REVIEW: Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Written by Kazuki Omori, Story by Shinichirô Kobayashi
Starring Kunihiko Mitamura, Yoshiko Tanaka, Masanobu Takashima, Kôji Takahashi, Tôru Minegishi, Megumi Odaka, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Ryûnosuke Kaneda, Manjot Beoi

When I first started watching Godzilla movies, I was about 9 years old. While I had seen bits and pieces of a few of the films here and there on television, I never really sat down for a true viewing until I read a Nickelodeon magazine article on the Big G in preparation for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film (I know, the horror). From there, I began to search high and low for every Godzilla movie on VHS I could get my hands on. I cannot tell you how many trips to K-Mart were had to find those things. In the summer of that year, I found my second Godzilla tape, and that turned out to be this little gem.

Following the events of Godzilla’s 1984 raid on Tokyo, scientists collect genetic material from the monster’s fallen scales. The samples are quickly stolen by Agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), an assassin for the Middle Eastern country of Saradia. Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) plans to use the cells to produce highly adaptable wheat crops for Saradia, but before he can, the samples are destroyed by American sabotage, killing his daughter in the process. Spending years studying the remaining cells, Shiragami combines Godzilla’s genetic code with those of a rose and his own deceased daughter, resulting in Biollante, an eerie plant of titanic proportions. To make matters worse, a psychic woman (Megumi Odaka) detects Godzilla stirring from his volcanic prison. The military sends the flying Super-X2 to stop the beast from thrashing Japan, but eventually Godzilla engages the rapidly mutating Biollante in a fight to the death.

While The Return of Godzilla was a critical success, it’s box office take was rather marginal compared to the more fruitful early Showa-period entries, and a sequel was put on the backburner. When director Kazuki Ōmori was handed the project in 1986, he opted for a unique approach to generating the story: he convinced Toho Pictures to hold a contest for fans to submit their own story and original monster for Godzilla to battle. From five finalists, one of whom would go on to become the story for the post-apocalyptic feature Gunhed, Ōmori chose the entry by dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi, concerning a scientist’s quest to resurrect his deceased daughter by combining her genetic structure with first a plant, and then cells from Godzilla himself, resulting in the abominable hybrid creature Biollante.

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Developing the story further, Ōmori was able to craft an interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi film, with themes concerning the practice of genetic engineering and man’s often-times reckless misuse of it. The film begins immediately after TROG, with both the Japanese forces and mercenaries from American and Middle Eastern factions scavenging the remains of Tokyo for Godzilla cells. The desert country of Saradia, in particular, greatly desires the cells, for their chief engineer, Dr. Shiragami, believes he can crossbreed them with wheat plants to produce highly adaptive and regenerative crops that could turn Saradia into an oasis, no matter the effect on global power. From the start, GVB is a film brimming with geopolitical intrigue surrounding science of a questionable morality–much like the original Godzilla and its immediate predecessor.

Image result for dr shiragamiShiragami inhabits a unique position among Godzilla movie scientists. He’s not the typical nature-fearing voice of reason, however, nor is he a mad scientist, despite his status a Biollante’s creator. While his Frankenstein-like actions are in keeping with the better parts of a horror setting, his motivation, to save the soul of his daughter, dramatically paint all of his debates with Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura) in a much more nuanced light. Takahashi keeps his performance reserved and subdued, appearing to hide a silent pain that feels incredibly genuine. Of all the Heisei films, I think Takahashi got the best performance of them all.

The aforementioned Kirishima, the younger, and yet more conservative, geneticist, is fiery and moral, always on the defensive against his more risk-taking mentor. Through his misgivings we are presented with the ethical dilemma of genetic manipulation: early on, the Japanese government decides to counter Godzilla with a new artificially-created strain of bacteria that can consume nuclear material. While everyone else leaps at the chance to use this “Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria,” Kirishima is hesitant, because if Godzilla never shows, or is indeed finally defeated by the strain, Japan will have taken an uncomfortable seat next to the United States as the first to deploy a weapon which will shake the balance of power worldwide, and possibly trigger a new arms race. Sound familiar? Rounding out the main cast are Toru Minegishi as the funny Colonel Gondo, Yoshiko Tanaka as Kirishima’s love interest Asuka, and the adorable Megumi Odaka, playing the first appearance of the recurring psychic Miki Saegusa role.

