The Retro Issue
Gojira, Mon Amour
Hello again, everyone. This week I was all set to look at the mountaineers-in-peril drama-documentary Touching The Void, but my plans suddenly seemed terribly unimportant in light of the epochal news coming out of Japan's Toho Studios.
Yes indeed, friends, Toho have announced that the biggest star in world cinema will be retiring at the end of the year, after celebrating five decades in the business. That's right - no more Godzilla movies, ever (well, not for 'at least ten years' according to Toho, who in any case have previously announced they were putting the Big G out to grass in 1968, 1975, and 1996). Cultural tragedy or a cheap attempt to drum up publicity ahead of this year's Godzilla: The Final Battle (which, incidentally, sounds rather like a remake of Destroy All Monsters)? I'm almost too upset to care.
It seems only right to pay tribute to Godzilla and his contribution to the art of cinema by casting our minds back to 1964 and one of his most impressive outings: Inoshiro Honda's Mosura Tai Gojira (or, as it's best translated, Mothra Vs Godzilla). This was Godzilla's fourth movie and the second to feature Mothra, probably Toho's next most popular monster. As is so often the case in suitamation pictures of this kind, the plot is initiated by a natural disaster - in this case, a hurricane which ravages the western Pacific. In the aftermath, news reporters Ichi (Akira Takarada) and Yoka (Yuriko Hoshi) find odd phenomena aplenty - mixed in amongst the wreckage on land flooded after the hurricane, they find giant radioactive scales. And further down the coast, a huge egg is washed up on the beach (the egg is roughly 153,800 times bigger than a hen's egg, the script helpfully informs us).
Uncharacteristically realistically for this kind of flick, the fishermen who own the beach flog the egg to the Happy Corporation (that's its' name in the subtitles, anyway), who are as grasping a bunch of avaricious scumbags as one could hope to see trodden on by a mutant dinosaur. The Happy Corporation plan to build a theme park around the egg and increase their fortune still further (clearly they haven't seen Gorgo, a British suitamation flick which makes the dangers of this sort of behaviour very clear). They are even unmoved when tiny twin pixies turn up and ask for their egg back. These are the Shobijin, fairies who basically act as spokespersons for Mothra, a giant lepidoptera1 which is the living god and protector of a remote Pacific island. The egg is Mothra's property, washed out to sea by the storm. The larva that will eventually hatch will head back home anyway, but the Shobijin just want to avoid the property damage normally accompanying this sort of migratory behaviour.
The Happy Corporation are unmoved by the fairies' plea and in fact try to kidnap them. When they learn of all this Ichi, Yoka, and their new friend Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) attempt to mobilise public opinion in support of the Shobijin, but to no avail. The fairies give up and fly off home on Mothra's back. Now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with those radioactive scales which turned up at the top of the film. Well, you need wonder no more as at this point the film-makers clearly decided that there'd been quite enough plot already and unleashed their star. Yes, Godzilla erupts from the muddy beach he was buried under by the hurricane and starts doing his thing, despite the best attempts of the toy tanks of Japan's national guard to stop him. But then someone has a bright idea - why not ask Mothra to sort Godzilla out...?
This is one of the best films in this particular genre, if only because it merely requires the suspension of disbelief rather than its brutal strangulation. The special effects, so often the bugbear of this sort of film, are actually really good - the model buildings and other miniatures are genuinely impressive in their detail, the matte work is more than acceptable, and the optical effects for Godzilla's neutron halitosis and the 'lightning generators' the army tries to zap him with are also well up to scratch. Of course the big fight at the heart of the film still boils down to a man in a foam rubber lizard suit fighting a very big string puppet, but even this isn't as embarrassing as it might be.
Mothra Vs Godzilla adheres to the formula that almost all the later films stuck to - monster turns up and starts causing trouble, characters persuade other monster to help stop it, massive ruck ensues - but as it largely originated that particular formula it's hard to really criticise it on that point. Where it scores over much of the rest of the canon is in its attempts to take itself seriously - this was the last film for ages not to revolve around an alien invasion or some other B-movie staple being inelegantly grafted onto the giant monster storyline. Godzilla is treated as a serious threat and actually shows some personality for the first time, radiating a sort of brutish malevolence as he goes about his business. Mothra gets some nice moments, too - as is traditional for the Vs genre, both stars get a fair amount of solo screen time before the big fight gets underway.
