Thursday, October 8, 2009

Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla: A CGI Sign of the Times

The other night I rented Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, which was a very interesting and surprising experience.

I'm going to start off with a bit of a geek history lesson to give some context to my story. For those of you who are not "in the know" (ie: most people), there were two distinct sets of Godzilla films. First there was the original classic, "Gojira" (1954), which started the whole phenomenon. It was followed by "Godzilla Rais Again" (1955) and then a number of sequels known as the Showa series, concluding with "Terror of Mechagodzilla" (1975).

There was was then a ten year break before the aptly titled "The Return of Godzilla" (1985). This film ignored every sequel to the original "Gojira," and set itself up as a direct follow-up to the events of the first film. This began the Heisei series of Godzilla films, which saw re-imaginings of many of the classic Godzilla villains, including Mechagodzilla in "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II" (1993). The main difference between the two series was the attitude towards the monsters. In the Showa series they were treated as forces of nature, not evil beings, and Godzilla became something of a hero. In the Heisei series, on the other hand, Godzilla and his friends (or kaiju, aka monsters, your geek word of the day) were more often seen merely as hazards to human life.

Now, as far as I knew that was where the complexities of the Godzilla canon ended. Ignoring the American remake, as all good 'zilla fans do, there were simply the two series of Godzilla continuities. So, when I rented "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" I figured I was going to watch one of the three movies from the Showa and Heisei series in which the mechanical monster appeared.

How wrong I was.

It turns out that a third set of films was started in 1999 with "Godzilla 2000," and is generally referred to as the millennium series. These movies have taken a dramatically liberal approach to continuity, acknowledging or ignoring events of past films as deemed necessary by the events of their new narratives. "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" is a part of this third series, and as such its take on the dueling monsters was not what I had anticipated.

Ok, so, one question you are likely asking is, "Why Godzilla?" What do I find so appealing about a man very clearly dressed as a giant, radioactive reptile attacking Tokyo? Well, it's a mixture of things actually.

Honestly the only one of the films I actually own is the original, and I suppose its American remake, as a part of the fantastic DVD set that came out a few years ago. "Gojira" is and was a potent metaphor for the effects of the American nuclear attacks of 1945 on the Japanese people. The film explores the fear and sense of helplessness that accompanied such a catastrophic show of force, and also the damages left for the ravaged populace to face. It also touches upon the environmental concerns surrounding the use of nuclear weaponry, and is an early exploration of the potential for lasting consequences as a result of the technology that had been unleashed on the world. It's a true masterpiece in classic cinema.

It also a features a dude dressed up in a big rubber lizard costume, stomping all over a miniature set of Tokyo!

There's an expression that is sometimes used to describe the pleasure derived from watching movies like the kaiju (again, giant monster) films: "MAN IN SUIT!" There's just something about watching a guy in a monster costume destroying things that is pure awesomeness. It's even better when there's more than one of these things on screen, resulting in a comical grudge match between guys who need to shut down filming and get help if they want to take a bathroom break. There's something almost indescribably magical to the interplay between the fantasy and the outrageous and absurdly obvious reality.

"Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" doesn't seem to be aware of this fundamental aspect of the Godzilla phenomenon. It uses a lot of very poorly done CGI to more effectively depict the story being told. Or at least I think that was their goal, it's not totally clear. The CGI seems to be used to add dramatic shots that could probably have been done with suits and sets, and are so jarringly fake that they take the viewer out of the experience.

Lets think about that for a second. The CGI is so bad that it makes it hard to enjoy the acknowledged fantasy of a man in a giant rubber monster suit. That's almost remarkable.

Maybe it was just cheaper to use CGI than to build miniature sets, I don't know. In any case it doesn't work, all that happens is that the film still looks ridiculous, only now it feels more pathetic and cheap than fun. It's a classic example of technology being used incorrectly, which is kind of ironic given the context.

An illustrative example: about a minute in to the clip embedded below you will see Mechagodzilla (aka Kiryu) body check Godzilla, and it actually looks like they just dragged a static image of the metal monster across the screen. Wait, why am I still explaining this? the clip speaks for itself.

Oh, and forgive the music, maybe mute your sound, this was the only video I could easily find that effectively showed this fight and how bad it truly is.

So... Yeah. The CG clearly does not help with the MAN IN SUIT! pleasure, but instead detracts from it by making the whole fight seem... Simulacra isn't the right word for it but it's the first one that comes to mind. The visual experience of seeing two guys in rubber suits fighting is sort of like wrestling: it's an obviously fake fight but you love it anyways, even because it's fake. As Barthes would argue, it's not the contenders fighting against one another but the ideas they represent, with the actors playing out classic battles of morality. Godzilla films have always had that going for them, to an extent, but it's a complex balancing between moral oppositions, acknowledged fantasy, and obvious farce.

When you add CGI into the mix you then get an obviously fake representation of an acknowledged fake fight... It's like in the second Matrix movie, when Neo fights the fifty or however many Agent Smiths. It's like you're watching someone play a bad video game. It's no longer ideas at war with one another, it's nothing parading around onscreen as something with meaning.

The change in mediums is impossible to miss because the suits are so obviously fake, and the CGI, whether it's fantastic or terrible, works to make the monsters appear more realistic. This forces you out of the experience because there's just no way to enhance the visual appearance of men in rubber suits and still retain the kitsch appeal of seeing two men in rubebr suits.

CGI definitely has its place, but when you replace something with CGI you lose the tangible feel of it. The guys on the /Filmcast made a great point about "Terminator 2," saying that in the famous chase sequence when the truck slams down into the LA canal, you feel it slam down because it is a real, practical effect. Well that pseudo-sense of reality is about all Godzilla fights have going for them, so when you take that away and replace it with bad CGI you're not left with much.

So, this post has gone on for an awfully long time without much of a point besides my own personal taste in Godzilla movies. In the end I think the later Godzilla films rely increasingly on kitsch value as opposed to the cultural/historical metaphors that were central to the first film (and to an extent its immediate sequels). All Godzilla films try to have a moral stance at their core, usually with an environmental emphasis, but they often fall flat or play a secondary role to the battle between men in suits.

Some of the greatest successors to the king of the monsters have tried to send their own messages by retooling the giant monster formula. "Cloverfield," for example, set its story in New York under attack from an unknown enemy, and put itself very literally in the hands of the people, visually emulating a YouTube video. Films like this have relied on different methods of giving pleasure to the viewer than the majority of film in the Godzilla franchise.

The appeal of something like "Cloverfield" or "The Host" is more the spectacle of a fully realized fantasy with a distinct metaphor in its design. While this could certainly be said of the original Godzilla, its sequels have turned the franchise into something wholly different. Which is perhaps why films like "Cloverfield" or "The Host" don't tend to have sequels... Yet...

What has made the Godzilla series so successful and long lived isn't the messages as much as it is the unique appeal that 'kaiju' offer. The use of CGI flat out disrupts the pleasure that is generated by watching two Japanese men in rubber suits duke it out on miniaturized sets of Tokyo. The next Godzilla flick I watch is going to be one of the the old classics, where you can actually see the Velcro flap the actors use to get in the suits.

No comments:

Post a Comment