Archive for Reviews and Such

Godzilla Review: Godzilla Becomes Gamera, or the Docile Dinosaur

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I had very high hopes for the new American Godzilla from Legendary Pictures. I loved their last giant monster movie, Pacific Rim, so I was hoping they could put a fresh spin on the saga of one of the most famous giant monsters of them all, Godzilla.

Unfortunately, the spin they decided to put on their Godzilla was to turn him into an earthbound Gamera, specifically the Gamera of Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. In that picture, pollution awakens three Gyaos giant carnivorous flying monsters, determined to wipe out humanity, who then have to be fought and defeated by Gamera, Earth’s and mankind’s protector. In the new Godzilla, radiation from a Japanese nuclear plant and from buried American nuclear waste awakens two MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects), one of which flies (and which looks suspiciously like a Gyaos). One MUTO is male (the flying one) and the other is female, and they are determined to wipe out humanity by filling the Earth with their offspring. They must be fought and defeated by Godzilla, Earth’s and mankind’s protector.

Actually, Godzilla is amazingly benevolent towards mankind in this picture, considering that Dr. Serizowa (named after the Dr. Serizowa in the 1954 original version) reveals that all those American atom bomb and hydrogen bombs tests in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s were actually attempts to kill Godzilla. Yet we see scene after scene of modern U.S. Navy destroyers escorting Godzilla across the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco, close enough for the monster to swat with his tail or plink with one of his outsized claws, and he doesn’t lay a single reptilian scale on them. Once in San Francisco, he seems to take inordinate care to not knock over any buildings, or at least not any more than necessary while doing the rather ho-hum job of defeating the MUTOs (who look an awful lot like the giant praying mantises that Godzilla faced on Monster Island in Son of Godzilla). Dr. Serizowa (who does not invent an oxygen destroyer in this film, nor any other type of anti-Godzilla weapon) explains that Godzilla is Earth’s special resource to maintain the balance of nature. Cue the garlands of daisies…

The monster battles (what most of the audience showed up for) mostly lack pizzazz, and many of them are set at night, which tends to make the scenes murky and hard to follow (I had the same complaint about some of the jaeger-kaiju fights in Pacific Rim). However, I will give the screenwriters and the special effects technicians their props for figuring out two very satisfying ways for Godzilla to put the kibosh on his foes (not such a big spoiler, since you know there’ll be a sequel).

About two thirds of the film is taken up with a rather paint-by-the-numbers domestic plot involving a U.S. Army bomb demolitions expert, his nurse wife, and their young son. The actors are all appealing and earnest, but no new territory was paved here – just the standard family-in-peril scenario. Near the end of the film comes a moment so unbelievable that it stretches even the low level of verisimilitude to be found in a giant monster movie. The nuclear missile which the hero had been attempting to dismantle instead plods out of San Francisco Harbor on a fishing boat set on auto pilot. It couldn’t have made it more than a couple of miles outside the harbor when the one-megaton warhead explodes. No one dies. No massive wave engulfs what is left of San Francisco. Our hero, entirely exposed to the blast wave and radiation, suffers no ill effects.

Yes, I wanted very much to like it. Parts of it I did. And my sons thoroughly enjoyed it; my oldest said it was the best monster movie he had ever seen. I’ll have to show him the original King Kong again, or the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters. But I’m afraid the “old school” special effects pale in the eyes of the young generation in comparison with the latest computer-generated effects.

Comparing Kaiju Reboots: Godzilla vs. Gamera

Note: This is an article I originally published in July, 2013. I haven’t yet seen the new American Godzilla, so this isn’t a review of that. Rather, this is a look back at the most recent reboot of Godzilla, Japanese-style, and a comparison with the most recent reboot of one of Godzilla’s screen rivals, Gamera.

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With little-known director Gareth Edwards currently working on an American reboot of Godzilla, scheduled for release during the Big G’s sixtieth anniversary in 2014, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the last time movie-makers gave rebooting classic kaiju characters a shot. The most recent two efforts were Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Gamera the Brave (2006). I recently had an opportunity to view the two films almost back to back, in order to best compare and contrast their differing approaches to renewing the appeal of long-lived kaiju stars.

Godzilla: Final Wars represented Toho Studio’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of their most famous creation. It was their 28th Godzilla film and the sixth in the Millennium series (the character’s earlier two series are known as the Showa series and the Heisei series). They clearly meant to “pull out all the stops” with this film, stuffing it full of monsters from earlier movies (many of which had not been seen on the big screen in twenty-five or thirty years), cameo appearances from veteran Godzilla actors, and many hat tips to plot elements from earlier films (the alien Xilians have a good bit in common with the aliens from Planet X in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). In many ways, it can be seen as a remake of Toho’s fondly remembered Destroy All Monsters (1968), which featured eleven of Toho’s kaiju stable.

One of the oddest elements of the film is how little of it is dedicated to its supposed star, Godzilla. In common with nearly all the films of the Heisei and Millennium series, Godzilla is portrayed with minimal personality, little more than a very bad-ass radioactive dinosaur with a great big chip on its shoulder. Thus, the screenwriters felt compelled to fill up the majority of the movie with plot elements centering on the human (or mutant) characters. The first half of the movie comes off as a Japanese version of the X-Men film series. It focuses almost entirely on two rival mutant soldiers in the Earth Defense Force’s M-Unit. The two mutants, Shinichi and Katsunori, are both friends and rivals, and they vie for the affections of a molecular biologist, Miyuki, who is recruited by the United Nations to study a mummified space monster (which turns out to be Gigan). Another standout character is Douglas Gordon (portrayed by American mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Don Frye), the captain of the EDF’s attack submarine, the Gotengo (itself a retread of the submarine from 1963’s Atragon). The Gotengo, with Gordon aboard as a young cadet, had trapped Godzilla in Antarctic ice forty years prior to the future in which Final Wars is set. In a weird costuming choice (which somehow works for me), Gordon, who is presumably an American working for the United Nations, dresses like a World War Two-era Russian commissar.

No one can complain that they skimped on the monsters!

The biggest draw of the film is the huge number of giant monsters from earlier Godzilla movies which it drew out of retirement. Final Wars tops Destroy All Monsters’ tally by featuring fourteen kaiju (or twenty-one, if you include seven kaiju who make brief appearances via stock footage). The all-star line-up includes Godzilla (last seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Manda (most recently seen in Destroy All Monsters back in 1968), Minilla (this version of the Son of Godzilla hadn’t been on screen since 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge), Rodan (as Radon, he’d last appeared in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2), Anguirus (most recently seen in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), King Caesar (his only prior appearance was in the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Mothra (most recently seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah (Ghidorah, a Toho staple, had last appeared in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001), Gigan (not seen since 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan), Hedorah (his only star turn had come in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), Ebirah (last seen, in stock footage taken from 1967’s Gozilla vs. the Sea Monster, in Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969), Zilla (the American Godzilla, whose only appearance came in 1998’s Godzilla), Kumonga and Kamacuras (both previously seen in Godzilla’s Revenge). Other classic kaiju also make brief appearances via stock footage, including Varan (last seen in Destroy All Monsters after starring in Varan the Unbelievable in 1958), Baragon (most recently seen in 2001 in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), Gezora (Space Amoeba, 1970), Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas, 1966), Mechagodzilla (most recently seen in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. in 2003), Megaguirus (Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, 2000), and Titanosaurus (Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975).

What do you get when you cross a kaiju with a Swiss Army Knife?

Unfortunately, having to divide screen time between so many monsters leaves precious little time for any individual monster to shine, especially given that much of the first half of the movie is given over to interactions between the human, mutant, and space alien characters. For example, I would’ve loved to see more of a rematch between Hedorah, the Smog Monster, and Godzilla, but their battle takes up less than ten seconds on screen, Godzilla batting him aside as though he were a tomato can. (By way of contrast, in their first encounter, back in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, retroactively written out of existence in the Millennium series, the Big G took an entire movie to figure out how to put Hedorah down for the count; the Smog Monster was one of those horrors who got “killed” multiple times but kept rising from apparent defeat.)

Part of the conceit of the films of the Millennium series is that none of them follow the earlier movies in the series; the only precursor each film has is the original 1954 Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Thus, each Millennium movie represents a reboot of almost everything that came before it. However, over his then fifty-year history in films, Godzilla had enjoyed long, even complex relationships with a number of other kaiju. Ghidorah was the George Foreman to Godzilla’s Mohammed Ali, having fought Godzilla nearly ten times before. Godzilla also boasted some allies of long-standing. Rodan had assisted him in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters before battling him (as Radon or Fire Rodan) in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2. Anguiras started out as a foe in the very first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, and then became one of Godzilla’s most indefatigable allies in Destroy All Monsters and the original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Godzilla’s most interesting long-term relationship could be said to be the one he shared with Mothra. They had started off as antagonists (in 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra), gone on to be allies in multiple adventures (in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters), become enemies again (in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), and finally allies once more (in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars. Yet because of the set-up of Final Wars and all the earlier films in the Millennium series, the screenwriters had to pretend that the clashes in Final Wars (all the other monsters, with the exceptions of Manda and Mothra, were under the mental control of the Xilians) represented the very first time that Godzilla was encountering his fellow kaiju.

I think this represented a major lost opportunity for the makers of Final Wars. For me, at least, a good bit of the attraction and charm of the later films in the original Showa series, from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster through Terror of Mechagodzilla, comes from the interactions between Godzilla and his fellow monsters. In the Showa series, the last film in which Godzilla is a pure heavy is Godzilla vs. Mothra; beyond that film, Godzilla generally serves as a protector of Japan or at least a somewhat benevolent force, allied to an extent with the human heroes. Although his antics could sometimes be silly (such as his flying stunts in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Godzilla vs. Gigan), they could just as often be wry and charming. Ever since Godzilla 1985, though, the first film in the Heisei series, filmmakers have been loathe to incorporate any of those elements of Godzilla’s earlier personality. In each of the subsequent movies (with the notable exception of Godzilla’s “origin story,” Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, when the proto-Godzilla shows empathy for a group of trapped Japanese soldiers in World War Two), the Big G is portrayed as an angry dinosaur of very little brain, a virtually mindless engine of destruction (and thus a reflection of his persona in his very first appearance on the big screen).

Ten years after Toho relaunched their Godzilla character with Godzilla 1985, the first film of the Heisei series, rival studio Daiei relaunched their own popular kaiju star, Gamera, in his own Heisei series with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). (Gamera, of course, had been a late response to Godzilla’s success of the 1950s and 1960s, first appearing in 1965, after Godzilla had already starred in five films.) Two more Gamera films followed. Then, in 2006, filmmakers decided to reboot Gamera’s continuity yet again in Gamera the Brave. This film begins with the original Gamera sacrificing himself in 1973 to destroy several Gyaos monsters to save Earth. Thirty-three years later, a young boy discovers a glowing egg on an island, which hatches into a seemingly normal tortoise, but one which is actually the son of Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 1

The little tortoise soon alerts his owner, young Toru, that he is no ordinary turtle by levitating in the air. Soon thereafter, he begins a tremendous growth spurt, and the two friends are separated after the flying turtle, named Toto, outgrows Toru’s bedroom and Toru tries to find an outdoor home for his unusual pet. Later, Toru and Toto are reunited when a new, aggressive kaiju, Zedus, attacks Toru’s city. Toto’s initial effort to battle Zedus is unsuccessful, but Toru and the newly gigantic Toto team up to ultimately defeat the rampaging Zedus, and Toto takes up the full power set and mantle of his parent, Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 2

I’ll admit that Gamera the Brave ended up being a much more impressive and satisfying movie than I’d expected it to be. In large part, this is due to the strong performances given by the movie’s child actors (in stark contrast to the insufferable, grating, oftentimes almost unwatchable performances of child actors in the movies of the original Showa series; maybe it was the poor quality dubbing that made those performances seem so awful, but I can’t imagine the performances come off much better in the original Japanese). In comparing Gamera the Brave to Godzilla: Final Wars, I think the former film does a better job of encapsulating, modernizing, and strengthening the key element that gave the Showa films their appeal. The Gamera reboot tells the story of a powerful friendship between a child and a giant monster; beyond the original Gamera the Invincible (1965), all of the Showa series movies centered around Gamera’s efforts to befriend and protect the children of Japan. In contrast, Godzilla: Final Wars, while reintroducing a small army of Godzilla’s former allies and foes, ignores the relationships between the kaiju that provided so much of the appeal of the latter Showa series Godzilla films.

Unfortunately, Frank Darabont, screenwriter for the upcoming American Godzilla reboot, sounds determined to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor screenwriters of the Heisei and Millennium series Godzilla films, explaining in an interview that he wants his Godzilla to be perceived as a terrifying force of nature. He dismisses the later films of the Showa series:

“And then he became Clifford the Big Red Dog in the subsequent films. He became the mascot of Japan, he became the protector of Japan. Another big ugly monster would show up and he would fight that monster to protect Japan. Which I never really quite understood, the shift. What we’re trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy. We’re kind of taking a cool new look at it.”

