Hello everyone, and welcome once again to 24 Lies A Second, the column you can
safely ignore. Before we get on with the reviews I thought I would explain why I will not be
examining Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind herein. This is, of course, a principled stand
made in objection to the film's shameless tampering with historical accuracy. It's a little known
fact that in reality John Nash, upon whose life the film purports to be based, was a member of a
persecuted and ridiculed minority, something which it entirely neglects to mention.Yes, that's
right, Nash was an obsessive fan of the children's SF TV series Doctor Who (it's true, it
said so in The Guardian), but is this mentioned in this so-called biography? Of course it
isn't. It's hard enough to be a DW fan at the best of times and this sort of wilful ignorance
from a major studio will do nothing to help the many young people who every year have to come
to terms with their innate fannishness. So no review from me. (The film doesn't mention his
bisexuality either, but let's get our priorities sorted out here.)
Hedorah Above Water
Removing tongue from cheek, let's turn our attention to something really worthy of close
inspection, Tomoyuki Tanaka's 1971 film Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, the 11th outing
for Japan's biggest movie star.
My copy of this movie lists the theme as 'monsters, pollution' and no sane person could
possibly quibble with such a description. (The director probably could, but as the word 'sane'
seems quite inappropriate for him, this hardly makes any difference.) The story concerns the
appearance of grotesque tadpole-like creatures in the polluted water surrounding Japan.
Badly-dubbed marine biologist Dr Yano (Akira Yamanouchi) and his fantastically irritating son
Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) investigate and discover the creatures - which Ken names 'Hedorah' for
no apparent reason - are composed of hydrocarbons and sulphur in a manner previously unknown
to science. The Hedorahs live on pollution and give off corrosive clouds of sulphuric acid. As if
this wasn't bad enough, they also have the ability to amalgamate into a single giant super-Hedorah
with shape-shifting powers. Of course, this is exactly what they do, and the giant Hedorah,
clearly lacking imagination, sets off on the well-trodden path of attacking Japanese cities and
destroying all in its path. Sure enough, Godzilla shows up looking for a fight.
Let's cut to the chase. As you've probably guessed, Godzilla vs The Smog Monster is
a terrible, terrible film. It has virtually no plot, the performances are all dire and the special
effects a long way sub-Gerry Anderson. And yet... it remains weirdly, hypnotically watchable.
It's bad, but it's a hallucinatory, transcendental badness. On paper it sounds like just another
monster B-movie but this doesn't take into account Tanaka's bizarre direction. This incorporates
split-screen sequences, unexplained lapses into black and white, 'educational' slide-shows about
astronomy, a couple of musical numbers (sadly untranslated in the UK video release), and
strange, allegorical animations. It's a sign of how trippy things get that the sudden appearance of
a stuntman in a foam-rubber dinosaur costume feels like a welcome return to reality.
To be honest, Tanaka seems much more interested in Hedorah than his nominal star - the
Smog Monster certainly gets a lot more screen-time. This is despite the awful Hedorah suits,
most of which resemble a cross between a seaweed-wrapped Demis Roussos and a clump of
raw sewage. For all of this though, there's a palpable atmosphere of corruption and decay - due
partly to incessant, repeated footage of sludge-filled rivers, smog-belching cooling towers and
foaming oil-slicks, and partly to some unusually explicit horror (for a Godzilla movie, anyway).
There's a fairly high 'ick' factor here (particularly when Hedorah tries to smother the big lizard by
crapping toxic waste all over him).
But it's nice to see a Godzilla movie from the 1970s not concerned with alien invasions and
monster tag-battles . It may not be subtle or clever but Godzilla vs The Smog Monster is
actually about something vaguely relevant to the real world (although the film conveniently fudges
the fact that good monster Godzilla is a product of the same radioactive pollution as bad monster
Hedorah). It's a film with a conscience, a film with a message for the world, and with this in
mind, can we really just dismiss it as mind-boggling trash?
Giger Counter 2
Well, what are the odds? You wait weeks without a single monster movie getting a mention
and then suddenly two come along at once. Yup, let's look at James Cameron's 1986 classic,
Looking back at Cameron's filmography as a director, it's clear that originality is not the
man's strong point. It's a collection of reworkings of other people's material (The Terminator,
True Lies) and sequels (Piranha 2: Flying Killers, Terminator 2, the film in question)
and, of course, based-on-fact disaster movies. The sole exception to this is The Abyss,
which I've always found to be his weakest movie for a major studio.
But anything he lacks in terms of inventiveness he makes up for in his ability to deliver a
high-octane head-banging action movie, and that's exactly what Aliens is. 57 years after
the events of the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her cat Jones (a cat) are rescued
from their deep-space deep-freeze. Her employers refuse to believe her story concerning the
fate of the Nostromo... until contact is lost with an outpost on the planet they originally
found the alien creature. Along with an amoral company executive (Paul Reiser) and a squad of
marines (Cameron regulars Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn and Jenette Goldstein
amongst them), Ripley sets out for the remote colony, where nastiness inevitably ensues...
I think Aliens is a better film than its predecessor for one simple reason - James
Cameron may not have Ridley Scott's unique visual flair, but he has an instinctive grasp of
storytelling, and he knows that a great action film is all about tension, characterisation, and
ultimately delivering the thrills. There are no pointless 2001 homages in Aliens
(well, maybe there's one right at the start), nary a wasted shot or redundant line. There's
suspense in bucketloads (largely achieved by simply not featuring the monsters until nearly
halfway through the film), and a small cast of readily identifiable, if not always likeable,
characters (with the exception of Reiser's wretched yuppie-scum). And of course, the climax of
the film has the remarkable, iconic Alien Queen as its killer punch - though this isn't to dismiss the
other superb set-pieces (my favourite is the escape through the ducting culminating in Vasquez
and Gorman's trick with the grenades).
Cameron knows how to make a great sequel, too: virtually all the elements of the original film
reappear, but his approach to them is sufficiently different to keep them fresh and engaging. The
one real change is quite subtle - where Alien was on a deep level a psychological horror
story about rape, Aliens - for all its testosterone-fuelled frenzy - is about the alarming
power of the maternal instinct. But it still manages to make the original film look like nothing more
than a low-key prologue, and at the same time sets an impossibly high stand for the subsequent
films in the series.
Next week, yet another monster movie - well, sort of - when I hope to take a look at The
Mothman Prophecies. Don't fail to miss it.