New World Order | Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) Review

Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Starring Kōsuke Toyohara, Anna Nakagawa, Megumi Odaka

“Does Godzilla have something to do with it?”
“No, we do not know his intentions.”

Opening with a tease is almost never a good idea. It always feels so arbitrary, to show a moment from the middle of the story and then say “One Year Earlier.” When we get back to that moment chronologically, it never feels like anything. “Oh, great, so that’s how we know that happened.” It might not even be inherently bad but that its use is so automated, because test screenings find the beginning too slow. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah opens with maybe the ultimate tease, informing us we’re in the year 2204 before “flashing back” to present-day 1992. That’s not a good sign, and neither is our ostensible lead, Kenichiro Terasawa, being a science fiction writer. Made famous by a book on ESP, he’s hoping to break into more human interest stories, which is a dramatic need that hardly screams “Godzilla movie.” Fortunately for us, his human interest turns out to be a veteran of World War II who believes that dinosaurs still yet live. Then we cut to a classic government conference room where people in suits discuss The Situation, this time involving UFOs. There’s a lot going on already.

The question is whether Terasawa and the government people, and their respective scenes, will provide any function beyond exposition. We’re already learning that Godzilla may be a species of dinosaur mutated by radiation on the island Lagos, that Godzilla is still weak from the anti-radiation bacteria (see: Biollante), and that there’s a UFO. Funnily enough, these early scenes are paced naturally and the exposition isn’t as chaotic as its subject matter. The military sets up around the UFO like The Day the Earth Stood Still and a green light delivers humanoid people and ‘90s Godzilla officially stops giving a fuck. We made it a whole two movies and 15 minutes. And yet, there’s a grounding in something familiar. When the UFO people go for a handshake, the human politicians phase through them with a music sting to indicate: holograms! This is a Showa movie.

And despite that the UFO’s arrival decimated two helicopters and orphaned some kids, first contact is otherwise peaceful. These are not, in fact, Venusians, but future humans traveling to the past bearing a terrible message: “Godzilla will soon destroy Japan.” But, you know, for real this time. The government people call in Terasawa, who’s handed the very book he’s in the process of writing, published and time-worn. He was the one who published the Lagos theory, which gives Miki Saegusa (a returning favorite now on “the Godzilla team,” as they keep saying) the idea to use the UFO/time machine to prevent the creation of Godzilla. Their mission coincides with an American landing on the island, where a garrison of Imperial Japanese await their doom, only for the dinosaur – Godzillasaurus – to intervene. Being far larger than the T. rex in Jurassic Park, for example, the Godzillasaurus’s chief attack is simply to walk forward, which brings trees down on hapless GIs.

The captain of this garrison, Shindo, believes that the dinosaur saved the lives of himself and his men, and he leads a funeral service after it’s been fatally wounded, but this was no act of God. Of all Godzilla origins, this one never really worked for me, despite that the Godzillasaurus is super fun. I mean, I love giant monsters, but what I really love is, you know, regular-sized monsters. They’re more interactive. The Godzillasaurus can be shot at, and doing so mysteriously produces Gamera sounds. Regardless, it’s harder to parse when you actually see the creature that’s supposedly mutated by radiation. When those details are left to the imagination, or it exists on a more purely metaphorical level, it’s easier to accept. But because acceptance isn’t conditional to enjoying a Godzilla movie, I will say that it renders Godzilla an animal, not an unknowable cosmic power.

The time travelers, including the Japanese Emmy and the android M-11, teleport the wounded Godzillasaurus to the bottom of the ocean – harsh – and replace him with three “dorats” as part of the plan not shared with Miki and the gang. The dorats are little bat-like creatures who, when irradiated as Godzilla was supposed to be, for some reason turn into a golden three-headed dragon who destroys Japan. Yes, this is Showa right down to the alien betrayal. You just can’t trust people who arrive on Earth with a plan. “Godzilla is destroyed, but King Ghidorah has appeared,” they say. Who came up with that name? What’s he the king of? It doesn’t matter. He starts his rampage in Kyushu, and man, does it look so good. A daylight sequence, with great scenery – plenty of billboards, bridges, water. And then there’s King Ghidorah, who’s a fascinating part of the overall Godzilla aesthetic, as not a prehistoric creature but a riff on Japanese folklore. A horned dragon with golden scales and multiple heads? Gigan gets a lot of credit for being one of the weirder G foes, but let’s give it up for this guy.