So Darabont seems to believe that the most recent Godzilla movie that Toho released was 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. He acts as though the Heisei and Millennium films never existed, because what he describes is exactly how the makers of those films reconceptualized Godzilla, returning him to his original persona.

I don’t think this bodes well for an ongoing series of American Godzilla pictures. The last several Millennium series movies were disappointments at the box office (which is why Toho has taken a ten-year break from making any new Godzilla movies and has now licensed that responsibility to Legendary Pictures). It’s hard to sustain a series focused on a brainless “terrifying force of nature.”

At long last, the Big G gets his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But even if the newest Godzilla does a colossal belly flop in the theaters in 2014, at least the Big G can rest easy that he has his official star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a gift from Hollywood on his fiftieth birthday…

The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Too Much of a Bad Thing

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I will admit right now that I did not see the first film in the Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, nor did I pay much attention to its reviews. Oh, I picked up that Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker tended toward the “emo” side even more than Toby Maguire had. But that was about all I had going into this new motion picture this past weekend with my kids. We had all enjoyed the first two big-budget Spider-Man films with Toby Maguire, and I was expecting a movie with much the same tone – lots of humor, some romance, a little bit of horror with the villains, and some great special effects and fight choreography.

The movie started off well enough. Spider-Man foils a theft of plutonium and is just as wise-cracking in the process as he generally is in the comics. The very end of the film also had the same tone, when Spider-Man ended up battling the same character (who is played for laughs) in a very different villainous guise. But the in-between parts? Dark, dark, dark.

The movie features two main villains and one “minor” villain at the end. Honestly, this was two villains too many. And the tone of the villains seemed way off for a Spider-Man film. Batman’s villains are walking horrors (the Joker, Clayface, Two-Face, the Scarecrow, etc.). Spider-Man’s villains, on the other hand, are supposed to verge on the near-goofy, at least in their original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko and Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. portrayals.

Think of the original portrayals of such villains as the Beetle, the Sandman, the Rhino (I’ll never forget the look on his face the first time Spider-Man was able to dissolve his super-costume off of him), and, yes, even Electro (don’t tell me that “electro-shock” yellow hood he originally wore wasn’t somewhat comical). Dr. Octopus wasn’t particularly dark, being more of a forever downtrodden megalomaniac. The darkest members of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery was the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborne, and the second Green Goblin, his son, Harry Osborne. But the rest of them were often portrayed for laughs, as the butts of Spider-Man’s quips, even when they teamed up against him in groups such as the Sinister Six.

But in this film, both Electro and the Green Goblin were portrayed like villains straight out of The Dark Knight series. The origin stories (in the film) of Electro and the Green Goblin are both horrific. My kids were covering their ears and closing their eyes. I nearly did the same. When did superhero films become so darn intense? Much of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 felt like a combination of one of the Fast and Furious movies with plentiful helpings of The Evil Dead mixed in. By the end of the first third of this very long movie (two hours and twenty-two minutes), I was regretting my choice to bring my kids (who had loved PG-13 superhero or action movies such as The Avengers and Pacific Rim). They said afterward that they had liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but their reactions during the picture belied that.

Another big failing of this movie was that there is simply too much going on. In their attempts to tie everything together (all revolving around Oscorp), the screen writers throw in:

(a) the deaths of Peter Parker’s parents when Peter was a child (his father was a geneticist working for Oscorp);

(b) the death of Norman Osborne (who in this remake/reboot never becomes the Green Goblin, although his genetic disease causes him to grow goblin-like talons before he dies);

(c) the introduction of a battle suit which Norman had invented, supposedly to save his son’s life from the genetic disease they both shared (but how a flying battle suit with pumpkin bombs is supposed to accomplish this feat is never explained);

(d) Oscorp genetic research on spiders and spider venom (which created Spider-Man in the previous film and which promises to potentially cure Harry Osborne in this one);

(e) Max Dillon’s transformation into Electro (yes, he works for Oscorp and designed the entire power grid of New York City, but he is treated like a lowly flunky at the corporation), care of genetically altered electric eels and a precipitating electrical accident at the Oscorp plant; and

(f) sneak peeks at Oscorp battle suits for the Rhino and Dr. Octopus and possibly other members of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery (the little snippet passed by too fast for me to mentally process all three or four battle suits shown).

So everything is Oscorp, Oscorp, Oscorp. It appears to be, not only the only evil corporation in New York City, but the only corporation, period. Even Gwen Stacey works for Oscorp!

Alas, poor Gwen Stacey. I don’t think I’m ruining the story for too many Spider-Man fans by mentioning here that the poor girl does not come to a good end. To ramp up Peter Parker’s sense of guilt at putting Gwen in jeopardy by being her boyfriend, the film includes two or three “hallucinations” by Peter of the dead Captain Stacey, Gwen’s father, who I presume in the first movie of the reboot series told Peter to stay away from Gwen, and was then killed in the line of duty. But the identity of Captain Stacey’s “ghost” is never made clear in the current film; I only figured it out because I’m familiar with the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. story in which Captain Stacey died during one of Spider-Man’s battles. It blew right by my kids, and I’m sure it blew right by any audience member who is not a hardcore Spider-Man reader and who did not see the first film in the reboot series.

The screenwriters simply cram too much story into too little movie, even though the movie runs nearly 2.5 hours long. There was enough plot here for two or even three movies. The climactic battle against Electro should have been the final climax of this movie – but two more major superhero-super-villain fights are yet to come! In addition to the film’s crescendo of tragedy! Also, Electro, in my humble opinion, is simply portrayed as being far too powerful, way out of Spider-Man’s league. The feats he was able to accomplish in this movie would have made him a worthy foe for the Mighty Thor, who is at least ten times as capable and powerful as Spider-Man. I understand the writer’s temptation to make the hero’s predicament dire, but in this case they overshot the mark, making Spider-Man’s eventual triumph over Electro seem downright unbelievable (yes, I know it is a superhero movie… but it took the entire Avengers team to beat Loki and his minions in The Avengers, and Electro was portrayed as a Loki-class villain in this film, which he never was in the classic Spider-Man comics).

With all the above in mind, I can’t give this picture more than 2 stars out of 5 (and I gave an extra half a star for the very beginning and very end of the movie, both little bits having been enjoyable and in the spirit of Spider-Man). I’m afraid I won’t be taking my kids to see the next one in this series, if I can at all avoid it.

Fiends Without Form: Toho Goes Shapeless with The H-Man, Matango, and Dagora, the Space Monster

Original Japanese poster for Matango

Toho Studios and the dynamic duo of director Ishiro Honda and special effects wizard Eiji Tsubaraya are best known in the U.S. for their kaiju films starring Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and other giant inhabitants of Monster Island. But their kaiju films were far from their only excursions into the science fiction and horror realms. At least three such Toho flicks are notable for featuring amorphous aliens, shapeless specters, random radioactive rascals, or fiends without form (there – I think I’ve exhausted my alliterative abilities, at least for the moment).

A nightclub beauty being dissolved into green goo by the H-Man

Although the best known monstrous mass of moldy goo from 1958 is undoubtedly The Blob, the first film to feature Steve McQueen in a starring role (and also memorable for its tongue-in-cheek hit theme song), Toho actually beat Paramount Pictures to the punch with their not-too-dissimilar horror flick, The H-Man (the former was released in September, 1958, whereas the latter was released in Japan in June, 1958, first appearing in the U.S. in May of the following year). The original title of this sprightly horror film was Beauty and Liquid Men, which suffers when translated into English, as do many Japanese film titles.

As with so many Japanese films of the period, the monsters are created by nuclear radiation out at sea (this is also the scientific explanation behind the mutagenic mushrooms found on the deserted island in Matango). Special effects technician Eiji Tsubaraya, the man behind the effects in all of the Godzilla pictures from the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters to Godzilla’s Revenge, designed the “liquid men” as blue effluence that could move of its own volition and take on roughly human shape.

With much of the film’s action set in or near a nightclub, Masaru Sato composed a jazzy score that adds much liveliness to the film. The nightclub acts give the film a kitschy, vintage charm. The monsters themselves aren’t very scary, until you see one dissolve a beautiful singer. The film’s climax, set in the sewers beneath Tokyo, reminds me of the subterranean climax of Them! (where the giant ants are cornered by the army in the storm sewers beneath Los Angeles. It also adds a good bit of genuine horror to this science fiction pic.

On account of the gangsters and their molls, the nightclub singers, and that suspenseful climax, I give The H-Man three stars out of five.

My favorite of this amorphous “trilogy” is definitely Matango (alternatively titled Attack of the Mushroom People or Matango, Fungus of Terror — the latter one of the all-time great monster film titles). In part, this is because I watched it at least half a dozen times as a kid on late-night or Saturday afternoon TV, so it made a big impression on me. Also, it is an unusual film for Toho and director Ishiro Honda in that it mainly focuses on psychological horror, rather than physical monsters. This is mainly due to its origins in the William Hope Hodgson story, “The Voice in the Night,” a 1907 tale of psychological horror (which I have not yet read, but which is on my list).

I wouldn’t eat that if I were you…

A group of young Japanese men and women on a pleasure yacht are forced to beach their craft on a seemingly deserted island after a fierce storm at sea damages their boat. Much of the island is covered by a rapidly growing fungus, as is another beached yacht, this one abandoned, which they come across. They quickly run out of canned foods and are forced to forage on the island. The yacht’s captain warns them not to eat the mushrooms, as they may be poisonous. They subsist for a while on bird’s eggs (although most birds avoid the island), potatoes, and seaweed, but one of their number succumbs to the call of the mushrooms and eats some. Their influence drives him mad, and he attacks his fellow castaways. One by one, the members of the yachting party eat the mushrooms, and they begin to see shambling, walking mushrooms, some of which appear vaguely human…

I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who haven’t yet seen it, but it’s a doozy. I give Matango four out of five stars for its atmospheric horror, unusual for a Toho film.

Before the script for Giant Space Monster Dogora (retitled Dagora, the Space Monster for American television) was written, I picture Ishiro Honda having the following conversation with monster master Eiji Tusburaya:

“Okay, we’ve done a combination Tyrannosaurus Rex and Stegosaurus (Godzilla, King of the Monsters),” says Honda.
“Check,” says Tusburaya.
“We’ve done a pair of love-sick pterodactyls (Rodan).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a giant moth (Mothra).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a giant flying squirrel (no, not Rocky of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame, but Varan the Unbelievable).”
“Check.”
“We’ve done a three-headed dragon that spits lightning bolts (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster).”
“Check.”
“So what kind of monster haven’t we done?”
“How about a giant space jellyfish that eats coal and dies when exposed to plentiful doses of wasp venom?”
“Fabulous! Get me a script writer!”

Yes, the creature does end up being vulnerable to wasps’ venom, which turns its jelly-like substance crystalline. One of the funniest scenes in the movie (perhaps inadvertent; I couldn’t tell) comes when a trio of hard-luck diamond thieves (Dagora eats carbon; that’s the connection with the jewel thieves) are suddenly crushed by a falling chunk of the crystallized monster while hiding behind a big rock on a beach. Violent slapstick worthy of the Keystone Cops.

If only more of this movie could've looked this mysterious and magical...

This is one of the only Toho science fiction or kaiju films in which the giant monster is not played by a man in a rubber suit. Also, Dogora/Dagora was one of the only Toho giant creatures to not appear in the all-star kaiju cast of Destroy All Monsters in 1968 (c’mon, even Varan the giant flying squirrel puts in a brief appearance in that film).

Despite the beauty of some of the scenes of Dagora in the night sky over Japan, I can only give Dagora, the Space Monster two point five stars out of five, due to the incredibly convoluted nature of its story, involving diamond thieves, coal deposits, wasps, etc. etc. etc. A little too baroque for its own good, I’d say. If only more of the film could have had that fabulous sense of wonder inspired by those few scenes of the creature floating over Tokyo in the night sky…

Book Blogger David Myers’ Cancer Has Recurred

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One of my best friends in the blogosphere, books blogger Professor David Myers, has been informed that his cancer has recurred and that he has, at most, two years left. He has written a wonderful, touching, and profound article called “Dying is a 12-Step Program.” I highly recommend it to anyone who has a friend or family member who is dying, who has a fatal illness his or herself, or who is faced with a major life crisis of any sort.

Also, David’s blog, A Commonplace Blog is fabulous, filled with hundreds of fascinating and illuminating articles about books and authors. Here is a link to his review of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. And here is a link to his article “Best American Fiction, 1968-1998,” in which he includes Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (It is listed and commented upon first on a list of 27 outstanding books, mostly literary fiction; it is the only SF book on the list.) Check it out, too.