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Unlike those previous entries, GVB places more of the onscreen emphasis on action. The first act contains more than one gunfight, usually involving Saradia’s sinister secret agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), in an apparent attempt by Ōmori to inject spy thriller elements into the Godzilla formula. Seems he always wanted to direct a Bond film, but this was the closest he ever got. From Godzilla’s arrival, the film moves more into a hybrid of the government procedural format of TROG and more traditional kaiju destruction, with two big battles with the Biollante creature. In all honesty, the action itself isn’t bad, but isn’t anything particularly inspiring as far as blocking and innovation.

Instead, what really works for GVB is the cinematography of Yūdai Katō. Aiming for a more manageable middle ground between a smooth sheen and TROG‘s high-grain look, GVB keeps the darker, more night-based scenes but adds an organic wetness to the proceedings, further enhancing the new suit worn by Kenpachiro Satsuma, who achieves an even better performance here than previously. The suit is now one of Godzilla’s most iconic designs: bulky but muscular, with pronounced dorsal spines and a dragon-like, almost feline head with lifelike, canine eyes. Seriously, in some shots it appears alive.

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While Biollante’s first form doesn’t appear as lifelike, it and the second, more mutated form remain two of the most unique kaiju designs yet, topped only by the ’90s Gamera films. Slimy and wrapped in monstrous vines, Biollante is enough to make even the most seasoned tokusatsu veteran cringe in disgust.

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As I mentioned at the beginning, this was my second Godzilla film that I bought, after Monster Zero. While I loved the cheesy ’60s alien invasion story of the former, this film stirred in me some interesting thought, even with the at-times hilarious international English dub. (Godziller cells!) It’s a smart study in a burgeoning field of science where ethics may be the only thing preventing a catastrophe of proportions we still don’t fully understand, and for a film like that to keep my attention before age 10 is a feat indeed. While it sadly didn’t have the impact it should have had upon the new Heisei series due to its diminished returns, GVB‘s fortune has been on the rise, with a recent Japanese fan poll selecting it as the best Godzilla film to date. While I believe that honor still befalls the original, I gladly recommend Godzilla vs. Biollante in the top 5 whenever passing my kaiju knowledge along.

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REVIEW: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

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Directed by Koji Hashimoto
Written by Hideichi Nagahara, Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Starring Ken Takaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yôsuke Natsuki, Shin Takuma, Kaiju Kobayashi, Raymond Burr (American Version “Godzilla 1985”)

By 1975, I think it was safe to say that Godzilla had very little bite left, if any. His films played to the youngest of audiences, with such a juvenile and playful tone that none of the worldly, nuclear menace was left. After several box office failures, Godzilla went on a nearly ten-year vacation, in which many attempts were made to reboot the series, with as many different visions as to where it should go. The big guy would have to wait until 1984, but it was a wait well worth it.

While day sailing in the Pacific, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds a missing fishing vessel, Yahata Maru, and discovers that all the hands have been killed by a giant sea louse except for one. The lone survivor, Okumura (Shin Takuma), then tells the reporter that the ship was attacked by a new Godzilla. Fearing a panic, the Japanese government attempts to cover up the news, failing when a Soviet nuclear submarine is destroyed and the situation puts them and the United States on the brink of nuclear war. Soon Japan and the rest of the world are on red alert as they wait for Godzilla to begin his rampage anew.

