Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The new Blu-ray of Godzilla vs. Biollante is a knockout -- not only is it a great encoding of what is perhaps the most artfully conceived Godzilla picture since the 1954 original, the disc contains a terrific 50-minute making-of extra featuring reels of fascinating behind-the-scenes video, the kind of footage that Toho has been unnecessarily stingy with on releases licensed for American video.
In the late 1980s Godzilla had persisted as a cult hero-monster, even if his movies were only available on bad quality VHS tapes of the often terribly dubbed English language versions. Video collectors were just beginning to get a look at the original Japanese language versions courtesy of pricey import laserdiscs that had no English subtitles. After a hiatus of several years, Toho had begun a new series of "Big G" films with what became know here as Godzilla 1985; Raymond Burr was even coaxed into reprising his role as reporter Steve Martin in the American version of the re-launch effort. The movie wasn't at all impressive, and not the hoped-for comeback after a couple of decades of Kaiju silliness that reduced Toho's monsters to kindergarten clowns. I realize that Godzilla fans growing up with these pictures on Television embraced their cartoonish qualities; I unfortunately remember being thrilled by spectacular first-run theatrical matinees of Gigantis, The Fire Monster, King Kong vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. The Thing, back when the Kaiju beasts were still photographed from low angles, and the miniature landscapes seemed as big as a football field.
Although a direct sequel to Godzilla 1985, Godzilla vs. Biollante is a next-generation series entry that goes in its own direction, with input from contributors new to the genre and even people associated with the video game industry. There's an on-screen appearance by a bizarre Tokyo media personality named "Demon Kogure", who dresses like the Devil, or an extra member of the rock group KISS. Director Kazuki Ohmori and writer Sinichi Kobayashi wrestled with a script that drags in enough ideas to launch four Godzilla pictures done in the previous style. Special Effects supervisor Kowichi Kawakita was given the leeway to adjust the script and embellish the effects, which kicks the show into a higher level of visual excitement.
Screenwriter Kobayashi introduced the idea of Godzilla being challenged by a genetically engineered foe. He also may have concocted the very cluttered live-action section of the plot. Japan's Self-Defense Force is now the Anti-Godzilla Force, with its own set of threat levels, like the stages of flying saucer sightings in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. "Big G's" 'breath is now an energy beam that can blast down a skyscraper. The main weapon of major Sho Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima) is the Super X-2, a flying battle drone that fires missiles but also catches, amplifies and reflects Godzilla's breath back at him, like a Markalite from the old Sci-Fi film The Mysterians. Also making a comeback are giant truck-mounted Maser Cannons (hope I got that right) much like the ray gun weapons seen in the unforgettably bizarre War of the Gargantuas.
When last seen, Godzilla disappeared into a volcano. Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) has been working with cells from recovered Godzilla scales. Competing biotech companies want to harness "G's" DNA to create microbes that nullify atomic weapons (?); the Arabian "Saradia Institute of Biotechnology" and Japan's Bio-Major Company send spies and assassins to steal Shiragami's research. But the scientist has been doing some freaky genetic engineering of his own, blending cells from his late daughter Erika (killed in a terrorist attack) with a red rose, with the idea that her spirit will live on in the rose. Shiragami also comes in contact with young psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Okada), who senses Erika's presence in the rose plant. Refusing to make Bio-Major's desired atomic counter-weapon, Shiragami creates Biollante, a colossal plant monster combining the Rose, his beloved Erika and Godzilla's own super-genetic material.
A group of Psionic children telepathically predict the return of Godzilla by holding up crayon drawings of Big G, much like the Devil's Tower is psychically planted in Close Encounters. Godzilla engages in a battle at sea with the Super X-2. Biollante appears in a misty bay like a surreal objet d'art, but is quickly incinerated by Godzilla's energy ray. Miki tries to mind-meld with Godzilla, and succeeds in slowing him up long enough for Kuroki to prep a counterattack amid the skyscrapers of Osaka. Three bazooka-launched automatic syringes pump Shiragawa's anti-atomic bacteria (I guess he developed them after all) into Godzilla, but the microbes don't take effect because he's not warm enough -- only now do they remember that Godzilla is cold-blooded. The temperature problem is fixed by laying a trap in a power grid. Also, Biollante isn't dead. The mean green mother from Shiragawa's lab instead returns in an evolved form, with more deadly tentacles and a crocodile-like head that spews glittery green vomit. The two beasts engage in a fantastic duel.
Godzilla vs. Biollante lurches through half an hour of plot re-caps, endless exposition and silly spy nonsense before the monsters show up, at which point it transforms into a beautifully designed spectacular fantasy. The film is a blend of the best of old-school Kaiju -- imaginative rubber monster suits, terrific pyrotechnic effects, impressive miniature settings -- with late-'80s techniques just prior to the introduction of CGI effects. Gone are the klunky blue screen matte lines, replaced by nicely judged composites of live action, live action miniatures, matte work and animation. Godzilla's scale gets a little wacky in some shots but the key action is wonderfully recorded, with cameras that move with the monsters and shake when the action gets too intense. The pyrotechnics are both dazzling and artful, filling the screen with gaudy explosions and billowing smoke clouds so fanciful, they have personality.
Godzilla is a good design, even though his atomic breath ray is a little like shooting a fire hose out of a squirt gun. The interaction of animated rays with blast effects on ships, buildings and in the ocean is excellent. Little kids crazy for action fantasy on this scale will be awestruck.