And please, if and when you visit the blog, send David your best wishes for his recovery. Miracles have been known to happen, and he did manage to temporarily beat his cancer once before.

Bigfoot Dreams: A Possibly Anxiety-Colored Review

Bigfoot Dreams, Francine Prose

Bigfoot Dreams
Francine Prose
Pantheon Books, 1986 (hardcover)
Owl Publishing Company, 1998 (trade paperback)

As a reader of book reviews or “literary reviews,” as they are sometimes called, I have always wondered, most particularly with reviews having either a strong positive or negative bent, how much of the content of the review was actually based upon the book’s inherent qualities, and how much was based on external circumstances – a past relationship between the author and the reviewer; the reviewer’s reactions to the author’s earlier books; any financial connection between the reviewer and the publisher of the book; and, last but not least, the reviewer’s internal mood when reading the book in question.

Having recently suffered the onset of anxiety/panic disorder and having spent some time recovering from an emotional breakdown, the last element of that question is particularly pertinent to me. When I respond to a book now, am I responding to the book’s inherent qualities, or am I allowing whichever mood was prevalent in me during the majority of my reading (particularly when reading the final chapters) color my opinion of the book? In other words – is it the book, or is it me?

I was introduced to Francine Prose’s novels by critic D. G. Myers’ enthusiastic appraisal of her career. First I read Blue Angel: a Novel (2000), and later I read her Young Adult novel Bullyville (2007) and one of her more recent books for adults, Goldengrove: a Novel (2008). I enjoyed them all. But one of her titles which most intrigued me, as it seemed to have some cross-over appeal to my fantasy and horror interests, was and earlier work, her comic novel Bigfoot Dreams (1986).

Francine Prose writes in the genre which booksellers and publishers call “literary fiction.” “Literary fiction” as a publishing genre is different from the selection of books termed “quality fiction” or “literary works of merit” by critics such as D. G. Myers. In the view of such critics as Professor Myers, books of any publishing genre can rise to the ranks of the “literary” through the high quality of their creation and their fidelity to their author’s intentions and to the needs of that particular genre. For example, The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, can be classified as both a “science fiction novel” and as a “literary work of merit.” Similarly, Professor Myers himself has mentioned Mario Puzo’s popular novel The Godfather as a work which both falls within the “crime genre” due to its plot and characters, and which can also be considered a “literary work of merit,” due to its deep involvement with themes of morality and family loyalty.

The publishing genre which is marketed under the title “literary fiction (also described by Professor Myers as “workshop fiction,” meaning fiction most likely midwifed in one of the nation’s hundreds of MFA Creative Writing Programs) can most often be characterized by a relative lack of emphasis on plot (what happens) and a relatively greater emphasis on character (who things happen to; who drives the story), setting (where and when the book takes place), mood (the emotional impact the words of the story are meant to induce in a reader), or theme (the “deeper” meaning of the story, beyond that which is implied by the surface plot elements; most often theme is revealed through symbolism strategically applied throughout the book). In contrast, nearly all of the other publishing genres (science fiction; fantasy; horror; mystery; romance; Westerns; spoofs or farces) tend to be driven most strongly by plot.

Bigfoot Dreams falls into the sub-genre of comic literary fiction. I estimate its length to be approximately 90,000 words. Of those 90,000 words, I would guesstimate that 15,000 words (about seventeen percent of the book) are directly concerned with incidents, or what we might call “plot elements;” things that happen to the characters, most particularly the main character, New York-based tabloid journalist Vera Perl. The other 75,000 words (or about eighty-three percent of the book) busy themselves with detailed descriptions of the characters; depictions of the main character’s and various subsidiary characters’ thoughts and opinions; carefully worked out metaphors and similes; depictions of various settings; and authorial summarization of various elements of the book’s theme, either directly or through symbolism. It would have been quite possible for Ms. Prose to have written this particular story as a 20,000 word novella and not left out any of the book’s major plot elements. But because plot was not Ms. Prose’s primary concern with this work (or at least less of a concern than it was with any of the other three of her works which I’ve read), the great majority of the book is made up of what fans of more plot-oriented genres might dismissively call “padding.”

I do not mind padding in the books I read, so long as the padding is done right — i.e.: so long as it is inherently interesting, well rendered, thought-provoking, and gives “life” and “substance” to the book, or sets “flesh” on the “bones” provided by the plot. I will admit that, having read three of Ms. Prose’s other books, all of which depend more heavily on plot than does Bigfoot Dreams, I was a little bit surprised by the absence of meaningful incidents in the book (plot elements which have a direct impact upon following plot elements). But I was not initially put off by the amount of “padding,” for I found much of that “padding” to be humorous and sometimes even profound, or delightful in the sense of recognition and truth which particular passages (having nothing whatsoever to do with the plot) could raise in my mind.

Throughout much of the first two-thirds, or 60,000 words, of this book, I considered Bigfoot Dreams to be among the better books I’ve read in recent years, certainly on par with Ms. Prose’s other books, which I had thoroughly enjoyed. However, I recall having read most of those initial 60,000 words in a relatively calm, non-anxious state; when I had found myself to be feeling anxious, I resorted to reading books which required less concentration, such as graphic novels or collections of comic book stories, where the pictures helped anchor my thoughts to the page.

However, I found my enjoyment of the final third of the book to be far less than the enjoyment I had derived from the book’s first two-thirds. I must admit, I read much of the book’s final third while in an anxious state; sometimes a highly anxious state (due to occurrences in my home, or waiting for one son’s temper tantrum to set off another son’s autistic fit).

The question I have a hard time answering is this: did my enjoyment fall off because the book’s quality and presentation fell off, or did my enjoyment decrease significantly because I simply “wasn’t in the proper frame of mind” to enjoy what is marketed as “literary fiction” (or even “comic literary fiction”)?

I must admit that the best mood to be in to enjoy the lulls and “padding” of a “literary novel” is a calm, contemplative mood. Anxiety, by its nature, scatters one’s powers of concentration; if one attempts to focus on something other than the object of one’s anxiety, one’s attention is inevitably drawn back to that source of anxiety and away from any enjoyable contemplation of the mood, theme, or setting of the book one is trying to read. Both pictures (in the case of graphic novels or comic books) or “what-comes-next?” plotting (in the case of genres which fall outside of that genre commercially described as “literary fiction”) can tend to provide an anchor for one’s mind, cementing the attention in the book being read and disallowing one’s attention from being pulled away toward the source or cause of one’s anxious mood.

So it is quite possible that my changed opinion of Bigfoot Dreams during the book’s final third was due to my changed (for the worse) mood.

However, it is also possible that my reduced enjoyment and lessened opinion of the book was due primarily to the book’s own failings in its final third. During the novel’s first two-thirds, several major conflicts are set up by the plot. Will Vera retain the affection and ultimately the custody of her ten-year-old daughter? Will she get back together again with her estranged husband, or will she simply lose her daughter to him? How will she fix the situation with the Greens, the family whose lives she has unintentionally turned upside down with one of her tabloid “imaginary stories” for This Week (she wrote that the couple’s children were selling lemonade made with water having miraculous healing powers; she thought she had made up all the details about the family, but weird synchronicity and coincidence caused her “made up” names for the family to be their actual names, which causes a stampede of health-seekers to camp out on their front lawn and demand samples of the miraculous water contained in their faucets)? How will she survive her being fired from the staff of This Week? If she ends up attending a convention of cryptobiologists to which she has been invited (due to the numerous stories she has written concerning Bigfoot), will she be able to produce a story of high-enough journalistic merit to sell it to a mainstream magazine or newspaper, thus resurrecting her dead career?

In the book’s final third, none of these conflicts receive any real resolution. Vera achieves a satori of sorts at the cryptobiologists’ convention when an elderly couple reports on their sighting of the semi-legendary sauropod Mokele-Mbembe in the African nation of Congo. But all this supposedly climactic insight (it occurs in the book’s final twenty pages) accomplishes for Vera is to make her more accepting of the probable negative outcomes of the many conflicts she finds herself embroiled in. The satori/insight, by itself, resolves absolutely nothing.

This disappointed me. Yes, I read that whole section of the book in a highly anxious state, which made concentration difficult. But I find myself persuaded that, even if I had been in the “perfect” contemplative mood to ingest the book’s final chapters, I still would have found the lack of resolution of any of the novel’s main conflicts to be frustrating and disappointing.

Maybe I just need to stick to the comic books when I’m feeling anxious?

It is a conundrum. What it the book or was it me? I suppose the only way I will ever know for certain is to re-read the novel in a perfectly calm state, all the way through… if such an extended period of calm is ever again available to me.

Fire on Iron Available for $2.99 in New Formats

Fire On Iron

My newest book, Fire on Iron, is now available in the following new ebook formats:

Smashwords

Nook

Apple iTunes

And the REALLY BIG DEAL is that Fire on Iron is available in these three new formats for the bargain price of only $2.99!

That’s HALF the price you will currently pay for a Kindle copy!

Dara and I are in the process of lowering the Kindle price to match the Nook, Smashwords, and iTunes price, but we’ve been just a wee bit distracted by all the chaos in our household these past few months (as anyone who has been following this blog is aware). We’ll get it done… just can’t say exactly when.

Also, yes, the trade paperback version from CreateSpace will be available very soon… also a victim of household chaos, but it shouldn’t be too much longer, so keep watching this space for an announcement.

And if you’d like to sample some of the early readers’ reviews, Fire on Iron currently has a 4.4 STARS rating on Amazon. So check it out!

Burnt Turkey Review: Free Birds

Free Birds

Free Birds (2013)
Voice performances of Woody Harrelson, George Takei, and Owen Wilson
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Released by Relativity Media

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 18% Fresh
My Rating: ONE of Four Stars

My kids had been pestering me to take them to see the Thanksgiving-themed animated comedy Free Birds since its first coming attractions aired back in October. When it came out, I was not impressed by the initial reviews and so did not rush to take them to see it. However, this week it showed up at our nearby discount theater, University Mall Theater, which has just switched over to digital projection. (A couple of notes about digital projection: the picture and sound are galaxies superior to the old, worn-out, third-run 35 millimeter prints this theater used to show; but the conversion required the theater to dump their nostalgic, 1970’s-era featurettes, such as “Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby — and Buy Ourselves Some Snacks! Delicious treats to eat… etc.” This was a little disappointing.)

I figured I could handle a PG animated comedy. I didn’t expect it to raise my anxiety levels by much at all; most PG animated films are pleasantly sedating for me right now. Warning: many spoilers ahead, so please stop reading if you plan to see Free Birds and want to be surprised.

I’ll admit that I adored the first fifteen minutes of the film. It was loaded with terrific jokes, and lots of people in the audience (yours truly included) laughed heartily and frequently. I started doubting my critical judgement; I was enjoying this as much as I did the better parts of Turbo, an earlier animated comedy which had also received mixed reviews. I began to wonder whether my doctor-prescribed regimen of psychotropic drugs had sedated my critical sensibility. How could the reviews for Free Birds have been so bad if I was enjoying it so much? What a way to doubt oneself! But within a few minutes, my critical reaction to the movie began lining up with the 18% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film began going downhill when Jake, the character voiced by Woody Harrelson, appeared. The Owen Wilson turkey was animated to look somewhat like a real turkey; Jake, however, looked like an eagle with some turkey characteristics. This continued to be a major distraction throughout the rest of the film; some of the turkeys looked like turkey vultures, others looked like eagles, and one even looked like Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes. Some of the turkeys had red faces, and others had blue faces. This was very distracting.

But the film truly began going to hell once the two main characters went back in time in an experimental time machine to two days before the first Thanksgiving. I began to realize that Free Birds was the worst family-oriented holiday movie since the first Home Alone, which introduced the concept of sadistic behavior by children as a source of humor (in a Christmas movie, yet). If Free Birds were a Christmas movie, rather than a Thanksgiving movie, it would have portrayed Santa Claus as a home invading child molester. This movie was written and produced to make children hate and despise the holiday of Thanksgiving. There is no other way to put it. It is nothing more than ultra-liberal propaganda against meat eaters. Other films have hinted at this in a much more humane fashion, such as the classic Charlotte’s Web, with its heroic pig, Wilber, whose spider friend Charlotte saves him from becoming a pork roast. However, animated films which feature non-human carnivores, such as the lions in The Lion King and my blog namesake Fantastic Mr. Fox, do not give the audience a guilt trip over the heroes’ consumption of meat. In Free Birds, the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving is desecrated and lied about. The Pilgrims are presented as entirely venial and without any redeeming qualities, entirely selfish and savage. Their leader, Miles Standish, is portrayed as an even more psychotic version of Clint Eastwood’s character William Mumy from Unforgiven. Even worse, the film lies about history by making it appear that the pre-first Thanksgiving turkeys were never hunted for food by the American Indians, whom the film falsely portrays as noble vegetarians.