Opting for an almost completely clean reboot, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka brought to the table a story which respected not only the allegorical roots of the creature, but the fact the original film just couldn’t be remade in a modern setting. While his original conception pitted Godzilla against yet another monster, screenwriter Hideichi Nagahara thankfully dropped the second kaiju and concentrated on the geopolitical effects of the existence of such a monster. This was quite the revolutionary approach to a kaiju film; while tokusatsu cinema of the ’70s included some epic thrillers, Japan Sinks being one I can recall, kaiju films were purely the realm of the little ones. The Return of Godzilla expertly reverses this dynamic by only acknowledging the original film in its continuity.

Watching The Return of Godzilla, or Godzilla 1985 for you casual G-fans, you really get the sense that it was a Tom Clancy political potboiler before Tom Clancy was a thing. So much of the government procedural is there on the screen, with just enough military action and suspense to sex it up, the film is quite tense where it should be dull. The film starts off with a minor mystery in the form of Okumura and his missing fishing vessel, then swiftly enters the halls of the Japanese government and their desperate attempts to keep Godzilla’s return a secret. While the Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) and his cabinet deal with the broad strokes, Okumura, his sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi), Maki, and Professor Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki, in a role very evocative of Dr. Yamane in the original film) study the monster, hoping to find some way of halting his coming landing.

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The Return of Godzilla fits more as a 70s film than an 80s one, even including a few visual effects shots from the Japanese thriller Prophecies of Nostradamus during Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage. But it’s more than a few homages; TROG carries with it a distinct contempt for the Cold War and its major players, the United States and the Soviet Union. About 30 minutes in, a Soviet submarine is destroyed under mysterious circumstances, triggering a standoff between the superpowers until the Japanese government reluctantly reveals that Godzilla was the culprit. You’d think this would be the end of the hostilities and the beginning of international cooperation, but you’d be wrong. Instead, both nations begin pressuring Japan to allow them to use nuclear weapons against the monster, no matter its location. It’s a uniquely Japanese viewpoint on the stupidity of nuclear brinkmanship that also earns the film a home among American cinema of the decade prior, with its distrust of the American government post-Nixon.

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The film moves nicely from each mini-crisis to the next, both edifying and decrying Japanese bureaucracy in much the same way Shin Godzilla would over 30 years later, while Hayashida provides the story’s philosophical heart. And at the halfway point, we finally get city-stomping Godzilla action. The monster’s new design is positively menacing, from its dead eyes to its sharp fangs. Portrayed mainly with tried-and-true suitmation, the 84Goji, as this design is referred to, is a quantum-leap above it’s predecessors, harkening back to the raw savagery of the original whilst conveying impressive mass. Yes, the special effects appear quite dated today, but look at the film through the lenses of the time and setting of its release, and TROG delivers the epic goods in a way the goofy late-Showa outings couldn’t muster.

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Shortly after its original release, TROG was picked up by New World Pictures for an American exhibition, cutting approximately 30 minutes of the Japanese print and adding ten more of new scenes involving a Pentagon response team viewing the destruction from Washington, joined by Raymond Burr, reprising his role as Steve Martin from Godzilla, King of the Monsters. While Burr is true-to-form, the other actors are comically unneeded and hollow, and the film unfortunately loses its pacifist stance with several changes to the narrative that paints the Soviets as villains. But all is not lost; some editorial changes do much to help the pacing of several sequences, and selections of Christopher Young’s Def-Con 4 score are used to great effect. In short, Godzilla 1985 is a mixed bag, but not entirely without merit.

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The Return of Godzilla, as the first film of the “Heisei” saga, works overtime to reestablish Godzilla’s destructive roots, and wins the day with its interesting fusion of government procedural and monster smash. More than anything, however, TROG will be remembered among fans and newcomers as probably their first introduction to an alternative point of view on the Cold War, one from a nation that would caught in the crossfire of the end of the world.

REVIEW: Shin Godzilla (2016)

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Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Written by Hideaki Anno
Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Osugi (get accent mark), Akira Emoto, Kengo Kora (accent), Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Kunimura, Pierre Taki

With the success of Legendary Pictures’ Americanized reboot of Godzilla, Toho back in Japan wanted to get back into the action. While still retaining the rights deal with Warner Brothers, allowing the Monsterverse to continue, Toho set about producing a new film to be directed by Hideaki Anno, the famous creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you’re a fan, than you are probably assuming right now that Godzilla goes all metaphysical, right? Eh, not quite.

