam War film, they’d likely have a lot more fun with Kong: Skull Island than I did. For me, it was like someone mixed jelly into my peanut butter jar because they didn’t bother cleaning their spoon.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about Kong: Skull Island is that it amounts to less than the sum of its parts. The cast alone is a testament to a staggering waste of potential: Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson, all wasted. The movie is stacked with onscreen talent, but just about the only memorable performances delivered are from a fully committed Shea Whigham & John C. Reilly, who both pull off a tragic/comic balance in their respective roles as shell-shocked war veterans. Reilly is (rightly) getting a lot of attention in this film as a shipwrecked soldier who’s been stranded on Skull Island since WWII and is deliriously relieved to see people who share his language & culture for the first time in decades. The biggest laugh I got out of the film, though, was in watching Whigham chow down on a can of beans and casually describe his first battle with a skyscraper-sized ape as “an unconventional encounter.” The sense of wasted potential extends far beyond the immense talent of its dispassionate cast, however. Even its central hook of attempting a Vietnam Movie With A Giant Ape seems like it was handled in the blandest, least interesting way possible. Instead of writing a revisionist history where Kong is transported to Vietnam and intermingles with the soldiers on the ground, the soldiers are transported to his home, the titular Skull Island. This sets up an echo of the exact same narrative we’ve seen in nearly every version of a Kong picture. Peter Jackson’s (infinitely more passionate) version of King Kong was released just a little over a decade ago. All this one does to update it is toss in some helicopters & flamethrowers and increase the size of the titular ape.

I’m not sure a full plot description is necessary here, so I’ll try to make it quick. The day after the U.S. declares its withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, a military troop is ordered to secretly escort a geological mission to survey the once mythical Skull Island. [Scene missing: soldiers complaining that they’re being deployed instead of going home.] There’s a lengthy assembling-the-team sequence where everyone’s various motives & vulnerabilities are revealed for future significance, but no one character gets enough screentime to make any of it count for anything. Do we really need to know Brie Larson’s background as a hippie anti-war photographer to watch her blankly stare at monsters & the Northern Lights for the next 90min? Doubtful. The “geological” expedition, of course, is a betrayal, a cover-up for finding proof of a two-fold conspiracy theory: that the Earth is hollow and that giant monsters live inside it. Once discovered, King Kong is initially seen as a threat, as he attacks the military crew that bombs his home in an attempt to prove those (correct) theories. Eventually, however, it’s revealed that the gigantic ape is the protector of the island and, by extension, the world at large. He fights off & keeps at bay the other monsters that threaten to crawl out of the hollow Earth to terrorize mankind: giant spiders, squids, something John C. Reilly’s freaked out war vet calls “skull crawlers,” etc. This dynamic of Kong as a protector doesn’t really do much for the film’s central Vietnam War metaphor. It mostly just hangs in the air as a naked setup for a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, no C.H.U.D. that) cinematic universe, which is eventually supposed to link up with the most recent American Godzilla property (as opposed to the far superior Japanese one) for a pre-planned crossover film. And there you have yet another passionless blockbuster that’s a mere placeholder for a future film franchise payoff.

If I haven’t talked enough about Kong himself so far, it’s because the movie doesn’t give me much to work with. There isn’t too much new or different about the infamous beast in his most recent form. The quality of the CGI hasn’t advanced all that significantly since Jackson last tackled the property in ’05, which is kind of a big deal in the King Kong genre, going all the way back to its stop-motion animation roots in the 1930s. The ape’s gotten a lot bigger in scale (likely in preparation for his upcoming kaiju battles) and modern 3D made for an occasional moment of action cinema eye candy, but I couldn’t work up much awe or horror for the misunderstood monster, which is a problem. His inner anguish is always secondary to the soldiers’, never being afforded much of an onscreen emotional narrative outside John C. Reilly plainly informing us that he’s the last of his kind. Sacrificing the ape’s inner life for some killer kaiju battles might’ve made that thin emotional groundwork forgivable, but the giant monster violence of Kong: Skull Island is also a little lacking. In old school kaiju movies (and in more faithful throwbacks like Pacific Rim) the monsters would fight for minutes at a time, establishing pro wrestling-style narratives through the physical language of their battle sequences. Here, the fights only last for seconds at a time as we follow the human characters who navigate their paths of their destruction. Again, my disinterest with that end of the dynamic might have a lot to do with my general boredom with war movie plotting, so mileage may vary on that point. It just feels strange to me that a movie that boasts Kong’s name in the title would be so disinterested in the ape himself.