Here’s a critic’s admission: I eat Tofurkey for Thanksgiving, because I keep kosher. My house is most usually entirely vegetarian. So I don’t have any animus against vegetarians. But I DO have an animus against propaganda and false history.

The most disgusting (and this takes some doing!) part of the movie is the shameless product placement of Chucky Cheese’s pizza. Another critic’s admission: I recently fed my son Judah a Chucky Cheese’s pizza and happen to be fond of the joint. But Free Birds utilized hoary old time travel paradox cliches to advocate that consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving be replaced by consumption of Chucky Cheese’s pizza! By the time this part of the film arrived, ten minutes prior to the end, I was ready to jump out of my seat and tear this turkey’s wishbone into five pieces.

Another note: I watched this movie with Asher, Judah, and their friend Matthew. Judah typically sits quietly through PG-13 superhero movies and does not flinch at the violent action. Yet during the final third of this PG-rated supposed “family comedy,” little Judah was jerking about in his seat, obviously agitated and upset. The film’s propaganda was getting to him on a subliminal level, instructing him to absolutely HATE the holiday of Thanksgiving. This is absolutely REPREHENSIBLE. All I can say is, SHAME on the makers of this film, the writers and director most especially. This is liberal, anti-meat consumption propaganda at its most raw (pun intended!). The only saving grace after the first fifteen minutes was the voice of George Takei as the time machine. He was soothing and sane, although surrounded by insane, anti-child, anti-family, and anti-American propaganda.

I hated four-fifths of this film with all my heart. And those are not my psychotropic drugs speaking, either.

Asking My Friends for Help with Fire on Iron

Fire On Iron

Okay, my dear friends… this is me, your somewhat distressed author, acting like a mangy dog with a lame leg who is lying on his back, begging for a belly rub. I must warn you, what I am about to request is viewed in some quarters as unethical, if not illegal. Should news of my request spread, I could be censured in the next issue of the SFWA Bulletin (whenever that comes out… and I LOVE you, Barry N. Malzberg, now and forever, no matter what the radical feminists say!).

I will admit that, as a Person Who Suffers From Depression, I am somewhat of a Dopamine addict. Now there are good ways and bad ways for me to get my fix. A bad way is to continuously bid on vintage laptops on eBay, constantly raising my minimum bid until I come out on top. This is bad because I spend all my money and add more stuff to a house which is already too small for all the stuff I already have. Good ways to get my fix include bicycling or fast walking (either of which could be hazardous, considering how off-balance and shaky the Klonopin is making me feel right now), writing posts on this website (Yay!), seeing “hits” on my latest posts, getting positive, supportive comments (Yay!)… and also selling more copies of my first and only Kindle self-published book from MonstraCity Press, Fire on Iron. One way for me to sell more copies is to get the word out that this brand-new Civil War steampunk supernatural adventure novel is available. One way to get the word out is to advertise on Internet sites which promote ebooks. However, these sites have minimum standards for submissions: most commonly a minimum of 20 reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 4 stars. I recently checked my Amazon site. Fire on Iron, bless the hearts of those who have already read it, now has 9 reviews with an average rating of 4.25 stars. Pretty close to what I need. But I need more, unfortunately! Please see the offer below for a FREE, NO STRINGS ATTACHED .pdf copy of Fire on Iron. Well, the only “string attached” is that you agree to leave a review, negative or positive, on Amazon. Please feel free to hit me with your best shot and your honest appraisal… but (of course) try to be judicious, my friends.

Just knowing that some of you are asking Dara (see instructions below) for a FREE .pdf copy will send a surge of Dopamine straight into my cerebral cortex. What an easy way to help assist an ailing author’s recovery! I have admitted to my dear friend Maury Feinsilber that it is very difficult to continue to believe in the ongoing presence of God’s saving grace while I am depressed and pessimistic. Maury suggested that I pray for optimism. Good suggestion! Also, the old saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” So by being possibly unethical and begging like a mangy dog for positive reviews on Amazon, what I am doing is HELPING MYSELF to receive jolts of Dopamine and gain optimism, and thus an ability to believe fully in the presence of the saving grace of God. It is a virtuous circle! (If you leave out the slightly unethical parts.) So, again, here are the details:

Any one out there in InternetLand interested in a FREE .pdf copy of my newest book, Civil War steampunk supernatural suspense novel Fire on Iron?

If you are, just send me your email address, either by leaving a comment to this post or by using the Contact Me feature. I’ll have Dara send you a .pdf copy, along with instructions for how to access it on your smart phone, tablet, or laptop. You may also email Dara directly, to this (slightly altered to avoid robots) email address (just remove the asterisks): d*a*r*a*l*f*o*x@g*m*a*i*l.c*o*m .

As I say above, I ask but one favor in return — please post a review to Amazon after you’ve read the book. Hit me with your best shot; I’m confident in how much you’ll enjoy the book. Dara and I would like to do some advertising on sites which promote ebooks, but they generally have requirments that books which are advertised must have a minimum of twenty Amazon reviews. We’re trying to get there, and you can be a huge help (along with getting a free book to read, the first in a new series!).

Here’s the back cover copy, to whet your appetite:

In 1862, Lieutenant Commander August Micholson, captain of the Union ironclad U.S.S. James B. Eads, leads his crew on a hazardous undercover mission. Their task? To destroy a hidden Confederate boat yard, where a fleet of rebel ironclads is being constructed which will allow the Confederate Navy to dominate the Mississippi and bombard Northern river cities into submission.

This is Micholson’s last chance for redemption. Weeks earlier, he lost his frigate, his best friend, and over a hundred members of his crew during a disastrous battle against the Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Virginia. Flag Officer Foote, commander of the Western Flotilla, believes Micholson’s ordeal and his terrible memories of the power of a rebel ironclad will give him the psychological edge he needs to prevail. Micholson’s crew, however, only knowing their new captain from scuttlebutt and scathing newspaper reports, fear he will lead them all to their deaths.

Micholson leads his crew on a false flag operation, pretending to be a turncoat who has switched to the rebel cause following his censure in the North. On the dark, muddy backwaters of the Yazoo River, the Eads becomes entangled in a plot devised by a slave and his rebel master to summon African fire spirits to annihilate the Federal armies. Micholson must battle demons both internal and external to save the lives of his crew, sink the Confederate fleet, and foil the arcane conspiracy. The Union men manage to prevail again and again against overwhelming enemy forces. Yet the machinations of the African sorcerer M’Lundowi, who hates the people of the Union and the Confederacy equally, threaten to undo all of their victories.

Ultimately, Micholson is faced with a terrible choice — imperiling the lives of every inhabitant of North America, or taking a demon into his body and melding his soul with that of his greatest enemy.

FYI: I am nearly half-way through the first draft of the second book in the series, Hellfire and Damnation. Lieutenant Commander Micholson finds himself transformed into a steampunk superhero — a cross between Dr. Strange and the Human Torch! Can you get anything cooler than that? By increasing my Dopamine levels, you will enable me to return to writing it as soon as possible, perhaps as early as January (or whenever I feel myself capable of listening to my characters’ voices in my head, over the clamor of all the other anxious voices there). So again, writing an Amazon review is a win-win — you get a FREE .pdf copy of the first book, and the second book gets written!

*********************************************************************

If you’d prefer to read the novel on your Kindle, here’s a link to the Kindle version:

Buy Fire on Iron for the Kindle

More electronic formats and paperback version coming very soon! The CreateSpace paperback is being proofed by my very dear and wonderful sister-in-law, Tracy Hirshfeld.

Thanks so much for any consideration and reading time you can spare, my friends! Signing off, Your distressed author, the mangy dog who needs his belly rubbed

Pacific Rim: Building the Modern Kaiju

I took my three boys to see director Guillermo del Toro’s giant monsters vs. giant robots thriller, Pacific Rim, earlier this week. We all left our neighborhood theater very impressed. I was convinced I’d just seen the most beautifully filmed giant monster sci-fi extravaganza in the history of giant monster sci-fi extravaganzas. In fact, despite an urgent, and I mean urgent need to visit the men’s room which arose about half way through the film’s two and a quarter hours running time, I glued myself to my seat, not wanting to miss even a moment of the spectacle.

This is worth noting, because I’m an old-school giant monster/dinosaur sort of guy; you couldn’t trade me two dozen Jurassic Parks and their CGI ilk for a single Ray Harryhausen-created stop-motion The Valley of Gwangi. I tend to think science fiction and fantasy films which rely upon large amounts of CGI effects (as nearly all do) tend to look monotonously alike and provide very little in the way of visceral, visual thrills. But the CGI artisans of Industrial Light and Magic managed to really wow me with their work on Pacific Rim. The early scenes off the coast of Alaska were particularly striking, as were scenes set in Hong Kong’s Bone Town (itself an effective evocation of Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles) and the climactic scenes of the giant mecha Gipsy Danger’s descent into the Breach, leading into the watery alien dimension from which the giant sea monsters have been emerging.

In an interview from 2012, del Toro stated that he instructed his designers to avoid direct visual quotes from the classic Japanese kaiju and mecha films and TV shows of decades past, even though he meant Pacific Rim to be a loving homage to those childhood delights. Instead, he wanted to aim for “operatic grandeur” and “epic beauty,” and he listed a Francisco de Goya painting, El coloso (The Colossus), as a primary inspiration for the visual take he wished to apply to Travis Beacham’s screenplay. I think del Toro hit his mark. I felt much the same sense of awe and majesty watching the film’s giant robots as I do when looking at Goya’s painting or when reading J. G. Ballard’s classic short story “The Drowned Giant.”

But what made Pacific Rim such a rewarding movie experience for me was that it backed up its evocative, breathtaking CGI effects with a decent script and a set of characters worth caring about. The makers of too many SF and fantasy blockbusters and would-be blockbusters of the post Jurassic Park era have thrown the great bulk of their efforts and budgets into the best CGI money can buy, assuming that “wow-‘em” special effects are all an audience for this type of film require. All too often, story and characters are treated as afterthoughts, appendages to the array of special effects. This may have worked (in terms of ticket sales, if not artistic value) back when CGI effects remained a novelty. But just as the same audiences who were terrified by the approaching locomotive in the 1895 film short The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station required an actual story to be entertained a few years later, in 1902, when they went to see A Trip to the Moon, so do we SF and fantasy buffs require more than a really kewwwl spaceship, alien, dragon, or giant monster on screen in order to have an engaging film-going experience.

Central to the film’s plot is the conceit that single pilots lack the brainpower necessary to guide the kaiju-killing giant robots, or Jaegers; in order to prevent mental burnout and brain damage, a minimum of two pilots are necessary, and those two pilots must “drift” together, or establish a neural linkage, in order to make one of the gigantic mechas do its monster-killing thing. This conceit sets up both the protagonist’s tragic backstory (the death of his brother while the two men were linked, fighting a kaiju) and the film’s central love story, and it provides the hinge upon which the film’s climax swings (a supporting character uses the “drift” tech to link into the kaiju’s hive-mind and discover a way inside the enemy aliens’ dimension). This is clever and effective; as a creator of SF and fantasy plots, myself, I can appreciate the storytelling economy which results when a single McGuffin is used for multiple plot purposes.

The set design is especially noteworthy. I don’t believe set design has played this major a role in elevating the quality of a SF film since Blade Runner and the first two Alien movies. Nearly all the film’s settings are in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, so rust is a major element of the movie’s aesthetic. Everything is rusty; if some of the cast members would’ve sat still for more than thirty seconds, I’m sure they would’ve sprouted a patina of rust, too. The scenes depicting the building of the great barrier wall, stretching from Vancouver down to San Diego, have great visual impact, as do the scenes set in the Bonetown neighborhood of Hong Kong, locus for the processing and sales of bits of dead kaiju, which all take place in the shadows of a towering skeleton of one of the dead creatures.

Although the performance of the lead actor, Charlie Hunnam, is merely passable, several of the main and supporting performances rise above the merely pedestrian. Idris Elba has great screen magnetism as the doomed leader of the soon-to-be decommissioned Jaeger force, and Rinko Kikuchi is very appealing as the tough yet vulnerable heroine and love interest, equally adept at kinetic fight scenes and more intimate, emotional tableaus. The film benefits from a trio of comic relief characters who are not complete embarrassments (as such figures often are in SF and fantasy pictures) and who are actually engaging in their own right: Ron Perlman as the leader of the kaiju part selling ring, and Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb as a pair of socially maladroit scientists who study the kaiju and try to predict their attacks for the Jaeger force.