An unknown accident occurs in Tokyo Bay’s Aqua Line, flooding the underwater passageway as citizens scramble to evacuate. An emergency cabinet meeting is assembled, just in time to witness a giant creature surface from Tokyo Bay and make its way across land in the heart of the city. Growing in size and mutating with each unsuccessful attack against it, the creature seems unstoppable. Government official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is placed in charge of a special research team to investigate ways to kill or incapacitate the beast, now dubbed “Godzilla.”

More than several kaiju and tokusatsu films have tried to establish a realistic scenario for the appearance of a giant monster; the original Godzilla and the Heisei era films The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante presented the effect of the titular kaiju upon various geopolitical aspects of the world, while “foreign” monster films like the British Gorgo and Korean The Host carried an air of authenticity and spectacle to their visions of creature carnage. Shin Godzilla can easily be added to this fraternity, but its approach to the material is substantially more plausible and researched. Why? Because Shin Godzilla can be referred to as “Politicians vs. Godzilla.”

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The film begins with a brief mystery in the form of a deserted pleasure craft in Tokyo Bay before the water erupts in a large steam eruption, causing damage and flooding to the Tokyo Aqua Line highway. We as an audience are then treated to 13 minutes of dry bureaucracy. Yes, you read that right. As we are introduced to protagonist Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Cabinet Chief, we are also introduced to his world of relentless politics and red tape as Cabinet meeting after government committee after press conference seeks to establish just what is going on, and what to do about it. If this sounds incredibly boring, than I wouldn’t blame you, but I would rest easy–with the quick pace and sheer amount of subtitles you’ll be reading, I’m sure you won’t be too listless during your viewing.

Close viewing during this opening sequence will reward inquisitive viewers, however, as Anno’s intent quickly becomes apparent among every ignorant assumption and naive rush to judgment several government officials make, always rewarded with a simple, fast cut to a harsh reality check in the form of the giant monster now wading out of the bay and into metropolitan Tokyo. Again and again, even with the best of intentions, Japan’s flat-level democratic government, following the exact letter of the law, fails against the nuclear menace, resulting in one of the most salient and darkly humorous satires of government around today.

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But this is a Godzilla movie, you shout, and I soothe and calm with my analysis of the character, as this Godzilla is probably the most unique iteration on screen. First appearing quite alien to previous versions in the form of a bizarre, fish-eyed, bleeding-gilled monstrosity that can barely support its own week, it soon begins to mutate, revealing the most innovative addition to the Godzilla mythos: this Godzilla is highly adaptive, capable of mutating its body and DNA at will. Resulting in a changing creature that forms the most hideous Godzilla design yet, this film hits a home run in devising a new spin on the Big G.

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Further building on the design is co-director and special effects artist Shinji Higuchi’s work in creating Godzilla, this time done almost completely with CG effects. A clear break from tokusatsu tradition, to be sure, but the end result is incredibly convincing, due to the effects team’s efforts to keep Godzilla as stiff and suit-like as possible, which ironically gave the design a lifelike quality that accurately conveyed size and power. Their finest work probably comes at the halfway point in the film when Godzilla is bombed by American B-2 bombers, enraging the beast and prompting his first use of his destructive atomic beam.

Most of these scenes are accompanied by an equally-unusual sound design, employing a mixture of classical Toho sound effects and Akira Ifukube music with new sounds and music cues. When I first saw the film in theaters during its short American run, I was unimpressed and even bothered by the use of the old sounds and music, feeling that their limited dynamics were out of place. Now I’m convinced it was the fault of the cinema’s speaker system, as the blu-ray’s uncommon 3.1 mix produces a deep fidelity and bass I do not recall encountering before. In short, Shin Godzilla should highly please fans of the classic films with regards to their ears.