None of this is to say that Kong: Skull Island is a total disaster and an entirely joyless affair. There are some moments of monster movie mayhem that work well enough as eye candy and both John C. Reilly & Shea Whigham do their best to boost the spirit of the proceedings with some much-needed levity & camp. (I think my ideal, streamlined version of the film just be those two characters alone in a Swiss Army Man-style romance adventure on the same kaiju-infested island.) Overall, though, the movie feels like a well-funded version of a SyFy Channel mockbuster that can afford to hire legitimate actors instead of Ian Ziering or Steve Guttenberg or whoever’s up for it that particular weekend. Unlike the recent genre film rehash Death Race 2050, which applies that SyFy style of direct-to-VOD CG cheapie energy to something uniquely bizarre, Kong: Skull Island lacks any distinguishing sense of passion. I guess you could point to a smash-cut of Kong eating a human to a human eating a sandwich or the basic novelty of a giant ape fighting a giant squid as holding some kind of camp value, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given how much the movie focuses on its stale Vietnam War themes. The silliest Skull Island film gets in its basic DNA (outside Reilly & Whigham’s respective quirks) is in its shameless shots of muscular Kong ass, but even that line of putting-it-all-out-there ape anatomy could’ve been more over the top, #GiveKongADong2017. Maybe audiences more in tune with the basic thrills of war movies as a genre will feel differently, but I struggled to find anything in the film worth holding onto. Its stray stabs at silliness didn’t push hard enough to save it from self-serious tedium and its Vietnam War metaphor wasn’t strong enough to support that tonal gravity. Everything else in-between was passable as a passive form of entertainment, but nothing worth getting excited over, much less building a franchise on.

-Brandon Ledet

Shin Godzilla (2016)

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fourstar

30+ entries into the Godzilla franchise, it’s funny to think that the longest-running film series of all time would still be able to surprise its audience, especially after all of the violent/philosophical/chaotic/campy/what-have-you places it’s already gone in the past. That’s why I was shocked & amused that the franchise’s latest Japanese reboot, helmed by Hideaki Anno of Neon Genesis Evangelion (aka That Thing from Tumblr that Baffles Me), was entirely different from the kaiju genre piece I was expecting when I entered the theater. Shin Godzilla is very much reminiscent of its source material’s 1954 origins, a governmental procedural about Japan’s response to a seemingly unstoppable force of Nature ignited by nuclear fallout. Instead of following Gareth Edwards’s mistake in recreating that exact scenario in a drab modern action movie context, however, Shin Godzilla completely shifts its genre towards kinetic political satire. It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.

In an American production the tendency would be to push for a lone hero to save Japan from its kaiju problem. A Japanese film about Japanese temperament, Shin Godzilla instead looks for the virtues in collaboration & the power of the hive mind collective. It’s largely in the first half of the film where this kind of political philosophy is played for satirical humor. A condemnation of the ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the film follows a bewildered Japanese government as they hold meetings upon meetings upon meetings about what to do about Godzilla in a process that produces inaction through belabored decision-making on what exact action to take. By the time any order is given the situation has shifted and the multilayered meetings & special emergency councils start all over again, like a rotary dial. Everyone is fearful of “rushing to judgement” and reads their opinions directly from print-out reports, so that nothing ever gets done in a Kafkaesque political process that goes in circles chasing its own tail. This slow process is depicted through the quick edits of a modern comedy, producing an interesting dynamic in its form vs. content divide. What’s even more interesting is how that dynamic evolves along with its titular laser-shooting monster. The ever-shifting official titles for the government’s ranks-climbing employees and their special councils & task forces for the “unidentified creature emergency” stop being played for laughs at a certain point and the tone understandably becomes morbid. Somehow even the slow, measured groupthink satirized in the first half is explained to have its own virtue and is eventually celebrated, especially in comparison with the rash, easy-fix violence proposed by foreign bodies like America & the UN. It’s a much more thoughtful & nuanced mode of political self-reflection than I ever would have expected from a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, I guess it would be a shame to review a Godzilla movie without talking about Godzilla itself. Like with Pulgasari & Hedorah, the kaiju in Shin Godzilla is a rapidly evolving creature that starts off pathetically ineffective & maybe even a little cute. That is, if anything that could be described as a lopsided feline turkey with dead fish eyes & blood-gushing gills could be considered “cute.” When Godzilla reaches its final form it’s named “God incarnate” out of respect for its adaptability & its capacity for survival, but it starts as a half-formed, difficult to look at mess of mismatched biology. It’s a stumbling weakling that only makes it more frustrating when bureaucratic inaction allows it to evolve & soldier on into near-immortality. The film’s CG renderings of its creature-driven mayhem can come across as a little cheap or odd-looking, recalling the bizarre digital imagery of titles like Big Man Japan, but it’s no more visibly artificial than the costumes & miniatures of the Godzillas of old, all things considered. Also, Godzilla’s final form is so undeniably badass that the film’s digital means aren’t really worth questioning or nitpicking. Like with most Godzilla films, the creature is second to the concerns of humanity’s response to its presence here, but when the god lizard is in action it’s just as weirdly fascinating as ever. As always, there will be inevitable complaints that there isn’t enough Godzilla in this Godzilla movie, but when the human half of the story is as smartly funny & pointedly satirical as it is here, that line of griping rings as especially hollow.