The movie supplies some wonderful “Easter egg” moments for long-time fans of the giant monsters and mecha genres. When fighting one of the kaiju, pilot Raleigh Becket activates Gipsy Danger‘s “rocket punch” feature, which supercharges the robot’s punch and nearly takes the giant sea beast’s head off; that was a wonderful moment for me, turning me back into a kid watching Johnny Socko and his Giant Robot in Voyage into Space. And at the close of the credits, when I saw that the movie was dedicated to the memories of Ishiro Honda and Ray Harryhausen (the latter of whom we lost just earlier this year), I stood up and applauded.

All that said, the movie is not without its flaws. The screenplay, in particular, suffers from several unforced errors, holes in logic which aren’t necessary for the plot to advance. About fifteen minutes into the film, we learn that the Jaeger program is being abandoned in favor of the building of gigantic walls separating coastal metropolises from the Pacific Ocean, from whence all of the giant monsters have emerged. As costly as building a Jaeger robot must be, surely building a three-hundred-foot-high steel and concrete wall along thousands of miles of coastline is infinitely more costly. Also, the entire history of twentieth century warfare demonstrates the superiority of a mobile defense (such as the Jaegers) over a static defense (such as the barrier wall, or its predecessor, the French Maginot Line). Not only that, but the history of the kaiju attacks demonstrates a steady progression in the size and power of the attacking monsters, so that monsters to come are certain to be able to breach the wall (which ends up happening). In battles between the kaiju and the Jaegers, about half the giant robots end up destroyed by the monsters, but the other half succeed in killing the creatures. The Jaeger program is terminated and the robots decommissioned because of a lack of skilled pilots, which has led to the diminishment of the Jaeger fleet. But surely an intensive program to identify and train promising pilots is much more cost-effective than building a barrier wall which is assured to eventually fail.

An even worse unforced error in the script is the chatter amongst a couple of the scientist characters that the present invasion of kaiju is a follow-up to a much earlier invasion from the alien dimension, the invasion which infested our planet with dinosaurs, who were actually advance forces from the alien world. The scientists state that the dinosaur invasion failed because environmental conditions – carbon density in the air, the acidity of the oceans, and global temperatures – weren’t optimal for the invaders eons ago; but since then, mankind has unknowingly “terraformed” Earth into a status much more congenial to the aliens (through our carbon pollution, acid rain, and subsequent global warming). This attempt on the part of the screenwriters to inject some contemporary PC “relevance” into the script is stupid and just plain wrong. First of all, both the carbon content of the atmosphere and global temperatures were MUCH higher in the era of the dinosaurs than now. Secondly, oceans covered a far larger percentage of the Earth’s surface during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Eras than today; the aliens are all water-based creatures, so they should’ve been much happier with Earth eighty million years ago than now. Thirdly, the dinosaurs were Earth’s dominant life forms for over a hundred million years. Yet this is considered an unsuccessful invasion? I call this script stupidity an unforced error because not including it in the dialogue would not have altered the movie’s logic one bit – discarding it would have improved the internal logic of the film’s backstory, in fact.

Another, equally glaring unforced error in the script is Jaeger Force commander Stacker Pentacost’s statement to hero Raleigh Becket that he has a plan to stop the kaiju invasion once and for all; this is how he tempts Raleigh out of his five-year retirement from piloting Jaegers, following the death of Raleigh’s brother. Pentacost’s plan? To have a Jaeger enter the top of the Breach in the mid-Pacific Ocean and drop a nuclear bomb down the throat of the narrow gateway between universes and collapse it. Glaring script problem/unforced error? Raleigh tells his new partner, Mako, that the Jaeger force has tried that exact same plan before and it failed. So why do any of them expect it to work a second time? And why risk the last Jaegers remaining on the planet to carry out a plan which has already been a botch? Later in the movie, Newton Geiszler, the scientist who successfully drifted with the remnants of a kaiju brain, uses his new expertise to discover a way around what made the nuke-dropping plan fail the first time, just in time to prevent the pilots of Gipsy Danger from making the same mistake all over again. This plot twist would have still worked had there not been any earlier attempt to drop a nuke into the Breach. Getting rid of this earlier attempt would mean Pentacost, Raleigh, Mako, and the rest of the Jaeger Force wouldn’t look like clueless doofuses for risking everything on a plan that had already failed due to unknown causes.

Although I list the film’s design team as one of its major strengths, I have to admit that it fell down for me in one key area – creature design. Too many of the movie’s numerous kaiju look and act too similarly to one another; with a few exceptions, it as though we are seeing the same creature attack again and again (the only one which stands out in my head is the one with wings). None of the creatures is given any personality whatsoever, beyond a “Hulk smash!” sort of destructive mania. Also (but this is a criticism I could hurl at most CGI creature movies), the monsters move about so quickly, in such a confusing whirl of motion, that we viewers never get a really good look at any of them. This is in contrast with the long, lingering views of the giant robots we are treated to.

All in all, despite my mostly script-related disappointments listed above, I hugely enjoyed watching this movie, and it is one of the very few creature films of recent years that I am eager to see again (if for nothing else, just to immerse myself in the rich visual spectacle again). An interesting question to ponder is whether Pacific Rim renders the next big kaiju project from Legendary Pictures, the 2014 American remake of Godzilla, entirely superfluous. What will the new Godzilla be able to bring to the screen which hasn’t already been surpassed by Pacific Rim?

Yes, Godzilla has a rich, sixty-year history, a tremendous supporting cast of fellow kaiju, and, in some of his incarnations, at least, a comparatively complex personality (compared to your typical dinosaur, that is) – Godzilla has been a parent, an ally to fellow kaiju and giant mecha, a determined foe of invading aliens, and a sometimes friend, sometimes enemy to humanity. However, judging from interviews with Frank Darabont, screenwriter of the Godzilla reboot, it sounds as if all those unique elements of the Godzilla mythos listed above will be tossed out the window. Darabont, acting as though he has never seen any of the dozen or so films of the Heisei or Millennium Series Godzilla movies, explains that he wants to return Godzilla to his 1954 roots as a terrifying force of nature. He heaps considerable scorn on the later films of the Showa Series, wherein Godzilla mellowed somewhat and actually displayed a sense of humor.

But if Godzilla in 2014 is to be a terrifying force of nature, and that is all, what will separate him from the kaiju of Pacific Rim? What will set the reboot above the earlier film for audiences who have already viewed Pacific Rim? The 2013 film featured at least ten rampaging giant monsters. Doesn’t that trump just one? Pacific Rim succeeded on the strength of its story, its characters and character interactions, and its gorgeous design sense. The new Godzilla, with only one giant monster (I assume) and no giant robots, will need to be amazingly strong in the story and characters/performances departments to just equal, much less surpass, Pacific Rim.

Given that getting a good, solid script down on paper seems to pose a far stiffer challenge to today’s producers of movie blockbusters than nailing the special effects, I fear that Legendary Films may end up disappointing those fans of Pacific Rim who hope to be even more wowed by the reboot of Godzilla next year. I hope they will manage to pleasantly surprise me.

Rebooting the Classic Kaiju Characters: Godzilla vs. Gamera

With little-known director Gareth Edwards currently working on an American reboot of Godzilla, scheduled for release during the Big G’s sixtieth anniversary in 2014, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the last time movie-makers gave rebooting classic kaiju characters a shot. The most recent two efforts were Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) and Gamera the Brave (2006). I recently had an opportunity to view the two films almost back to back, in order to best compare and contrast their differing approaches to renewing the appeal of long-lived kaiju stars.

Godzilla: Final Wars represented Toho Studio’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of their most famous creation. It was their 28th Godzilla film and the sixth in the Millennium series (the character’s earlier two series are known as the Showa series and the Heisei series). They clearly meant to “pull out all the stops” with this film, stuffing it full of monsters from earlier movies (many of which had not been seen on the big screen in twenty-five or thirty years), cameo appearances from veteran Godzilla actors, and many hat tips to plot elements from earlier films (the alien Xilians have a good bit in common with the aliens from Planet X in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). In many ways, it can be seen as a remake of Toho’s fondly remembered Destroy All Monsters (1968), which featured eleven of Toho’s kaiju stable.

One of the oddest elements of the film is how little of it is dedicated to its supposed star, Godzilla. In common with nearly all the films of the Heisei and Millennium series, Godzilla is portrayed with minimal personality, little more than a very bad-ass radioactive dinosaur with a great big chip on its shoulder. Thus, the screenwriters felt compelled to fill up the majority of the movie with plot elements centering on the human (or mutant) characters. The first half of the movie comes off as a Japanese version of the X-Men film series. It focuses almost entirely on two rival mutant soldiers in the Earth Defense Force’s M-Unit. The two mutants, Shinichi and Katsunori, are both friends and rivals, and they vie for the affections of a molecular biologist, Miyuki, who is recruited by the United Nations to study a mummified space monster (which turns out to be Gigan). Another standout character is Douglas Gordon (portrayed by American mixed martial artist and professional wrestler Don Frye), the captain of the EDF’s attack submarine, the Gotengo (itself a retread of the submarine from 1963’s Atragon). The Gotengo, with Gordon aboard as a young cadet, had trapped Godzilla in Antarctic ice forty years prior to the future in which Final Wars is set. In a weird costuming choice (which somehow works for me), Gordon, who is presumably an American working for the United Nations, dresses like a World War Two-era Russian commissar.

No one can complain that they skimped on the monsters!

The biggest draw of the film is the huge number of giant monsters from earlier Godzilla movies which it drew out of retirement. Final Wars tops Destroy All Monsters’ tally by featuring fourteen kaiju (or twenty-one, if you include seven kaiju who make brief appearances via stock footage). The all-star line-up includes Godzilla (last seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Manda (most recently seen in Destroy All Monsters back in 1968), Minilla (this version of the Son of Godzilla hadn’t been on screen since 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge), Rodan (as Radon, he’d last appeared in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2), Anguirus (most recently seen in 1974’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), King Caesar (his only prior appearance was in the 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Mothra (most recently seen in 2003’s Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.), Monster X/Keizer Ghidorah (Ghidorah, a Toho staple, had last appeared in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack in 2001), Gigan (not seen since 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan), Hedorah (his only star turn had come in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster), Ebirah (last seen, in stock footage taken from 1967’s Gozilla vs. the Sea Monster, in Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969), Zilla (the American Godzilla, whose only appearance came in 1998’s Godzilla), Kumonga and Kamacuras (both previously seen in Godzilla’s Revenge). Other classic kaiju also make brief appearances via stock footage, including Varan (last seen in Destroy All Monsters after starring in Varan the Unbelievable in 1958), Baragon (most recently seen in 2001 in Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), Gezora (Space Amoeba, 1970), Gaira (The War of the Gargantuas, 1966), Mechagodzilla (most recently seen in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. in 2003), Megaguirus (Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, 2000), and Titanosaurus (Terror of Mechagodzilla, 1975).

What do you get when you cross a kaiju with a Swiss Army Knife?

Unfortunately, having to divide screen time between so many monsters leaves precious little time for any individual monster to shine, especially given that much of the first half of the movie is given over to interactions between the human, mutant, and space alien characters. For example, I would’ve loved to see more of a rematch between Hedorah, the Smog Monster, and Godzilla, but their battle takes up less than ten seconds on screen, Godzilla batting him aside as though he were a tomato can. (By way of contrast, in their first encounter, back in 1971’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, retroactively written out of existence in the Millennium series, the Big G took an entire movie to figure out how to put Hedorah down for the count; the Smog Monster was one of those horrors who got “killed” multiple times but kept rising from apparent defeat.)

Part of the conceit of the films of the Millennium series is that none of them follow the earlier movies in the series; the only precursor each film has is the original 1954 Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Thus, each Millennium movie represents a reboot of almost everything that came before it. However, over his then fifty-year history in films, Godzilla had enjoyed long, even complex relationships with a number of other kaiju. Ghidorah was the George Foreman to Godzilla’s Mohammed Ali, having fought Godzilla nearly ten times before. Godzilla also boasted some allies of long-standing. Rodan had assisted him in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Destroy All Monsters before battling him (as Radon or Fire Rodan) in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2. Anguiras started out as a foe in the very first Godzilla sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, and then became one of Godzilla’s most indefatigable allies in Destroy All Monsters and the original Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Godzilla’s most interesting long-term relationship could be said to be the one he shared with Mothra. They had started off as antagonists (in 1964’s Godzilla vs. Mothra), gone on to be allies in multiple adventures (in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and Destroy All Monsters), become enemies again (in Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack), and finally allies once more (in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and Godzilla: Final Wars. Yet because of the set-up of Final Wars and all the earlier films in the Millennium series, the screenwriters had to pretend that the clashes in Final Wars (all the other monsters, with the exceptions of Manda and Mothra, were under the mental control of the Xilians) represented the very first time that Godzilla was encountering his fellow kaiju.