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After the mounting destruction of the first half, Godzilla falls into a long hibernation, and Rando’s research team reforms to discover a way to defeat him before a UN coalition employs nuclear weapons to resolve the situation. After systematically deconstructing the helplessness of Japan’s democracy to handle the crisis, Anno’s film then abruptly turns about face, giving Rando and his nerds the reigns to save the day with democracy. They bend only the rules they cannot follow to the letter, and break none, showing that even below the layers upon layers of tape, the right men and women with the right combination of ambition, compassion, and courage can prevail and make this world a better one.

Now I know that sounds very different from what is expected from a serious Godzilla movie, but fret not–the final scene brings one final revelation, one I won’t reveal here. Let’s just say that Godzilla’s origins as Nature’s reaction to the ravages of the human race are preserved in full with this film, and while Shin Godzilla requires an open mind and a quick eye for subtitles, to the right viewer, it is a real gem of modern tokusatsu. With Shin Godzilla, Anno has shown what humans can be capable of when working together toward a noble goal…but nature is patient, and she never forgets our crimes.

EDITORIAL: Why Armageddon is the Most American Movie Ever

This 4th of July will be celebrated across the nation of the Untied States like every other one has–in a million different ways. Most citizens will be doing it the old fashioned way at barbecues with beers aplenty or at large, open fields, eagerly awaiting the colorful explosions of Independence Day fireworks. But a select few will probably be like me; when not otherwise engaged with outdoor festivities or (sadly) work, some will probably put on an appropriate movie or two.

What makes an appropriate movie seems to be up to debate among us cinephiles. Some prefer films with a heavy patriotic edge, like Rocky 4 or Born on the Fourth of July. Others ironically pick films that focus on big bangs and nationalistic machismo, like Independence Day or Olympus Has Fallen. While I like to mix it up with my July 4th marathon, by the time of the big day I put on a film that I think best exemplifies both qualities, one that has made me a black sheep within the rabble of filmic patriots. That film is Armageddon.

Image result for armageddon bannerNo, I’m not kidding.

Michael Bay’s third film and released in 1998 in direct competition with the similarly-plotted Deep Impact, Armageddon is not widely thought of as a “patriotic” picture per say, let alone a good one; most moviegoers tend to dismiss it along with Pearl Harbor and the Transformers films, although I believe this is a sorely unfair comparison. Namely, Armageddon is much smarter and more meaningful than Transformers, and definitely more fun. But most of all, for the purposes of this article, I submit to you, dear reader, that Armageddon is the quintessential Independence Day film, solely because of how it captures the essence of the American Dream.

Crazy, you call me? Well, prepare to have your minds blown (away).

The first indication to Armageddon‘s rather bombastic American identity is the fact that it is on visual display everywhere throughout the film. I kid you not; there are American flags everywhere.

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Even Will Patton’s kid is wearing an Old Glory t-shirt in the end.

But this is a Michael Bay trademark by now, I grant you, and simply not enough to support my argument. That’s why a second go-around of the evidence reveals even more subtle visual hints, like a large hay barn on a farm, an old barber shop on Main Street, a woman listening to the radio of a 1940s pickup truck while yet another American flag flutters in the breeze. The inclusion of these iconic sights of Americana serves to connect Armageddon to our nation’s past in a way that, say, Independence Day or Rocky 4 could never muster.

A most interesting observation of these shots is that most of it seems firmly rooted in the 50s-70s era, the so-called “good old days” of the Boomer generation, but more importantly, the age of the Space Race, when the United States was locked in an idealogical battle with the Soviet Union over both the world and its ultimate high ground, outer space. This front of the Cold War brought us probably the greatest achievement not only in American history, but in the story of the human race; the manned landing on the Moon. How fitting then that Bay’s film, stuffed to the brim of iconographic sights of American exceptionalism, is centered around NASA and a manned space mission? Very fitting, indeed.