And the script even has a bash at making a serious point about the evils of consumerism and big business, and how your own greed and selfishness can come back and bite you on the bum. Admittedly one is unlikely to find oneself in quite the same situation depicted in this film, but hopefully the broad message still filters through. The acting here is just about good enough to tell the story, which is the best one can hope for in suitamation, but Akira Ifukube's score is quite stirring enough on its own, incorporating both Godzilla's and Mothra's themes rather neatly.
Both starring monsters went on to long and successful careers both together and separately after this movie, and reunited for the very-nearly-as-good remake Godzilla Vs Mothra in 1992. And even in retirement, Godzilla's place in cinema history is assured. Age shall not wither him, nor dodgy American remakes with Matthew Broderick. This is one of the best films of a legendary character, and probably the greatest radioactive-dinosaur-fights-mystic-butterfly movie ever made.
I Love The Seventies (But I'm Not So Keen On The Noughties)
Old-fashioned hi-jinks of a distinctly different tenor are on offer in Todd Phillips' Starsky & Hutch, based - as if it needed to be said - on the seventies TV show of the same name. I am only just barely old enough to dimly recall the series on its original UK transmission, but it seemed to re-run constantly in the eighties - and in case, surely everyone has the bare essentials branded into their brains by now: WASPish cop, Polish cop, more-than-a-bit-racist informant, the most iconic car in television history, a relationship with undertones that inspired a thousand slash fanfics, running around, groovy theme music...
The new movie is sort of grimly impressive in the way it takes all the recognisable elements of the Starsky & Hutch TV show and then relentlessly guts them in order to provide a generic vehicle for two popular contemporary comedians. Ben Stiller is Starsky! Owen Wilson is Hutch! And Awix is getting a bit sick of all these sneeringly ironic remakes of classic TV shows...
That's not to say that Starsky & Hutch isn't an amusing and well-made film on its own terms. Set in 1975 California, the plot sees the neurotic Starsky and the more-than-slightly-corrupt Hutch teamed up and put on the trail of millionaire drug dealer Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn in an impressively tacky perm and 'tache). Snoop Dogg plays Huggy Bear, not especially well. What follows is basically a series of comedy sketches poking fun at various police-procedural cliches and seventies fads. Some of these work better than others - in particular, an Easy Rider parody made me chuckle rather a lot, as did a couple of gags at the expense of famous bits from the TV show's title sequence.
But these moments are pretty much all the movie has to do with the TV show. There's no attempt to recreate the characters from the series, the two leads basically recycle their established comic personae - Stiller is twitchy and a bit straight-laced, but at least he at times bears a striking resemblence to Paul Michael Glaser. This is more than can be said for Wilson, who, as ever, resembles a boy-band version of Jimmy Stewart following a botched rhinoplasty. Glaser and David Soul are wheeled on at the end, you may be interested to hear, for a crushingly knowing encounter with their replacements - but they have the decency to look properly embarrassed. Antonio Fargas is nowhere to be seen - always a cool customer, that boy...
I sort of enjoyed this film but I still came out feeling a bit cheated. If you changed the character names and got rid of the Ford Gran Tourino this could be Bad Boys 3 or something completely new and you'd never know. It's really just an extremely cynical attempt to cash in on the value of the Starsky & Hutch brand, more brazen even than previous attempts like Charlie's Angels or Lost In Space. The film-makers seem rather contemptuous both of the original series, thinking it has nothing material to offer a contemporary film, and also the audience, thinking we'll stumble along to any old thing with a famous name. (Although they may be right - this film has taken over $40 million at the American box office alone at the time of writing.)
Anyway, surely I faintly hear the sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped (unless the long-threatened film version of The Six Million Dollar Man is finally on its way) - there can't be that many more classic TV shows to mess up, and they certainly can't make a film adaptation less true to the spirit of the original than this. That's the strange anomaly at the centre of this film: as a knockabout comedy, it's pretty good - but as a Starsky & Hutch movie, it's a bit disappointing.