A Shimmering Vegetable Death | Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989) Review

Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Starring Kunihiko Mitamura, Yoshiko Tanaka, Masanobu Takashima

“I think now I made a mistake.”

Godzilla vs. Biollante is good. Especially for the Heisei era, it’s held in high regard among Godzilla movies. Surprisingly, it derives a lot of its profitable ambition from being a true sequel to Return of Godzilla, imagining what the world would be like after a giant monster attack. We find that international corporate interests are competing for Godzilla cells, whose magic properties have the potential to shift world power. In the fictitious and ridiculous Middle Eastern country “Saradia,” a nationalized oil firm plans to harvest the cells’ immortality to grow vegetation in the desert, divesting the region of its reliance on a valuable but limited resource. Meanwhile, the American company Bio-Major resorts to terrorism to claim the cells, as their science experiment would neutralize the threat posed by nuclear missiles. Somehow, in the midst of this political spy thriller, a giant rose emerges from the sea, and Godzilla burns it with the heat ray.

The plot is refreshingly complicated, ensuring the “in-between parts” are bristling with purpose. However, the characters occupying these parts are so ill-defined that their scenes appear to begin and end arbitrarily. As always, Godzilla vs. Biollante demarcates the human story from the Godzilla scenes, but it further divides the human story into scenes of “character” and “exposition.” You know you’re in “character” when the music is soft piano, and it’s the ostensible leads Dr. Kirishima and Asuka chatting about their relationship by the beach. Unfortunately, we don’t learn who these people really are, either via backstory or the decisions they make in the present. They simply exist. The storytelling is so vague that even something as straightforward as a scientist who creates a monster out of grief doesn’t end with a reckoning of hubris or any sort of consequence at all.

It’s like an episode of television, like season six, episode three of a show called Godzilla, the one where he fights Biollante. The characters need no introduction, and they can’t really change; save that for the season finale. This makes for an unfortunate listless quality, where characters flip-flop on decisions and nothing is derived from arguments or process. It’s the artifice of storytelling, sitting exposed atop the monster movie. Sometimes the action itself would appear to cease once it’s off-screen! In the end, Godzilla takes a break from his final battle with Biollante, and the characters witnessing the event turn to each other and start talking. Did they forget about Biollante? For the most part, I imagine it’s a confusion of plot and theme, that writers might consider a character arc complete if it fulfills the character’s role in a thematic framework – at the sacrifice of drama. There are just too many characters in Godzilla vs. Biollante, with overlapping responsibilities and sudden relationships.

That said, there’s nothing quite like the image of Godzilla moving across a city skyline at night, flame in his wake, with that music playing. The miniatures, superimposed on well-chosen urban areas, like a pedestrian bridge in Osaka, are all wonderful despite the decreased budget from Return. I love the setting for the first battle between Godzilla and Biollante, which feels like an arena with the fog and the spotlights along the edges shooting into the sky. And after Godzilla blasts that flower abomination, it explodes into gentle, glowing spores that spiral toward heaven. Godzilla movies, working with their massive scale, sometimes luck into moments of awesome beauty.

And that may undermine the agency of the filmmakers, especially the director Kazuki Ōmori, who sadly passed away last month, but it’s a miracle when these movies work at all, given their rapid turnaround and Toho’s notoriety for interference. In Biollante, we’re actually treated to anti-Godzilla strategy, as if the traditional scenes of the military shooting at him ineffectually suddenly became self-aware like SkyNet. Not only does the JSDF try to anticipate where Godzilla will make landfall – with the aid of psychics, no less – they also hatch a cockamamie scheme to lure the beast into a zone of “Thunder Control,” where they’ll zap him with lightning. It’s almost Evangelion, how the military is monitoring the monster’s advance with those see-through map boards. Also on the menu is a species of bacteria developed with Godzilla cells, which is supposed to eat radioactive material.

A group of soldiers, led by the foolhardy Colonel Gondo, is dropped onto that spot in evacuated Osaka, and they fire their bacteria warheads out of RPGs. One of my favorite things in movies is when a mundane setting becomes a playground for the fantastic, and in this case, Gondo explodes an office window to get his shot at Godzilla. Like, how many times have I sat in an office, just daydreaming that Godzilla was outside, or that people had to suddenly run around in places where they normally walk? This is something that was actually captured in the first American Godzilla movie, with Madison Square Garden repurposed as a nest. But then Gondo doesn’t escape in time, and Godzilla collapses the building he’s standing in. A strange scene, because Gondo didn’t even try to escape. Didn’t seem concerned at all.

If there is a tension in Godzilla vs. Biollante, it’s between its too-many ideas (psychics!) and an indifference to integrating them into a cohesive whole. The titular versus between Godzilla and Biollante feels completely disconnected from whatever story’s being told, which of course scuttles the film’s big metaphor. Now, the problem with the original Godzilla metaphor is that it works regardless of the narrative designed around it. As a result, most people know what Godzilla represents, but couldn’t recount the details of the first movie’s story. It hasn’t been memorialized by remakes like King Kong. Godzilla, from 1954, then feels incomplete, which made for a problem with Return of Godzilla. Just as Biollante offers the follow-up to Return that Return didn’t grant Godzilla, it introduces a new metaphor, this time regarding genetics. Certainly, ethical questions are raised, but in the end, Godzilla kills Biollante, and that doesn’t leave room for answers.

Successful metaphor or not, Biollante is a wonderful entry to the Godzilla bestiary, as there’s just something uncanny about a mutating creature that takes the shape of its enemy. Those crocodile jaws are an otherworldly mockery – of something already not of this earth. The puppet is massive, towering over Godzilla, and strangely shaped, all hunched over. And the scenes where the military is scrambling ahead of Godzilla’s attack, despite some flat-looking rain effects, is especially great here, where you have construction vehicles pulling something together alongside the tanks and jeeps and masers, which actually back up after shooting instead of sitting there, waiting for atomic obliteration. They’re luring him onto the lightning pads. It’s a small but important difference, and that’s Biollante in a nutshell. An improvement over the previous installment, it’s only the fundamentals missing. Such a criticism would usually speak to an absolutely compromised film, but this one has Godzilla burning a giant rose with a heat ray.

Doesn’t always pay to be the king


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