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However, unlike other certain films which deal with this uniquely American pride in space like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13, Armageddon depicts the scientists of NASA as being unable to pull of the job themselves, and so they resort to calling in outside talent, namely the oil drilling team of Harry Stamper. Setting aside all concerns about believability or scientific accuracy, this reveals Bay and the screenwriters to be employing an old, epic cinematic trope: the working man rising to save the day.

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The following has been taken from the liner notes of the Criterion Collection DVD, written by Jeanine Basinger, one of Bay’s professors of Film Studies at Wesleyan Univerity:

“At its core, Armageddon is a genre picture, and like all genre pictures that arrive late in the cycle, it has been subjected to misinterpretation. Although it qualifies as a science fiction/disaster movie, I see it as an epic form of the old Warner Brothers movies about working-class men who have to step up and rescue a situation through their courage, true grit, and knowledge of machines—productions such as Raoul Walsh’s Manpower (1941) and Alfred E. Green’s Flowing Gold (1940). The “science fiction” or “disaster movie” elements of Armageddon fit into the epic form—a form that exists to make movie stories we already know grander, larger, and more “real” in historic setting. (A failed epic settles for the definition put forth in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 film In a Lonely Place: “. . . a picture that’s real long and has lots and lots going on.”) Armageddon is grand, large, and set at NASA, but, the story of Stamper, his daughter, and his hard-living, oil-drilling buddies is the kind of movie that has previously been smaller and tighter. This film makes these ordinary men noble, lifting their efforts up into an epic event. Here, working men are not only saving the overeducated scientists and politicians who can’t do anything (and who probably went to Yale and Harvard), but, incidentally, the entire population of the planet.”

Quite the analysis, there. But even a cursory look-over of the film proves what Basinger is saying. Stamper and his crew are coarse, uncouth, and horribly politically-incorrect, representing the lowest rung of the working class of America, employed in one of its biggest industries: oil drilling. When NASA’s chief director (played in a very down-home, country-boy drawl by Billy Bob Thornton) realizes that they need the Image result for armageddon harry stamperbest drillers in the world to execute their mission, they look to Stamper, first to help them iron out the kinks in their drill design, stolen from Stamper himself. In a scene typical of Bay’s alpha-male wit, Stamper crushes their inefficiencies with his no-nonsense approach, and negotiates bringing his own men along.

These men aren’t the well-spoken, foreign elites of Truman’s scientific team, but are men you could picture all hanging out in a small town bar. They come from all walks of life: Chick is a Nevada native who is addicted to the craps table; Bear is lone biker; Oscar owns a ranch in Nebraska, and A.J. seems to be walking in Harry’s footsteps as an oil driller. A lot of the men even have rocky and sordid histories, best exemplified by Rockhound’s continuous inside joke of being…uh, “horny.” Together, they are truly a motley crew and one that not everyone can trust…not unlike a group of immigrants waiting to enter through Ellis Island, rough from a life of work and sometimes sin. But in taking the job and surviving NASA training, they blast off in defense of humanity, but more importantly, in symbolic defense of the American dream that they so benefit from.

Bay may have dumbed-down the dialogue of the past epic examples Basinger provided, but the spirit of these films is very much intact. In Armageddon, we are seeing a classic ideal, the American Dream, made into visual form. These men, woefully unqualified and completely out of their element in a world of intelligentsia and privilege, save the day, in fact, the entire world, with nothing but their indomitable will and hard-worked hands. And when they triumph, what are they greeted to, other than another serving of Americana:

Feel free to consider me wrong, but I can’t help but feel patriotic in a way that The Patriot or Air Force One never could. All arguments about how well the message came across aside, I for one believe that Michael Bay intended for Armageddon to spur these feelings as the best allegory he could manage. Is it nuanced? Hell no. Is it good? This is subjective. But if you are one of the few who still likes to watch Armageddon, go ahead and give it a viewing this 4th. Chances are you’ll be watching it after a few beers and before fireworks, so it should fit quite nicely.