I think this represented a major lost opportunity for the makers of Final Wars. For me, at least, a good bit of the attraction and charm of the later films in the original Showa series, from Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster through Terror of Mechagodzilla, comes from the interactions between Godzilla and his fellow monsters. In the Showa series, the last film in which Godzilla is a pure heavy is Godzilla vs. Mothra; beyond that film, Godzilla generally serves as a protector of Japan or at least a somewhat benevolent force, allied to an extent with the human heroes. Although his antics could sometimes be silly (such as his flying stunts in Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster and Godzilla vs. Gigan), they could just as often be wry and charming. Ever since Godzilla 1985, though, the first film in the Heisei series, filmmakers have been loathe to incorporate any of those elements of Godzilla’s earlier personality. In each of the subsequent movies (with the notable exception of Godzilla’s “origin story,” Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, when the proto-Godzilla shows empathy for a group of trapped Japanese soldiers in World War Two), the Big G is portrayed as an angry dinosaur of very little brain, a virtually mindless engine of destruction (and thus a reflection of his persona in his very first appearance on the big screen).

Ten years after Toho relaunched their Godzilla character with Godzilla 1985, the first film of the Heisei series, rival studio Daiei relaunched their own popular kaiju star, Gamera, in his own Heisei series with Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995). (Gamera, of course, had been a late response to Godzilla’s success of the 1950s and 1960s, first appearing in 1965, after Godzilla had already starred in five films.) Two more Gamera films followed. Then, in 2006, filmmakers decided to reboot Gamera’s continuity yet again in Gamera the Brave. This film begins with the original Gamera sacrificing himself in 1973 to destroy several Gyaos monsters to save Earth. Thirty-three years later, a young boy discovers a glowing egg on an island, which hatches into a seemingly normal tortoise, but one which is actually the son of Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 1

The little tortoise soon alerts his owner, young Toru, that he is no ordinary turtle by levitating in the air. Soon thereafter, he begins a tremendous growth spurt, and the two friends are separated after the flying turtle, named Toto, outgrows Toru’s bedroom and Toru tries to find an outdoor home for his unusual pet. Later, Toru and Toto are reunited when a new, aggressive kaiju, Zedus, attacks Toru’s city. Toto’s initial effort to battle Zedus is unsuccessful, but Toru and the newly gigantic Toto team up to ultimately defeat the rampaging Zedus, and Toto takes up the full power set and mantle of his parent, Gamera.

A Boy and His Turtle 2

I’ll admit that Gamera the Brave ended up being a much more impressive and satisfying movie than I’d expected it to be. In large part, this is due to the strong performances given by the movie’s child actors (in stark contrast to the insufferable, grating, oftentimes almost unwatchable performances of child actors in the movies of the original Showa series; maybe it was the poor quality dubbing that made those performances seem so awful, but I can’t imagine the performances come off much better in the original Japanese). In comparing Gamera the Brave to Godzilla: Final Wars, I think the former film does a better job of encapsulating, modernizing, and strengthening the key element that gave the Showa films their appeal. The Gamera reboot tells the story of a powerful friendship between a child and a giant monster; beyond the original Gamera the Invincible (1965), all of the Showa series movies centered around Gamera’s efforts to befriend and protect the children of Japan. In contrast, Godzilla: Final Wars, while reintroducing a small army of Godzilla’s former allies and foes, ignores the relationships between the kaiju that provided so much of the appeal of the latter Showa series Godzilla films.

Unfortunately, Frank Darabont, screenwriter for the upcoming American Godzilla reboot, sounds determined to continue in the footsteps of his predecessor screenwriters of the Heisei and Millennium series Godzilla films, explaining in an interview that he wants his Godzilla to be perceived as a terrifying force of nature. He dismisses the later films of the Showa series:

“And then he became Clifford the Big Red Dog in the subsequent films. He became the mascot of Japan, he became the protector of Japan. Another big ugly monster would show up and he would fight that monster to protect Japan. Which I never really quite understood, the shift. What we’re trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy. We’re kind of taking a cool new look at it.”

So Darabont seems to believe that the most recent Godzilla movie that Toho released was 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. He acts as though the Heisei and Millennium films never existed, because what he describes is exactly how the makers of those films reconceptualized Godzilla, returning him to his original persona.

I don’t think this bodes well for an ongoing series of American Godzilla pictures. The last several Millennium series movies were disappointments at the box office (which is why Toho has taken a ten-year break from making any new Godzilla movies and has now licensed that responsibility to Legendary Pictures). It’s hard to sustain a series focused on a brainless “terrifying force of nature.”

At long last, the Big G gets his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

But even if the newest Godzilla does a colossal belly flop in the theaters in 2014, at least the Big G can rest easy that he has his official star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a gift from Hollywood on his fiftieth birthday…

Richard Matheson: He is Legend Now

Author and screenwriter Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87 on June 23, 2013. Locus Online and Variety are two of hundreds of publications which have or soon will publish obituaries and tributes to one of the titans of twentieth century horror and science fiction.

I would struggle to add anything new to the commentary regarding Matheson’s literary and film output and its significance to the broad American culture. But what astonishes me personally is the realization of what a huge impact Richard Matheson had on my own childhood. The man was simply all over the map of early 1970s popular culture. When I was a kid in my most formative proto-geek years (the years between the ages of 6 and 11, which would be from 1971 or so to 1976 or so), hardly a month went by when I wasn’t exposed to another product of Matheson’s prolific pen. Exposed to it and imprinted by it. He was every bit as ubiquitous throughout the media of the early Seventies as his disciple Stephen King was in the Eighties.

Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane here…

I’m almost certain my first dose of Richard Matheson must’ve been repeated viewings on TV (either Saturday afternoon movies or Saturday night Creature Features) of The Incredible Shrinking Man. The 1957 film, whose Matheson-penned script was based on the author’s 1956 novel, The Shrinking Man, is probably best remembered for its iconic images of its tiny protagonist battling a spider with a pin or inhabiting a doll house. But when I was a kid, the elements which burrowed their way most deeply into my consciousness were the film’s quieter, more subtle moments. The opening scene, for example, when the hero, aboard his boat, is enveloped by a cloud of radioactive particles or toxic pollutants, is supremely creepy. Subtly horrifying are the first indications that the hero is shrinking… his clothes no longer fitting, his wife noticing that she is now taller than her husband, and, the real gut-punch, when his wedding ring falls off his shrunken finger. The film ends in a way vastly different from any other movie I had ever seen to that point (and different from most films I’ve seen since). The hero neither dies nor triumphs. He is left in a state of ambiguous hope, free at last from the cellar which had imprisoned him and in which he had nearly died several times, but now faced with the potentially greater hazards, all of them unknown, to be found in his own, continent-sized backyard. That ending gave me shivers of wonderment, and it still manages to do so.

Much of Matheson’s earlier work in TV and film played in frequent syndication on the limited television channels of my youth. At least a couple of times a year, my local CBS affiliate would schedule an “Edgar Allan Poe Week” for its afternoon movies slots, meaning I could enjoy Roger Corman thrillers such as House of User (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963) with my mother after I came home from school, before I had to start my homework. All featured screenplays by Richard Matheson. The last picture on this list, The Raven, was actually a comedy about the magical escapades of rival sorcerers, played by Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre; its connection to Poe’s poem “The Raven” was extremely tenuous. Still, it remains a fun and lively piece of work (unlike Matheson’s follow-up horror comedy, 1963’s The Comedy of Terrors, whose leaden, utterly unfunny script wastes the talents of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and Vincent Price; I saw it recently on Netflix and think the script is the worst Matheson ever put to paper, by far; he wanted to write a sequel, but The Comedy of Terrors was a relative flop, so the sequel never saw the light of day, to the benefit, I’m sure, of Matheson’s reputation).

Then, of course, there was The Twilight Zone, whose syndicated reruns formed another staple of my youthful media diet. Matheson’s involvement with the series began in its first season, when Rod Serling adapted two of Matheson’s short stories into episodes: “And When the Sky was Opened” and “Third from the Sun.” Matheson wrote an additional fourteen Twilight Zone scripts himself, including some of the series’ most famous and well-regarded episodes, “The Invaders,” “Steel,” and William Shatner’s star turn in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” One of my favorites of Matheson’s scripts was for another episode starring William Shatner, the low-key but paranoia-wracked “Nick of Time,” set entirely in the booth of a diner. Other Matheson scripts included “The Last Flight,” “A World of Difference,” “A World of His Own,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Young Man’s Fancy,” “Mute,” “Death Ship,” “Night Call,” and “Spur of the Moment.”

That was the old stuff. But the first half of the Seventies was crammed full of Richard Matheson projects, most of them on television, where I could catch their original broadcasts and the reruns (which I would assiduously scan my weekly issue of TV Guide looking for; my mother had a subscription, as I suspect most mothers of the time did).

1971 brought us Duel, an ABC “Movie of the Week” that was Steven Spielberg’s first directorial triumph. Matheson wrote the script based on his 1971 short story of the same name, published in Playboy. What a suspenser! Who can forget the horrific vehicular bullying suffered by poor Everyman Dennis Weaver at the hands/eighteen wheels of an anonymously malevolent truck driver, whose face we never see? What an impact that movie had on me as a kid!

1971 was also the year in which the second film adaptation of Matheson’s classic vampire novel, I Am Legend (1954), The Omega Man, hit the theaters. This film I didn’t see until a few years later, when it showed up on TV. But it was the first film that genuinely made my skin crawl; even Scream, Blacula, Scream! and The Return of Count Yorga hadn’t managed that. Those albino plague victims (even though they weren’t portrayed as vampires, unlike in the source novel), really freaked me out. I’d watched The Omega Man at least a dozen times before I ever saw the first film adaptation of I Am Legend, 1964’s low-budget The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price and released by American International Pictures. Matheson, who did not have a hand in the script for The Omega Man, did work on the script for The Last Man on Earth, but he ended up very dissatisfied with the result, the product of four different writers; in order to retain his residuals, he allowed himself to be credited as “Logan Swanson.”

Undoubtedly, the best exposure to I Am Legend is to read the original novel itself. It is a short book, easily finished in the space of a single evening. One of my top recommendations for anyone who wishes to scare themselves silly is to read I Am Legend alone, at night, in a mostly darkened house. It was the first application of the techniques of science fiction to the subject of vampirism, and, as such, is a lodestone for all the vampire fiction that followed. Not only that, but the book grants Matheson a kind of grandfatherly paternity for the whole subgenre of zombie fiction, TV, and films. George Romero has said that the slow-moving, shuffling vampire hordes of The Last Man on Earth were a primary inspiration for his flesh-eating zombies in Night of the Living Dead. So, arguably, had there been no I Am Legend, there would be no The Walking Dead on AMC today.

Night Gallery was Rod Serling’s follow-on to his cult classic series The Twilight Zone (although Serling ended up with far less creative control over this series than he had with his seminal earlier one). Despite the myriad ways in which Night Gallery can be said to fall short of The Twilight Zone, the series featured a number of memorable episodes based on classic stories by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber. Serling also called upon his old collaborator Richard Matheson to work with him again; Matheson provided scripts for the 1971 episode “Big Surprise,” based on his 1959 short story, and for the 1972 episode “The Funeral,” based on his 1955 short story. I have fond memories of Night Gallery (and I really should take another look at the best episodes on Netflix). Also in 1972, Matheson provided the script for the one-hour pilot episode of Ghost Story, NBC’s effort to compete with Night Gallery. Despite being hosted by a creepy Sebastian Cabot (and yes, Sebastian Cabot could be very creepy when he wished to be; see the end of The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” for what I mean), Ghost Story didn’t do as well in the ratings as Night Gallery, and a mid-season renaming of the series to Circle of Fear failed to save it from cancelation. But while it was on the air, I watched it every week.

In early 1972 I was hypnotized by one of Matheson’s best projects ever, his script for the ABC made-for-TV movie The Night Stalker. This film was, of course, the source material for the well-loved (and much syndicated) TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker, which ran on ABC during the 1974-75 season and which starred Darren McGavin, reprising his role as reporter Carl Kolchak. Matheson didn’t write any of the scripts for the series (which remains a great favorite of mine), but his script for the original movie won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. A year after the first movie’s broadcast in January, 1972, ABC aired a sequel, The Night Strangler, which also featured a script by Richard Matheson. Although not as well remembered as the original film (with its savage vampire), the sequel has its own merits, particularly its eerie setting in the Seattle Underground (which impressed me enormously as a kid; I finally got to see the place myself as a 39 year-old, on my second honeymoon).