There wasn’t a whole lot of laughter at our fairly well-attended Shin Godzilla screening, which means either that I’m exaggerating the film’s merit as a political comedy or that the satire isn’t translating consistently well across cultural lines. It’s been reported that Anno specifically wrote the film as a response to the government’s handling of the 2011 Fukushima Daiishi disaster, where a tsunami caused a full-blown nuclear meltdown in Japan. I’m sure there’s plenty of rewarding political subtext you could read in Shin Godzilla‘s take on that tragedy, but it has a much wider scope of intent than merely addressing that one issue. Everything from Japan’s general foreign policy to the looming shadow of Hiroshima to the country’s very sense of national identity is tackled here. Shin Godzilla barrels through all of these ambitious political topics with the quick pace absurdism of a modern comedy and the experimental framing & mixed medium experimentation (including moments of found footage aesthetic) of an indie monster movie. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, energetic work that will stick with you longer than any non-stop-Godzilla-action visual spectacle could, no matter what some audiences seem to believe they want from the franchise. Outside of a few clunky details like a stray stumbling in screensaver-quality CGI or a goddawful stab at an American accent, this is Godzilla done exactly right. Its philosophical ideas are enthusiastic & exciting and the monster exists only to serve them, the exact ideal for a creature feature not aiming for cheap genre thrills or easy camp.

-Brandon Ledet

Daikaijû Gamera (1965)

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fourstar

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I’m far from an expert in kaiju cinema, but recently catching a couple outliers in the genre, Reptilicus & Pulgasari, has sparked my interest a great deal. I’ve sen a good number of films that feature Godzilla & King Kong, who seem to be the top brass of kaiju fare, but there are so many other giant monsters of creature feature past that I’m missing out on between those borders. You can’t only listen to The Beatles & The Stones and claim to know the totality of rock n’ roll, right? As many times I’ve seen drawings or action figures of kaiju like Gamera, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla, I don’t think I’ve ever given their originating films a solid, up-close look, which feels like a blind spot in my horror/sci-fi film education.

Daikaijû Gamera (literally translated Giant Monster Gamera and re-cut & released in the US as Gamera: The Invincible) doesn’t do much to buck the idea that once you’ve seen one kaiju film you’ve seen them all. It plays remarkably like the original Godzilla film (which was then a decade old) in terms of tone, production, and plot. The most crucial difference between the two works, of course, is the design of their titular monsters. Yes, Daikaijû Gamera is essentially a too-soon remake of Godzilla, but it’s a Godzilla remake that features a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that can turn its shell into a flying saucer. I don’t think I need to explain any more than that to get the film’s basic appeal across. It’s a concept that pretty much sells itself.

Illegal Cold War nuclear activity in the Arctic frees an ancient beast known a The Devil’s Envoy, Gamera. Yes, The Devil’s right hand demon is a gigantic, fire-breathing turtle that once plagued the lost continent of Atlantis (according to the Eskimo tribes that witness his rebirth, at least). Scientists expect that the nuclear fallout that freed Gamera from his icy prison will be the creature’s very undoing. That is not the case. Gamera not only breathes fire. He inhales it. All weaponry, industry and nuclear destruction thrown in his path only make him stronger. Nations must put aside their potential World War III tensions to peacefully plan Gamera’s undoing, calling into question the way the unnatural power of nuclear war can loosen & anger forces of Nature like typhoons, dead aquatic life epidemics, and fire-breathing turtles the size of mountains. At one point an observer asks, “Something must really be wrong with Earth, huh?” The answer is a resounding yes and a lot of anxieties about the destructive nature of modern life is clearly on display here in the guise of giant monster mayhem.

Although Daikaijû Gamera is a direct echo of Godzilla & in many ways feels like a standard issue kaiju flick (on the sillier side of the genre), it also did a lot to establish that standard in the first place. There’s a brief scene involving a beatnik surf rock band & a major storyline about a little boy obsessed with turtles (and turtleneck sweaters, apparently) that telegraph a lot of the winking camp tone in kaiju films to come. At this stage of kaiju cinema the monsters are supposed to be majestic & terrifying, but Giant Monster Gamera hints at a future world where they function as heroes of children & monsters with a sense of humor. Godzilla may be the most looming influence over the entire spectrum of kaiju as a monster movie subgenre, but Gamera‘s impact is a lot more readily recognizable in the DNA of the genre’s goofy, 70s future in titles like (my personal favorite) Godzilla vs The Smog Monster.