REVIEW: Armageddon (1998)

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Directed by Michael Bay
Written by Jonathan Hensleigh and  J.J. Abrams, Adapted by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno, Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, William Fichtner, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormaire, Keith David, Jason Isaacs

I would call Armageddon my greatest guilty pleasure….if I considered it a guilty pleasure. But I don’t. In fact, I am going to go all black sheep on you and say Armageddon is secretly a great film, simply misunderstood by the masses who tolerate unbelievable and trite premises in other films because they simply do not have Michael Bay listed as their director. Indefensible? Misguided? Just plain wrong? Nope, I’ll prove it to you.

With the space shuttle Atlantis’s unfortunate demise in outer space and the devastation of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States by meteor showers, NASA becomes aware of a doomsday asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth. After numerous plans are tabled, it seems that the only way to knock it off course is to drill into its surface and detonate a nuclear weapon. But as NASA’s under-funded yet resourceful team train the world’s best drillers for the job, under the auspices of their boss Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the social order of the world begins to break down as the information reaches the public and hysteria results. As high-ranking officials play politics with the effort, the drilling team all faces deep personal issues which may jeopardize humanity’s last chance…

So what makes Armageddon a good movie in my eyes? Well, the first indication is that Michael Bay most certainly has the favor of the cinematic gods when it comes to an eye for composition. Even Bay’s critics have always been quick to point out that his visual style is distinctive and even beautiful at times, and that style is present in force within Armageddon. Every shot is incredibly dynamic, with sweeping camera and character movement that achieves a high parallax, coupled with equally dynamic editing in which the average shot length is about 1.5 seconds. It sounds like a cacophony of undecipherable images, and I grant you, the nameless reader in my head, that in most of his more recent films, like Transformers, this causes quite the headache, but it works for Armageddon, which commands a more J.J. Abrams-esque command of light and color and most certainly doesn’t have to deal with alien shards of sentient metal constantly shifting in the frame.

Still, Armageddon is not for the viewer who is even the least bit slow-eyed, because every one of their senses will be under assault by deafening loudness, both physical and metaphorical. Everything about Armageddon is decidedly unsubtle, and I think this is what works against the film in the eyes of its detractors. Okay, that was a nice way of saying that’s why the film is so hated. But, and let’s be honest here, what other films are like that? If you said just about every superhero film put out by Marvel and Warner Brothers today, than you would be correct. So maybe it’s high time to knock it off with the hypocrisy, shall we?

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What truly works in Armageddon are the characters. Before we even meet our main heroes, we are treated to the denizens of the NASA control room, headed by Director Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), a Texan throwback to the days of the early Space Race, full of Southern charm and fire. He works as an excellent bridge and confidant between the military and scientific elites and the drill team of oilman Harry Stamper, played in the usual lunkhead everyman caricature by Die Hard‘s own Bruce Willis. Stamper’s team are a veritable Dirty Dozen, composed of an array of blue-collar types who range from dependable to shaky to downright crazy. Luckily, some of the best character actors of the decade were assembled to play them, giving us the likes of Will Patton, Michael Clarke Duncan, Owen Wilson, and in a special note, the absolutely hilarious Steve Buscemi.

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All is not well among them, however, as Harry has a daughter (or rather, Steve Tyler of Aerosmith’s daughter, Liv Tyler) who is being courted by none other than Ben Affleck as Harry’s young hot-shot A.J. The less that can be said about this subplot however, the better, because it just isn’t up to scratch with the rest of the picture.

Image result for armageddon aj graceSomewhere out there, a hater is thinking, “The whole picture isn’t up to scratch. WTF are you talking about?”

Once we get off the ground, the full force of “Bayhem,” as his visual style is so often derided or praised as, hits the audience and propels them into satisfying blend of action and disaster genres, throwing our already likeable heroes into intense situations such as the destruction of a Russian space station in orbit or the insanely difficult landing maneuvers onto the asteroid. The script attempts to inject some political turmoil into this script with the President and his advisors deciding to blow the bomb early due to their doubts that the drillers can succeed, and as you would have guessed, it is handled with the subtlety of a nine-year-old who’s found his dad’s gun.