How does an author help to ensure that a film adaptation of one of his books or stories is up to snuff? Adapt it himself! Richard Matheson followed this advice as frequently as possible. Not always with favorable results — see my notes above on his reaction to the script for The Last Man on Earth. However, he enjoyed a much better experience (and made a far superior film) with The Legend of Hell House, his 1973 script based on his 1971 novel Hell House. This is another film from the early Seventies that I caught on TV a few years later. I consider it one of the best haunted house films ever made, ranking up there with the original adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting. Roddy McDowell (fresh from his star turns in the Planet of the Apes series, including Battle for the Planet of the Apes, released the same month as The Legend of Hell House) is splendid as a paranormal investigator, and the film’s ghostly villain, Emeric Belascoe, is one of the most memorable menaces in the genre. This movie had almost as big an impact on me as a kid as The Omega Man.

Rounding out his Murderers Row of early Seventies projects was the classic Trilogy of Terror, a 1975 ABC made-for-TV movie which was based on three of Matheson’s short stories. Everybody who has seen it remembers the segment called “Amelia,” based on the short story, “Prey” (this was the only one of the three segments for which Matheson wrote the script; the other two were adapted by William F. Nolan from Matheson’s stories). Karen Black stars in all three segments; in “Amelia,” she plays a woman who lives alone and unwisely brings a cursed Zuni fetish doll into her apartment as a decoration. This is the movie that type-cast Karen Black and relegated the rest of her career to roles in B-movie horror pictures; the former A-list actress (nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces) later said in an interview, “I think this little movie took my life and put it on a path that it didn’t even belong in.” But many fans of the horror genre would agree that Karen Black’s loss was our gain; few actresses are more closely associated with the horror genre of the Seventies, and much of that association is due to the indelible impression she made in Trilogy of Terror.

Wow! What a list of memory-makers from my childhood! And all from the pen/typewriter of one man, Richard Matheson. Mr. Matheson, thank you for the unforgettable images, in prose and on film, you have left for those of us “Born of Man and Woman” on this planet “Third from the Sun;” your “Disappearing Act” has left behind A Stir of Echoes which will never fade. May you find peaceful repose somewhere on The Shores of Space.

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 2): More of Toho’s Second String

Continuing my series of mini-reviews of recently viewed giant monster B-movies, this time I’ll serve up another pair of Toho Studios’ lesser-known kaiju and science fiction pictures: Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and The Mysterians (1957).

Netflix made a boo-boo when they sent me Frankenstein Conquers the World; they shipped the disk containing the Japanese language version with English subtitles. Judah, my youngest, had been very anxious to see this film, what with it containing the first appearance of Baragon, one of his favorite Japanese monsters (he has a Baragon stuffed toy that he loves). I was afraid he would refuse to watch it if it had subtitles, since he had told me, very firmly, that he would NOT watch our VHS copy of Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, due to it being in Japanese with English subtitles. However, the little guy surprised me by acquiescing to Frankenstein Conquers the World with subtitles. My oldest boy, Levi, said he wanted to split the task of reading the subtitles aloud with me. A family activity!

As things turned out, I doubt we would have enjoyed the movie any more had it been dubbed; it’s possible our viewing experience was even enhanced by watching it in its original Japanese. In any case, much of the dialogue was inessential; the pictures told the story. And, oh, what a story!

I’m pretty sure kaiju Frankenstein has the most convoluted origin story of any of the Japanese monsters (with the possible exception of King Ghidorah in the second series of Godzilla movies). The film begins in Germany during the final months of World War Two, inside the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein (or some other scientist who has taken over Dr. Frankenstein’s work… hard for me to tell with all the confusion surrounding the speed-reading of subtitles to my kids). Nazi soldiers show up to confiscate what is apparently the last remaining piece of the Frankenstein monster — his still-beating heart, floating in a glass jar. They store this in a crate and ship it out to Japan aboard a U-boat, apparently so that Imperial Japan can continue Nazi Germany’s quest for an invincible super-soldier (the thought being that the monster’s indestructible heart might provide a serum or compound which would allow soldiers to regrow body parts lost in battle). The U-boat rendezvouses with a Japanese Navy submarine in the Sea of Japan, and the Germans transfer their strange cargo. But before the two subs can submerge, an American sub-hunting sea plane attacks and sinks the U-boat. The Japanese sub escapes and delivers the monster heart to a research institute located in the center of Hiroshima. Yes, that Hiroshima. The research institute is near ground zero of the atomic bomb explosion. We are then led to believe that the heart survived the explosion and absorbed enough radiation to cause it to grow into an entire person — a new, childlike Frankenstein’s monster, whom postwar residents of Hiroshima assume to be a war orphan.

(I’ve read that an early version of the movie, possibly released to theaters in Japan, actually had a war orphan eat the heart and then mutate into a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature. But in this version, scientists explain that the heart itself grew into the creature.)

Look at that punim!

One of the most amusing aspects of the movie is the multiple instances in which Japanese scientists or reporters insist that one of the curious anomalies about the weird, growing child is that “he is clearly of Caucasian ancestry” (this being necessary because the original Frankenstein’s monster was put together from pieces of dead Central Europeans). However, take a look at that punim — he is clearly NOT of “Caucasian ancestry!” So, the movie scientists seem to be saying, who’re you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?

Also rather amusing was watching and listening to American actor Nick Adams (who also stars in Monster Zero) dubbed into Japanese. The Japanese voice actor’s bass pitch is much lower than Adams’ natural, rather high-pitched voice, so he almost seems to be talking in slow-motion.

But the really fun parts of the movie are the monster fights between Frankenstein and Baragon. Since the actor portraying Frankenstein is unencumbered by a massive rubber suit, he is able to move and fight much more fluidly than your typical kaiju. Just to ensure that Baragon would not seem overmatched, the producers gave the subterranean dinosaur the ability to leap great distances. So the extended fight scenes are very involving, more like the fights in Hong Kong kung-fu flicks than the typical lumbering shoving matches featured in kaiju movies. Also, the Frankenstein creature is portrayed in a sympathetic light and has more of a relatable personality than a typical kaiju. A semi-sequel was made the following year in 1966 — The War of the Gargantuas. I say “semi-sequel” because, although elements of the earlier movie’s story are clearly referenced in Gargantuas, and the Brown Gargantua’s personality and motivations carry over from those of the Frankenstein creature, the two monster’s designs are very different; Brown Gargantua looks much more like a Bigfoot monster than a Frankenstein’s monster.

Apparently this DVD edition of Frankenstein Conquers the World was released in conjunction with fresh home editions of The Mysterians, Mantango/Attack of the Mushroom People, Dagora, the Space Monster and Atragon (the Frankenstein disk includes promos/theatrical trailers for each of these Toho films). Judah told me he wanted to see all of them. Unfortunately, the copy of The Mysterians I had available to show him was an old VHS copy I had picked up used at a science fiction convention. Picture quality was pretty sub-standard, even for VHS; and given that the colorful, extravagant production design of The Mysterians is its major calling card, that was a bit of a shame. (I may have to hunt up a DVD of this film and see if improved picture quality makes me think more highly of it.)

The film’s story (to be echoed in many later Toho films that featured aliens and kaiju) cannot be accused of being overly ambitious or creative – an alien race from a dying world wants to take over Earth; they initially pretend to be Earth people’s benefactors, or at least not overtly hostile; when their falsehoods need to be abandoned, they then use what seems to be superior technology to overcome Earth’s defenses. However, the plot and screenplay are full of holes big enough to pilot a spacecraft through. We are led to believe that the alien incursion is of fairly recent vintage; they have been secretly building an underground fortress in Japan, but they haven’t quite finished it when the film begins, and the film’s climax features a race between the aliens completing their fortress and making it impregnable and the United Nations of Earth developing and fielding their own super-weapons. However… the aliens’ initial attack on Japan comes courtesy of a gigantic robot (called Mogera) which emerges from inside a mountain. Japan is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth – how did the aliens manage to dig out the inside of a mountain and place a fricking hundred-foot-tall robot inside it without anyone noticing? For that matter, where have they been getting all their building supplies to create their giant underground fortress? From a Japanese branch of Home Depot? If they brought the supplies in from their home planet, the landings of that many tremendous cargo rockets would’ve attracted a bit of attention, too, no? The United Nations manages to field two huge rocket battlecraft to engage the Mysterians’ fortress. The Mysterians blow up one of the battlecraft with a ray blast, but fifteen minutes later in the film, the same ray blast strikes the second, seemingly identical U.N. battlecraft with no effect whatsoever.

The Mysterians (1957) can be thought of as a Japanese reply to This Island Earth (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Forbidden Planet (1956), three hit American science fiction films from the two prior years. What it lacks in script sophistication (a highlight of Forbidden Planet, which, after all, was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), it makes up for with the sheer exuberance of its production design – costumes, miniatures, and sets. The aliens’ costumes are delightful, a cross between the couture of Pop Art bikers and gay vampires (right after the film, Judah immediately assembled his own version of a Mysterian uniform, which he wore continuously for the next three days). The giant robot Mogera is very memorable — sort of the Michelin Tire Man with the head of a tin anteater. Best of all are the ships and weaponry, all pieces from a ten-year-old’s fantasy space war play set. Toho’s artisans fashioned miniatures which would serve them well in many kaiju epics to come, particularly the mobile electro-ray projectors mounted on military flatbed trucks. And those hovering U.N. battle rockets look mighty cool, too.

The American film that The Mysterians most closely models is Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion alien extravaganza, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s a little dumber, perhaps, than Harryhausen’s picture (which, for once, did not have the American military acting like a bunch of bellicose idiots), but it has the advantage of being far more colorful — Toho’s first movie to be filmed in beautiful Tohovision! That, and those funky alien uniforms (so much more fabulous than the aliens’ suits of armor in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), certainly counts for something, I think…

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 1): Toho’s Second String

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog before, one of the great pleasures of raising children is getting to enjoy many of one’s childhood enthusiasms all over again, this time experiencing the “doubled vision” of seeing them through one’s own, matured eyes and the less jaded eyes of one’s kids.

With this in mind, I’ve been having a grand ol’ time renting vintage monster and kaiju movies from Netflix and watching them with my boys. Judah, my youngest, is my most enthusiastic co-conspirator, but both Asher and Levi will usually plop down on the bed with the two of us to watch whatever “monstrous” piece of celluloid Dad has selected for the evening. A bonus of this is that I’m actually getting to see lots of films that I only read about as a kid – a number of Japanese horror films, for example, had only limited exposure in the U.S. and weren’t part of the popular TV movie packages, shown by independent TV stations, that I relied upon during my childhood viewings. I don’t recall ever seeing Atragon, The Mysterians, Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Dagora, the Space Monster, Gappa, the Triphibian Monster, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, or Varan the Unbelievable as a kid. However, now, thanks to the ubiquity of DVD players and the hunger of services such as Netflix for product, all of these movies are currently available, and I’ve either recently watched them with my boys or have stuck them in my order queue.

(Special bonus for you Toho Studios fans – here’s a marvelously informative year-by-year listing of all the films Toho has made, from their founding in 1935 to 2012.)

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a bit about giant monster movies I’ve recently shared with my kids, listing them in descending order of quality and entertainment value (mind you, these two aspects do NOT necessarily track in parallel, as any fan of 1950s monster movies and Japanese kaiju films will attest).

At the top of my list are several of what must be considered Toho’s B-list of horror and science fiction films (their A-list, or most popular and best-remembered horror and SF movies, are the Godzilla series and their most closely-related offshoots, Mothra and Rodan). Toho was a very prolific company in the middle decades of the twentieth century, producing films in a wide variety of genres – gangster pictures; war films; romance movies; and classics of world cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and The Throne of Blood (1957).

Beginning with Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1954, the studio delved into the realms of science fiction and horror, producing at least one movie per year in these genres over the following decade and a half:
Godzilla Raids Again and Half Human in 1955;
Rodan (in color!) in 1956;
The Mysterians (also in color) in 1957;
Varan the Unbelievable and The H-Man in 1958;
Battle in Outer Space in 1959;
The Human Vapor in 1960;
Mothra in 1961;
King Kong vs. Godzilla and Gorath in 1962;
Atragon and Matango/Attack of the Mushroom People in 1963;
Mothra vs. Godzilla/Godzilla vs. The Thing, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Dagora, the Space Monster in 1964;
Invasion of the Astro-Monster/Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World in 1965;
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep/Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and The War of the Gargantuas in 1966;
Son of Godzilla and King Kong Escapes in 1967;
Destroy All Monsters in 1968, arguably the pinnacle of the original Toho kaiju cycle, starring, as it did, virtually all the monsters they had fielded in the prior decade;
and All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969, to many fans, the nadir of the original kaiju cycle, making heavy use of footage already seen in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and centering the story on a young boy’s wish fulfillment daydreams (which works better for young viewers than it does for kaiju fans in their twenties or thirties or, Lord help me, forties).