Again, though, there’s really no need to sell Giant Monster Gamera as an innovator or a historical landmark to make its genre thrills feel worthwhile. You can get its basic plot in any number of 1960s kaiju movies, but where else are you going to get a giant, fire-breathing turtle that occasionally functions as a flying saucer (besides its eleven sequels)? This is a genre that survives on the strength and/or novelty of its monsters & Giant Monster Gamera did not disappoint on that end, not one  bit.

-Brandon Ledet

Pulgasari (1985)

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There’s a fascinating-looking book I’ve been meaning to read about the true life story of a couple who were effectively held hostage by now-deceased North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and forced to make big budget propaganda films at his whim (A Kim Jong-il Production:The Extradordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power). South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife/actress Choi Eun-hee worked against their will to create North Korean versions of films Kim Jong-il, a huge movie buff, was obsessed with, except with a government-positive message at their center. This concept is already difficult enough to wrap my mind around in the abstract, but it’s even harder to reconcile with the reality of the one Shin Sang-ok movie I’ve seen from the era, the 1985 Godzilla knockoff Pulgasari.

Even without its exceedingly surreal context as a document of unlawful imprisonment under Kim Jong-il’s thumb, Pulgasari would still be highly recommendable as a slice of over-the-top creature feature cinema. I’m far from an expert in the hallmarks of kaiju cinema, but the film felt wholly unique to me, an odd glimpse into the way the genre can lend itself to wide variety of metaphors the same way zombies, vampires, and X-Men have in American media over the years. The titular monster ranges from cute to terrifying, from friend to enemy over the course of the film, which is a lot more nuanced than what I’m used to from my kaiju. Most of all, though, Pulgasari is fascinating in its self-conflicting nature as both a brutal tale of political unrest and a cheap thrills indulgence in goofy monster movie camp. The film’s bewildering backstory aside, I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

Just like how the size of its titular kaiju grows exponentially throughout its runtime, the budget of Pulgasari surprisingly expands as the plot trudges along. Beginning with an isolated village not unlike the bare bones sets of Yokai Monsters: Spooky Warfare, Pulgasari first appears to be a dirt cheap production. Its story is consistently engaging even through these humble beginnings, however. A small farming community on the brink of starvation due to a bad harvest & governmental over-taxing sees many of its young men taking up arms among mountainside bandits to raid government storehouses for survival. The government does not respond well to this transgression. The village is seized, its farm equipment melted down in order to forge military weapons & all suspected mountain bandits cruelly jailed. The oldest, widest member of the village prays with his dying breath for the gods to save the human race from government cruelty & the gods send Pulgasari. The demonic savior first appears as a miniature threat, but eventually balloons monstrously large, as does the film’s budget. Huge, large scale battles loaded with expensive special effects & tons of extras take over what initially feels like a limited scope fairy tale and ultimately blooms into a full-blown epic.

Let’s take a minute to discuss the awesomeness of Pulgasari himself. When he’s first brought to life through dying prayers & blood magic, he’s small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and is so ridiculously cute. Pulgasari’s costume is a little more flexible than Godzilla’s, so when he moves around he looks like a dancing toddler in a lizard’s costume & his miniature set includes the oversized props of films like Attack of the Puppet People. He grows from there by eating iron, taking bites directly out of government weapons, establishing himself as a hero of the people despite his demonic visage. Pulgasari grows large & terrifying, eventually looking like a cross between a lizard & a bull, and proves to be impervious to all weaponry. The visual charm of the monster wears of by the time he’s mountain-size and a scene where the government attempts to set him on fire stands as one of the most hellish, metal images I can remember seeing on film in a good while. Eventually, Pulgasari grows too large for his own good, unfortunately, and starts to strain the people he once protected’s limited resources with his unquenchable thirst for iron.

You might think that the way Shin Sang-ok made this film subversive was by portraying an evil, totalitarian government that drained the life out of its people, but that idea actually belonged to Kim Jong-il. The dictator saw that message as a warning of the dangers of capitalism when it goes unchecked. Okay. Shin Sang-ok, instead, stabbed at his captor’s legacy by likening him to Pulgasari, a hero to the people that would eventually betray them by growing too large & too greedy. Either way you read the film, it’s fascinating that that it was ever made under North Korean watch & I’m now all the more curious to read A Kim Jong-il Production as soon as I get the chance. Pulgasari doesn’t need that context to stand as a remarkable work, however. If you went into the film blind there’d still be plenty of spectacle & clashing tones to stick with you in a way more generic, non-Japanese kaiju novelties wouldn’t. This is not the by-the-numbers vagueness of Reptilicus. It’s something much more essential & idiosyncratic.

-Brandon Ledet