The industrial spy subplot becomes wearying after just a few minutes, as it has too many uninteresting characters engaged in generic espionage action. We lose track of the confusing names of biotech companies. The military subplot fares better in that Sho Kuroki and his Anti-Godzilla forces have no illusion that their big guns will kill the atomic dragon; they'd be happy to be able to steer his path of destruction. Toru Minegishi has a nice bit as a hotshot Lieutenant who pulls a quick-draw with his bazooka and fires a rocket into Godzilla's mouth. The open-minded Kuroki accepts the waif-like Miki Saegusa as a portable Godzilla detection system. Mothra, with its telepathic twin princesses, had been the most charming of the earlier Toho Kaijus. Tapping into that idea, the filmmakers make a big deal of Miki's Spock-like mental connection to various Kaiju characters. Miki Saegusa would return for several of the '90s Godzilla pictures, played by Megumi Okada. The even less rational idea of having Shiragawa's daughter spiritually linked with a ferocious Kaiju creature works fairly well too -- although I'll bet it flew over the heads of a lot of Japanese kid audiences.
Biollante is a refreshingly imaginative creature that looks like a Yokai Spook writ large, or a masterpiece of Ikebana. The first tilt-up on the giant 'female' flower creature standing in the center of a misty bay is a real beauty. Not much later its head (a giant rosebud) seems to have a set of jaws in the middle. The whole shebang would seem to be inspired by Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. Its next phase mixes in a blend of various plant and animal characteristics, including tentacles with little fanged mouths, reminding us of the John Carpenter remake of The Thing. One twisted tentacle shoots forward as a rigid spear, impaling Godzilla's clawed hand. As Dr. Shiragami wisely observes, "What you are seeing there is no ordinary plant!"
Make no mistake, Godzilla vs. Biollante is still a Godzilla movie with sloppy plotting and only limited interest beyond its monster footage. But the marked improvement in quality will appeal to lovers of fantastic films. The construction of the monsters is improved -- Godzilla's legs don't bag or flop around, and the animatronic stand-in for facial close-ups is a good match for the full body suit. The lighting and framing of Biollante give her a magical quality; at various times Biollante shoots out showers of golden sparkles that fill the screen, charming both us and Godzilla as well. The clash of the monsters resembles giant gods battling in some cosmic void, with Biollante an apparition from H.P. Lovecraft. Instead of the message "T'was Beauty that killed the Beast", the final words to ponder are, "Godzilla and Biollante are not the monsters. The real monsters are the humans that created them." Show me a political candidate who dispenses that caliber of wisdom!
Perhaps providing a clue to the company vibe at Toho, the show includes a scene in which Shirakawa notices how calmly the younger Major Sho Kuroki sleeps while awaiting the next Godzilla alert. Shirakawa says that perhaps it's time for the younger generation to take over, as they seem to have things well in hand. Could Kobayashi and Ohmori be referring to the entrenched old-guard executives in the Toho front office?
Miramax and Echo Bridge's Blu-ray of Godzilla vs. Biollante is a great encoding of this very handsomely shot fantasy. The key monster battles take place at night, which leads to some dazzling widescreen images of destruction. Some reviewers have said that the transfer looks soft, when the truth is that the miniature monster scenes are purposely filmed a bit soft -- with filters and fog to help hide the wires that manipulate Godzilla's tail, and Biollante's multiple tentacles. An effects cameraman says that Biollante has many more puppetry wires than the previous Toho record holder, King Ghidorah.
The music score is credited to Koichi Sugiyama, whose main theme tries for a John Williams feel -- instead of a CE3K mothership behind the closing credits, we see a giant rose. The tracks borrow heavily from Akira Ifukube's original themes as well. Godzilla needs his signature march as much as he needs his signature roar.
The disc has the original Japanese track and also the English dub version. Thoughtfully, two sets of English subtitles are provided, a set that translates the Japanese version, and one that follows the English dub script.
The first extra is a short piece on designs for the proposed Biollante, reflected in rather beautiful miniature mockups used for discussion. The second extra is the best docu I've yet seen on a Toho Kaiju film -- I don't think very many are released for U.S. discs. The 50-minute show interviews writer Shinichiro Kobayashi, writer-director Kazuki Ohmori, SFX director Koichi Kwakita, SFX cameraman Kenichi Eguchi and SFX lighting director Kaoru Saito. We see at least 35 minutes of fascinating BTS shots of the effects scenes, on stage, in Toho's giant water tank and in the real ocean. The actor playing Godzilla is pounded with so many pyro blasts that he must wear goggles inside the rubber suit. We see radio control helicopters at work, demonstrations of matte paintings and video illustrating the problems of shooting in the water tank. We're also shown some experimental stop-motion footage.
Among several other deleted scenes, we're given a sequence in which Godzilla is pacified by the sight of Biollante's magical sparkle-spirit. The spirit of Erika causes giant flowers to bloom on the banks of a river, surrounding Godzilla with color. The scene apparently doesn't appear in any version of Godzilla vs. Biollante, even though I feel certain that I've seen it somewhere before.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Godzilla vs. Biollante Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Audio: Japanese or English
Subtitles: English (two)
Supplements: long form BTS docu, look at designs for Biollante
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 3, 2012
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2012 Glenn Erickson
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