We discover that these time travelers are not the most honest representatives of future Earth. Emmy tells Terasawa that they’re a grassroots organization dedicated to equalizing world powers. See, in the 21st century, Japan will become astronomically rich and buy entire continents! This is 1991, so writer Kazuki Ōmori must be reflecting on dramatic shifts in the balance of international power. As nuclear weapons were banned at some point in our near future, the only way to stop Japan is King Ghidorah, doing what Godzilla apparently couldn’t. The secret ingredient? You guessed it: mind control. Remote-control Ghidorah is effectively blackmail, with the time travelers making demands of the government people. Back to the conference room! But the suits proceed to do more than exposit. Their plan is to resurrect Godzilla by firing a missile at him (it sounds better in context), which requires a submarine lease from none other than Shindo, now a wealthy businessman who’s decorated his office with awesome dinosaur toys.

It took nearly an hour, but this is pretty good. If a little, you know, completely nuts. Conspiracies, World War II, dinosaurs, time travel, androids, nukes, Japanese world dominance – all to get two monsters known for fighting each other to finally fight each other. It’s a wonder that it doesn’t feel like too much setup, but before we know it, all the pieces are in place. Miki flies in with an update on Godzilla, and as part of the Godzilla team, that’s her specialty. Emmy defects from the time travelers to aid the present-day Japanese, taking M-11 with her. The government people can do their high-level things. Sure, the film is light on character, but everyone has their own slice of the exposition, and this gives them dimension, or at least, parameters. They don’t just blur together. And Terasawa stays active in the story, with a spring to his step and moments of actual comedy. He takes it pretty well, that his potentially world-saving book was never a bestseller.

The first fight between Godzilla and King Ghidorah takes place in a nice green field with nice green bushes, the first in what turns out to be a variety of settings, like we’re on the map selector in Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee. Lots of dynamic shots here, especially when King Ghidorah takes flight and for some reason Godzilla gets shy about shooting his blue fire. He’s triumphant however, and then goes on a rampage of his own. Damn. The movie tries desperately to differentiate this Godzilla from the old one, but to my mind, he’s the same. Godzilla was never a savior, so don’t tell me “Shindo didn’t account for this.” And you know, this is the one where Godzilla blasts a guy who thinks he’s his friend, and as close to point-blank range as he can get. It’s pretty metal. This attack in Sapporo is the nighttime set piece, with the fireballs against the night sky and the maser tanks. Beautiful imagery, especially when the army occupies the foreground and Tokyo Tower in the background, with Godzilla in between. (I don’t know what Tokyo Tower is doing in Sapporo. Something must’ve gotten lost in translation).

Perhaps now’s the time I should explain why there are such significant gaps between these Godzilla reviews. I’d originally hoped to do them in a marathon, even planning to draft all of them first, in case I needed to retcon something in an earlier installment. But after Return and especially Biollante, I was beginning to wonder if I even liked Godzilla movies. Return was plainly bad, but I had high hopes for Biollante. The Heisei era is what I grew up with, but only in bits and pieces on the Sci-Fi Channel. I remember seeing these amazing images of Godzilla in the ocean fighting with the Navy, or moving through an exploding city. I wanted so badly to live in the Japan that these movies created. Maybe they were made more exciting by the promise of their dino destruction, but I think it’s also that these model makers had an opportunity to remake their own cities in an idealized way. But viewed through the eyes of an adult, I’m too distracted by the bad storytelling and the vacuum of emotions, whether suspense or joy or shock.

Cue Mecha King Ghidorah, who arrives back-lit by his own light source. The frame-narrative tease, which helps establish the time travel theme, is when Emmy decides to resurrect King Ghidorah to defeat Godzilla, and now she’s piloting the cyborg. I wonder if she hears its soul in there. Stiff but expressive, Godzilla registers surprise when Mecha King Ghidorah gets back up after a bad hit. The fight choreography remains slow, with a move thrown out, like, once a minute, but there are a lot of explosions to make up for it. When a monster is made of metal, suddenly there are pieces to blast off.

Removing the “God” from Godzilla in this one actually takes away his agency, and while that sounds bad, it’s a crapshoot entrusting a monster with agency. Here, he and King Ghidorah are chess pieces between more human characters who can supply the motivation and emotion. When the two monsters clash in this final battle, it isn’t just characters watching a fight with no stakes. I mean, it is characters watching, but it feels like, hey, they’ve all done enough, even the government people. The film’s climax is a culmination of their efforts.

Beyond that Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is impressively coherent and approaches each set piece as a unique showcase for effects and action, I think the movie helped expand just what a Godzilla movie could be – while still being one. Barring any future revelations (and their retcons), this may be the best a Godzilla movie can be without also being some sort of special project like Final Wars or Shin Godzilla (I go up and down on Final Wars every time I see it). This one is quintessential, but it’s also bursting at the seams with ideas and enthusiasm. It adapts what came before, in the Showa Era, and maybe pivots from the developments of its immediate predecessors, but surprises with an easy on-ramp to the sci-fi excess. And in that territory, what doesn’t work simply becomes a quirk. In the end, Emmy returns to her own time, and the day is saved. Consider us on track for ownership by Japan one day.


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