The studio continued pumping out at least one monster picture each year, until they took a break following 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. With the exception of 1977’s The War in Space, which was released direct-to-VHS in the U.S., Toho did not return to the horror or science fiction genres until 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (released the following year in the U.S. as Godzilla 1985, which I recall dragging my then-girlfriend Leslie to a cheapie theater in New Orleans to see).

The best (or the most entertaining) of Toho’s B-list that I recently watched was – surprise, surprise! — King Kong Escapes. I say “surprising” because I was more than a little amazed by just how much I enjoyed this film. I’ve gone through three stages, it seems, regarding Toho’s two King Kong films. King Kong vs. Godzilla was one of the very first kaiju pictures I ever saw; my parents let me stay up “late” as a five-year-old to watch it on TV. For years thereafter, I claimed it as my favorite movie of all time. However, when I entered junior high school, I began doing some serious study of stop-motion animation, with the hope of learning to become an animator myself; I studied the work of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Jim Danforth and even wrote a thesis paper in eighth grade on the history of stop-motion animation, following up the next year with an attempt to make my own stop-motion fantasy film. You might say I became a “stop-motion snob,” staring down my nose at all inferior forms of special effects, particularly the use of lizards with glued-on horns and fins to portray dinosaurs, and men in suits to portray various giant monsters – including King Kong. Thus, I had to disavow my earlier, “childish” enthusiasm for King Kong vs. Godzilla (and admittedly, the King Kong outfit used in that film was not one of Toho’s better designs). Until just recently, I never had the opportunity to see Toho’s follow-up, their second and last King Kong effort, King Kong Escapes, but I tarred it with the same brush, assuming it was another attempt to profit off Willis O’Brien’s legacy while dishonoring his technical and artistic accomplishments.

Hey, one’s perspective changes as one gets older (particularly after one has kids). Now I’m able to look at these Toho second stringers with the eyes of a little boy again, and in that light, King Kong Escapes is fantastically entertaining. It helps that Toho did a much better job with the Kong suit the second time around; it looks much more gorilla-like than the suit used in King Kong vs. Godzilla (the arms are longer and the legs are proportionately shorter), and it even bears a passable resemblance to the original, 1933 King Kong in design. Also, just as there is splendid stop-motion animation (Mighty Joe Young) and barely passable stop-motion animation (Flesh Gordon), so are there gradations in quality of monster suit acting, from very effective (Godzilla vs. the Thing) to absolutely abysmal (Konga — see my review here). I thought the monster suit acting in King Kong Escapes was quite good (Haruo Nakajima plays Kong, and Yu Sekida plays dual roles as Mechani-Kong and Gorosaurus, who later reappears in Destroy All Monsters). All three kaiju have distinctive personalities, entirely portrayed through the actors’ movements.

But what really makes the movie so much fun are the villains. Eisei Amomoto as Dr. Hu (sometimes spelled Dr. Who) and Mie Hama as Madame Piranha enthusiastically chew the scenery, and they manage to make it look like it tastes delicious. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (oftentimes, the plots of Toho’s monster and science fiction movies are either slender as sheets of paper or lose much in the translation to English). Dr. Hu wants to excavate a large quantity of a radioactive miracle metal from deep beneath the Arctic ice so he can sell it to the leadership of a rogue nation, represented by Madame Piranha. To get at the metal, he builds a gigantic robot gorilla(?), but unfortunately for his plans, its mechanical innards are set out of whack by radioactivity. Not allowing this little setback to stop him, he then arranges for the kidnapping and brainwashing of King Kong from Kong’s island, intending to use a real giant gorilla to dig out the precious metal where the robot giant gorilla had failed. However, King Kong escapes, the villain’s plans go awry, real Kong fights robot Kong, yada, yada, yada… Along the way, Dr. Hu twirls his mustache and Madame Piranha seduces the hero and we all have a great time. The Dr. Hu/Madame Piranha pair rate up there with my favorite of the Toho horror/SF villains – the Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) from Invasion of the Astro-Monster, who combines a really cool alien uniform with some of the niftiest pinky choreography ever seen on film (only rivaled, perhaps, by Marlee Matlin’s sign language in Children of a Lesser God).

Next up on our list of very enjoyable Toho B-movies is Atragon from 1963. Atragon barely qualifies as a kaiju film; the only giant monster present is Manda, the dragon/serpent god of the subterranean Mu people. Manda plays a fairly minor role in the movie, but he does come back to appear again in Destroy All Monsters and puts in a cameo appearance in Godzilla’s Revenge. His main purpose in Atragon is to provide opposition for the movie’s titular super-submarine (which manages to subdue the giant dragon/serpent without much fuss, via a “freezing ray” which, in strange contradiction of the laws of thermodynamics, can be used underwater without freezing any seawater but which nonetheless manages to freeze Manda in ice!).

Manda is not the main attraction of Atragon, by any means. The film’s star turns are provided by veteran Toho actor Jun Tazaki, who portrays Captain Hachiro Jinguji, last active officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and by Eiji Tsuburaya and Takeo Kita, respectively the film’s Visual Effects Director and Production Designer. Jun Tazaki brings massive screen presence to any role and will be familiar to any fan of kaiju movies from his turns in such films as Gorath, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Dagora, the Space Monster, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, The War of the Gargantuas, and Destroy All Monsters. (His final film role prior to his death in 1985 was in Akira Kurosawa’s epic retelling of the story of King Lear, Ran, set in feudal Japan.) Tazaki was given an unusually meaty character to play in Atragon (unusually meaty for a kaiju picture, that is, which typically features underdeveloped human characters) – Captain Hachiro Jinguji of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who escaped capture at the end of the Second World War and never accepted Japan’s defeat. He stole away with his advanced submarine and crew and, after losing his sub to raiders from the Mu people, settled on an isolated atoll, created an underground factory, and spent the next eighteen years building a new, super-advanced submarine with which to win back Japan’s martial honor. After the Mu people attack Japan and threaten to conquer the entire surface world, Captain Jinguji’s daughter, whom he had not seen since the last days of the war, when she’d been a little girl, finds him and begs him to use his super-sub against the Mu, as it is the only weapon the Mu have reason to fear. The fiercely patriotic Jinguji balks at first, refusing to use the Atragon for any purpose other than revenging Japan upon America. But he is eventually won over and proceeds to deliver a spectacular ass-whupping to the Mu, destroying their best submarines, demolishing their power source, defeating their giant serpent god, and even capturing their queen, who opts, at the very end, to share the fiery demise of her people.

Just as good as Jun Tazaki’s performance is the design of the super-sub, Atragon. What’s not to love about a giant flying submarine? My youngest, Judah, was entranced. As well he should be – the Atragon is every young boy’s dream come true, with its sleek design, its gun turrets, its eye-catching color scheme, and its freeze-ray in the nose. Judah spent the week following seeing this movie drawing picture after picture of flying submarines. Of course, he has been begging me for a toy Atragon. And, yes, such a thing is available!

Next: More of Toho’s Second String!
Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon
The Mysterians
Dagora, the Space Monster

J. G. Ballard’s Oddly Superfluous Autobiography

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton: An Autobiography
J. G. Ballard
Fourth Estate, 2008

In his peak writing years, those three decades between The Drowned World (1962) and The Kindness of Women (1991), J. G. Ballard was a writer who seldom failed to surprise. During his final decade of writing fiction, however, stretching from Cocaine Nights (1996) to Kingdom Come (2006), which bracketed Super-Cannes (2000) and Millennium People (2003), he seemed to be writing virtually the same book over and over again, retaining essentially the same cast of characters (but changing the names) and slightly altering the settings from vaguely fascistic suburban resort enclaves along the Mediterranean coast to vaguely fascistic English suburbs and shopping malls. Like Beethoven with his 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Ballard, with his final quartet of novels, obsessively pursued variations on a theme, far more narrowly than he had earlier in his career.

Yet, with the last book he completed prior to his death in 2009, Miracles of Life, Ballard managed to spring a final surprise on his reading public. Word that the writer was working on his autobiography raised excited anticipation – so much of Ballard’s fiction had either been heavily autobiographical (Empire of the Sun [1984] and The Kindness of Women) or fantastically extrapolated from incidents in his life (Crash [1973] and The Unlimited Dream Company [1979]), that his readers (this reader certainly included) could hardly wait to have the wizard pull aside the curtain and reveal, once and for all, which elements of his fictions had been based on his life experiences and which had been fully imagined.

The final surprise this prodigiously talented writer, with his unique voice and viewpoint, managed to spring was that he wrote such an unrevealing, limp, and therefore superfluous autobiography as his last testament. The scanty revelations the book contains could have been assembled into a medium-length magazine article. We do learn a good bit about his parents, who, as characters, remained mostly off-stage (for novelistic reasons) in Empire of the Sun. We learn that he met his wife, Mary, at a party given by fellow science fiction writers and fans, members of the circle surrounding New Worlds, not long after he started publishing his earliest stories in that magazine. We are also granted a fairly detailed portrait of Ballard’s long friendship with fellow writer Kingsley Amis (father of Martin), author of such post-war English classics as Lucky Jim, as well as an amusing anecdote regarding a lunch with the publisher of The Drowned World, Victor Gollancz, who assumed out loud that Ballard had cribbed his novel from Heart of Darkness (when Ballard hadn’t yet read a word of Joseph Conrad’s).

So the book has its pleasures. Yet, for any readers who are familiar with Empire of the Sun, based on Ballard’s childhood years in Shanghai and the Lunghua camp run by the Japanese military, and The Kindness of Women, based on his life from the last days of World War Two through the filming of Steven Spielberg’s movie version of Empire of the Sun in 1987, Miracles of Life will come as a repetitive, mostly airless reading experience. This is because, with the exceptions I’ve listed above, Ballard’s autobiography repeats the sequences of events in his two earlier novels, but in much less vividly described fashion.

When I recently read the autobiography, I hadn’t read either of the novels since they had first appeared in the U.S., twenty-eight and twenty-one years ago. Intrigued by many of the autobiography’s somewhat sketchy portraits of his friends and intimates during his years living in Shepperton, I decided to reread The Kindness of Women immediately afterward. I was very surprised – on the verge of shocked – to find that whole passages had been transposed, either verbatim or close to it, from the earlier novel to the autobiography. Ballard had plagiarized himself. Passages of The Kindness of Women which reappear in Miracles of Life include descriptions of Ballard’s service in the Royal Air Force, receiving flight training in rural Canada, and descriptions of his instigation of an art installation of crashed cars and his subsequent personal car crash, prior to the publication of Crash. The description of the filming of Shanghai-set scenes of Empire of the Sun in a suburban neighborhood adjoining Shepperton in Kindness is also repeated nearly verbatim in Miracles.

The autobiography also suffers from a lack of detail on matters not directly addressed in the two semi-autobiographical novels. Readers get very little sense of the personalities of Ballard’s wife Mary or his partner of forty years, Claire Bloom, and his three children are cyphers, not individualized at all (although he does spend a good deal of the book speaking to how grateful he was for their presence in his life). Particularly disappointing to science fiction fans (in The Kindness of Women, the Ballard-figure protagonist is not identified as having any connection with the literature of science fiction at all) has to be the author’s very sketchy portrayal of his most important and long-lasting friendship in the science fiction world, that with Michael Moorcock. Moorcock and Ballard were central to British participation in science fiction’s New Wave, and their friendship and collaboration thus has a good bit of historical interest attached. How sad, then, that this relationship is given such short shrift in Miracles of Life. I suppose we must now depend upon Michael Moorcock to provide a fuller picture, should he ever choose to do so.

Why did Ballard choose to write Miracles of Life during his last year, considering that, at best, it merely recapitulates scenarios previously (and far more vividly) described in Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, offering very little in the way of additional insight into the famed writer? I can postulate as to a few possible motivations. Having been diagnosed with severe prostate cancer, he may have wanted to set out for himself a fresh project to devote his remaining energies to, a goal which would give him reason to continue getting out of his sick bed each morning; perhaps another novel was not forthcoming, and a career-capping autobiography seemed the only alternative. Knowing that interest in such an autobiography would be fairly high (although the book has yet to find an American publisher), he may have wanted to provide a final boost to the monetary inheritance he would provide for Claire Booth and his children. A third motive? Over the prior decade, Ballard had shown a proclivity towards playing variations on a theme. Perhaps Miracles of Life was a continuation of this proclivity, a (slight) variation on the themes he had already expressed in his two semi-autobiographical novels.

With Ballard having died a year after his writing of his autobiography, we will never know his actual motivation for what on the surface seems an odd choice for a project to cap his luminous career.

I’ve also written about J. G. Ballard’s works elsewhere:

It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It

The Thrill of the New: The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World

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