But, again, this is okay. Not every science fiction film can be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in the case, the farcical and over-the-top nature of the narrative and the people that move it along are a main feature, meant to be enjoyed as spectacle, not nuance. Hell, I’ve even made the argument that Armageddon should be considered a quintessential 4th of July movie, and that allegorical connection is about as unsubtle as a Donald Trump rally. That is the point. America is never subtle. Neither is Bay, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I hope I’ve been able to get somewhere with this argument, but in the end, I guess it comes down to preferences. Those who prefer their entertainment more simple-minded will love this movie, as will people who are flexible like myself, while those who demand narrative and technical perfection will never listen to a word I say. But for those who may be undecided, I feel that early Bay, from Bad Boys to Pearl Harbor, offered excellent spectacle filmmaking, before he let his juvenile frat-boy streak take over. Since Armageddon fits firmly in the middle of this part of his career, I hope that you will give at least one more chance.

 

REVIEW: Independence Day (1996)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

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Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

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Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

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ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.

REVIEW: Apollo 13 (1995)

Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Based on the Book “Lost Moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris

How can you tell a historical drama is good? When it keeps you at the edge of your seat despite you knowing the outcome because–after all–it already happened. Apollo 13 is that good and more.

It had been less than a year since man first walked on the Moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another “routine” space flight–until these words pierced the immense void of space: “Houston, we have a problem.” Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), and a heroic ground crew race against time–and the odds–to bring them home.

If I were teaching a film class, Apollo 13 would be under the suspense category, despite being more a drama than anything. It can roll with the best Hitchcock ever put out, and the reason is obvious. It is so damn suspenseful despite have the handicap that the events it portrays already occurred that I’m always on edge during the drama and moved to tears by the end. Call me sentimental, call me ridiculous, but this is among Ron Howard’s finest works, if not his absolute best.

Beginning with a watch party at Jim Lovell’s house during Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk, Apollo 13 already steams full ahead into creating  flawless period atmosphere, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and optimism of the era in just under a few minutes. From there, we enter a protracted period before the fateful mission in which human drama over personnel changes force Ken Mattingly off of the 13 crew. Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors of his generation, easily pulls ahead of his peers in the film, going through a whirlwind of emotion in the film from his devastating grounding to becoming the tireless professional working to save the men when their spacecraft is suddenly crippled in space.

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With Mattingly on the ground are a heaping of wonderfully-relatable character actors portraying the Houston flight control team, headed by the great Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz. Playing a very different character than his rendition of John Glenn in The Right Stuff, Harris’ Kranz is unpolished and upfront, ready to move mountains to bring his men home, all while keeping a straight face that only contorts to shout when the more doubtful of his team suggest failure is inevitable.

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But of course, the real stars of the film are Hanks, Paxton, Swigert, and the incredible depiction of spaceflight by Howard and his crew. The three astronauts, despite already being big names by the time of the film, are completely convincing, helped along in their jobs by the great strides made toward total scientific accuracy. The interiors of the Odyssey and the Aquarius are faithfully recreated with stunning attention to detail, and Howard even managed to stuff the sets into a KC-135 to create believable microgravity conditions, resulting in shots that leave the audience shaking their head in disbelief before finally accepting that, “they must have really gone into space to make this movie!”

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One more actor to mention is the exquisite Kathleen Quinlan, playing Lovell’s wife Marilyn. Quinlan could have easily disappeared into the background with this role, but she is so stunningly authentic that not only did she garner an Oscar nomination, but she impressed the real Marilyn Lovell herself, who heeped the highest praise upon Quinlan when the film was released.

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In the end, Apollo 13 stands on its own as great film and as a worthy companion piece to another Space Race film I have recently reviewed, The Right Stuff. Both depict a time when America was at a difficult and painful crossroads but still had a heaping of pride to swell over that was pure and incredible. And even when that pride turned to fear and terror before our very eyes as three courageous men faced death in the most inhospitable environment known to life, we pulled through together, and showed that anything is possible when humanity feels that it is.