[1 March 2004]
Even by often scandalously lax Godzilla standards, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is an utterly preposterous film. For one thing, it’s founded on the chuckle-worthy premise that a besieged Japan has in its own defense established a “Godzilla Graspers” corps to fight the ongoing menace of giant radioactive monsters. This cadre of soldiers is elite enough to merit its own baseball caps and uniforms with a stylized “G-Graspers!” insignia (“G!”) emblazoned on them. They look like UPS guys.
I apologize to the hardcore Godzilla fans, but here, I had to pause the DVD player because I was laughing too hard. For this movie, the G-Graspers are pitted not only against the wrathful Godzilla but also Megaguirus, a tremendous dragonfly. To help match up the odds, which are always balefully long on humans in the Godzilla epic cycle, they engineer a satellite-based gun for shooting miniature black holes in the hope of sucking Godzilla into another dimension. All of this means a lot of special effects work, employing a wild mix of methods with irregular results.
The money shots in Godzilla movies have traditionally been the elaborate sequences on soundstages in which Godzilla or some other beast smashes lovingly rendered models of urban and rural locales. When this happens in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, it’s effective in that ineffable Godzilla way. But the movie also uses CGI. This interferes with the soundstage scenes because CGI, particularly when it’s conspicuous, creates a more abstracted sense of space. Computer graphic hoverships, Godzillas dipping into the sea, and dragonfly swarms are often choppy, looking more like a halfway decent videogame than a feature film. And so for much of the movie, that’s where you feel you are: inside a videogame, no place in particular.
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus updates the series in other ways, too, as with its John Williams-y soundtrack. But here again, the narrative elements of the old Godzilla persist. The heavy brass starts booming the Godzilla trademark monster leitmotif when the first sign of the monster is spied: a roiling tempest of fire threatening to break up through the sea in the Japan trench. At this moment, the movie feels familiar to Gen-X moviegoers like me, weaned on the (admittedly also preposterous) Godzilla movies of the 1970s. In these earlier movies, the makers typically intersperse the fight scenes, rendered almost entirely on interior sets, with reaction shots taken on location. This gives the impression that the fleeing city folk and strategizing military live in Godzilla’s world of miniatures. Trying to synchronize the live action and the miniature is disorienting enough. By resorting so heavily to CGI—in rendering the “Griffon,” the G-Graspers’ hover-capable jet fighter, for instance—Godzilla vs. Megaguirus asks us to synchronize at least three ontological realms at once: the full-scale, the 1/25th scale, and the fully animated.
The movie’s backstory further skews its “reality” by asking the audience to forget most of Godzilla’s impossibly complicated history, and instead claiming that the monster has attacked Japan not dozens of times, but only thrice: in 1954, 1966, and 1996. This leaves out a lot more of the Godzilla story than it puts in. There is no Monster Island. Neither is there a Planet X or a Seatopia. Far too vast to be linear or inclusive, the Godzilla story is actually a lot of stories, many of them contradictory, from which the screenwriters pick and choose only certain items for any particular outing.
As these various storylines have piled up, the premises of Godzilla movies have become increasingly implausible. Take for instance, the aforementioned satellite for shooting black holes, the Dimension Tide. I kept trying to get my head around the idea of using a black hole as a projectile and I could never quite do it, because I’ve watched enough episodes of Cosmos to know that any device trying to jettison a black hole is sure to be absorbed by it. But in this film, the black hole gun turns out to be a gushing well of pseudo-science: much time is given to the G-Graspers in their mission control room, where they guide the satellite and say lots of scientific things about particles and wormholes. The black-hole satellite’s main job in the movie, one gets the sense, is to provide an excuse for more groovy computer special effects. The satellite also achieves a level of ridiculousness more advanced than the movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with their humble homemade robots and wristwatch radios, could muster.
The original series used the blue screen, reverse shot, and forced perspective to suture human onlookers into a world of miniatures, and in doing so, diminished the audience’s aesthetic expectations as well. “Please,” the ‘60s Godzilla movie says whenever a tiny rock falls off a smashed model of a skyscraper, only to turn into styrofoam for the live-action shot of crushed, fleeing civilians. “You think anyone’s really taking this seriously?” CGI drives a stake through this heart, disrupting not only the live-action-to-miniature, location-shot-to-soundstage cuts, but also the clear appeal to one’s good humor that this shot relationship tends to make. In Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, not only don’t we know where we are, we also don’t know how seriously we’re supposed to take the movie.
The only special features on the Godzilla vs. Megaguirus DVD are a series of previews for science fiction films from various countries, all of much higher budgets than GvM could muster. Here, by contrast, is CGI in the service of the most exacting simulation. The Emmerich remake of Godzilla from 1998 appears alongside So Close, a Hong-Kong knockoff of Charlie’s Angels. Also included is Returner, a Matrix clone with the kind of stunning CGI we’ve come to expect for our $9 ticket (or, more and more, our $4 DVD rental). We know the drill by now: a jumbo jet transforms into an immense hovering robot, dwarfing the mere human who stares on in dumbstruck disbelief (this the moviemakers’ entreaty to the audience to react in the same way).
The amount of detail is extraordinary. But it still looks vaguely out of place in the final product, because we still recognize the computer-generated image as manufactured even as the visible cues of its artificiality become fewer and fewer. To me this unreality feels like the vertigo of looking at an Escher print or the illusion that resembles alternately a young woman and an old one. I become conscious of my own eye and of a sense that I’m seeing two things at once. The promise of the movie special effect in general is that it will someday look completely realistic. It’s more likely, though, that the special effect will never be a perfect simulation, but will always need interpretation.