The last five years have seen the “Godzilla” continuity “re-imagined” no less than four times. While this likely resulted in much hair pulling and teeth gnashing on the part of the more obsessive, “Trekkie”-ish Godzilla fans, it’s also allowed filmmakers to lead the character in new directions, and in the process rejuvenate a series that had become the epitome of repetition and self-parody. “Godzilla: Final Wars,” the 28th movie in the series and the Big-G’s 50th Anniversary, is yet another reinvention of the Godzilla universe, and though it’s been obsessively hyped as the last “Godzilla” movie, its main selling point outside Japan is likely hotshot marquee director Ryuhei Kitamura. The prospect of the man behind “Azumi” and “Versus” at the helm of a “Godzilla” movie oozes with potential, and if the final product isn’t absolutely all that it could have been, it’s certainly not for a lack of effort.
The fun starts at the South Pole sometime in the 1960′s, where, during a pitched battle against the flying supersub “Gotengo,” Godzilla is lured into a glacial fissure and promptly trapped under an avalanche of ice, effectively burying him alive. Jump ahead a few decades to the near future, where atomic testing has given birth to a whole posse of kaiju (giant monsters) as well as a new strain of mutant humans that represent the next step forward in human evolution. To combat this new kaiju problem, the U.N. has formed the Earth Defense Force, and among the EDF’s ranks is the elite M-Organization, a sort of highly trained anti-kaiju SWAT team made up entirely of mutants.
One such mutant is Shinichi Ozaki (Masahiro Matsuoka), who is assigned to escort hottie scientist Miyuki Nemu (actress/model Rei Kikukawa) to study the mummified remains of a giant creature unearthed in Hokkaido. Without warning, major cities around the world fall victim to simultaneous monster rampages. No sooner has the EDF jumped into action are the monsters teleported away by the X-seijin, an alien race that has arrived on Earth with news that a runaway planet is on a collision course with our fair planet, and offers their assistance in averting the coming apocalypse. The X-seijin are welcomed with open arms, but Ozaki, Nemu and nosy reporter (are there any other kind?) Anna Otonashi (Maki Mizuno) have their suspicions.
If the storyline of “Godzilla: Final Wars” sounds familiar, it’s supposed to be. “Final Wars” rejiggers the plots from 1965′s “Godzilla VS. Monster Zero” and 1968′s “Destroy All Monsters.” I’m hardly a hardcore “Godzilla” fan, but I’ve seen a good number of the previous entries over the years and “Final Wars” prove to be a good time despite its share of missteps. The film features the largest cast of kaiju since “Destroy All Monsters,” and they all get their chance to go up against Godzilla thanks to X-seijin mind control.
Many of the monsters have been updated, either via refined suit designs or slick CGI that gives the creatures more life than a man in suit or puppet ever could. There’s even an appearance by the American Godzilla, aka GINO (Godzilla In Name Only). Unfortunately, as proof of Godzilla’s full ass-kicking quotient, the kaiju fights never last more than a couple of minutes, and the movie burns through its roster of villainous monsters way too quickly. Compounding this problem is that outside of the opening scene, Godzilla is MIA for the much of the film’s first half.
Of the human cast, a pair of terrific performances stands out. The X-seijin is an update of the visor-sporting Devo look-alikes from “Godzilla VS. Monster Zero”, now pimped out with leather trenchcoats and eyeliner in the person of Kazuki Kitamura as their leader. Kitamura is also the proud owner of the most diabolical and smug grin in cinema history, and struts about arrogantly, stopping long enough to fume whenever Godzilla defeats one of his monsters. The only other cast member that matches Kitamura’s screen presence is former New Japan Wrestling Champ Don Frye as Captain Douglas Gordon, the disgraced former commander of the Gotengo and the film’s token Westerner.
What happens when Ryuhei Kitamura directs a “Godzilla” movie? You get a movie that feels totally unique to the series despite the presence of a derivative storyline. The moody cinematography compliments Kitamura’s trademark camerawork, lending a distinctly cartoonish vibe that suits the juvenile storyline and energizes the talking head scenes. The movie packs a lot of plot into its 2-hours plus running time, but things rarely slow down for too long before there’s another action set piece. “Final Wars” feels a bit like “Scream” in that the filmmakers are aware their audience has seen this kind of movie before, and uses that familiarity to tweak the conventions a bit. Like most of Ryuhei Kitamura’s films, there’s a lot to like and hate about “Godzilla: Final Wars”; but even if it isn’t the best the series has to offer, it’s still a fun ride.
Ryuhei Kitamura (director) / Isao Kiriyama, Ryuhei Kitamura, Wataru Mimura, Shogo Tomiyama (screenplay)
CAST: Masahiro Matsuoka …. Shin’ichi Ã”zaki
Rei Kikukawa …. Miyuki Otonashi
Akira Takarada …. Naotaro Daigo
Kane Kosugi …. Katsunori Kazama
Kazuki Kitamura …. The Controller of Planet X