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.

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REVIEW: The Right Stuff

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Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Philip Kaufman, Based on the Novel by Tom Wolfe
Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer

Released to relatively little success in 1983 during former astronaut John Glenn’s failed Presidential run, The Right Stuff has now become somewhat of a cult hit, garnering more praise as the years go by. And why not? Based on one of the best-selling nonfiction books by Tom Wolfe and written and directed by Philip Kaufman, an interesting figure in cinema by any measure, The Right Stuff is probably one of the most fun and fulfilling pictures in the epic tradition out there.

The story of the beginnings of the US space program and the first seven Mercury astronauts, beginning when Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier in 1947. After the Soviets successfully launch the Sputnik satellite in 1959, the U.S. redoubles its efforts to catch up, selecting 7 pilots for the program. They instantly become super stars, appearing on television and having articles written about them in Life magazine. The work, however, is serious and dangerous, as it has never been done before.

The Right Stuff is truly marvelous in every way. A near-perfect synthesis of excellent screenwriting, sublime editing, stunning photography and great performances, Philip Kaufman’s 7th film never ceases to put a smile on my face.

Related imageBeginning in 1947 with the breaking of the sound barrier, Sam Shepard enters the fray as the story’s first true hero, Chuck Yeager, a bona fide ace of World War II, now a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. Shepard’s performance, which was nominated for an Oscar, is authentic and confident, showcasing the skills that this now-unheard-of actor possesses. Matching him in quiet countenance is Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis, in a small but impactful role. This first section of the film, despite depicting several historic flights by Yeager, is quite intimate and quiet, showcasing the stresses placed upon both the pilots risking their lives to “push the envelope” and on their wives, who will be left with nothing save a few months’ pay to pick up the pieces.

While Yeager and his civilian rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) continue to break speed and altitude records, the film slowly introduces us to several smaller pilots with big destinies ahead, namely the slick, silver-tongued devil Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), the ever-serious Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). When President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson (played hilariously and to a T by Donald Moffat, Texas drawl and all) form NASA, Grissom and Cooper will join the quietly confident and uniquely eccentric Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), along with Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and of course, John Glenn (Ed Harris) to become America’s Mercury 7 astronauts, reaching levels of fame that Yeager and Crossfield never manage to achieve before they even step foot into the capsule.

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It is here where Kaufman’s screenplay really shows its steady legs. Throughout the constant and ridiculous testing at NASA to bureaucracy and empty showmanship designed to stir up the American people about a program which could falter and collapse at any moment against the Soviets, The Right Stuff rightly presents all of the silliness and irony inherent in the nation’s early space program, and in the rivalry between the astronauts from all three branches of the military. There are just so many great examples: the Congressional briefing in which Harry Shearer and Jeff Golblum seriously suggest circus performers as astronaut candidates, the comical friendliness between Marine pilots Carpenter and Glenn while the others are so incredibly cut-throat towards each other, even the uncomfortable first flight of Shepard, who is ordered to hold his bladder in the capsule while shot after shot after shot of running hoses, spilled coffee, and bubbling water coolers taunt him from afar, become near-Vaudeville routines of humor. And all the while, the film never descends into lampoonery, dropping us back into seriousness with ease whenever one of the astronauts embarks on a flight or taking us back to Edwards to check in on Yeager.

Another strength of Kaufman’s script is the use of cinematic devices to convey its story. Consider the old preacher from Edwards who’s solemn duty there was to inform wives of their husband’s deaths, as if he were the Reaper himself. Being one of the first characters seen in the film, he pops up quite frequently in the first act, a constant reminder to the wives that their husbands may be next. And when Shepard embarks on his first trip into space, who is there watching and waiting for his possible death than he.

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While all of the Mercury 7 actors are perfectly cast and precisely embody the larger-than-like men they portray, Harris is easily the standout, just as Glenn was. Harris conveys such a prim and pure honesty and confidence, not just in his skills behind a control stick but in his conviction to God, country, and family that I almost forget that I’m not actually watching John Glenn on the screen. But this isn’t just a man’s movie, as the women of the film turn in some great performances of their own. The aforementioned Hershey is a woman apart from the rest in her relative lack of interest in the glamorous life of the others, while Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom is just a true delight to watch. Mary Jo Deschanel is especially good as Glenn’s wife Ann, a fragile woman barely keeping it together as her husband sits atop a missile originally designed to nuke a city.

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When the momentous flights into space truly begin, the technical mastery of Kaufman and his team become more apparent than ever. Shepard’s flight in particular displays some incredible matching with actual stock footage used, at the same time treating us to some of the best night photography I’ve ever seen. Editing by Tom Rolf is also perfectly sublime, making incredible use out of reused material for later cutaways that expand the scenes and work around what was surely budgetary constraints, while also providing some of the best scene transitions out there (my favorites are Yeager’s “What’s next, Ridley?” line, followed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the slow move in to the pitch-black afterburner of Yeager’s F-104 and back into the Sam Houston Coliseum where the astronauts are being treated to a celebration).

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Special effects in The Right Stuff aren’t really of the cutting-edge variety, even for 1983 standards, but this does well for the film as a whole. As Kaufman said of his and visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez’s work, “we tried new techniques and old ones, often jerry-built. Sometimes we hurled models out of windows and filmed them on their way down.” The result is a sense of gritty authenticity to the images presented, with each plane flight appearing almost completely real, while the main effects sequence of Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth has an eerie sense of analog charm to it that entrances me to this day. And while Bill Conti’s score was a last-minute replacement for the work of John Barry, Conti’s work is no less significant, providing some truly rousing and inspiring cues while adapting selections of Holtz’s The Planets for others.

All in all, I’d go so far as to say that The Right Stuff is one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It’s intimate and humorous at the same time as it is epic, and is so good it is a film I enjoy around every 4th of July, contributing to the fact that our nation’s accomplishments in space are among the few I am still proud of. If you’ve never watched The Right Stuff, don’t let the three-hour runtime scare you. I would classify it as probably the most fun epic film you’ll ever see.

 

Double Bill Drive-In: The Right Stuff / Apollo 13

Double Bill Drive-In

Independence Day is almost upon us, and what better way to celebrate the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than with a double feature of two high-flying movies of the highest American caliber!

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Relive the glory days of America’s supremacy in the Space Race, when we all watched in awe as red-blooded American boys of the air became astronauts, the bravest and most daring of professions around! In this double bill, you’ll see our boys in spacesuits during their finest hour and their most dangerous moments, in triumph and tragedy, where they will show us all what being an American truly means!

First, two previews for you:

And the first feature of the night:

The Right Stuff Movie Poster

A sweeping epic of the early days of America’s space program, The Right Stuff is brought to you by filmmaker Philip Kaufman in a three-plus hour grand story featuring the greatest of America’s early astronauts, including John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordo Cooper, and many more. Watch them soar past the Wild Blue Yonder first tamed by Chuck Yeager and into the vast open regions of the cosmos, painting a picture of the triumph of American ingenuity and exceptionalism in the face of the tumultuous 1960s.

“Remember: no bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Three more trailers for your intermission!

And for the second feature of the night:

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Making a return engagement at our establishment after our first ever double bill, Apollo 13 makes for a brilliant compliment to The Right Stuff, continuing the story of America’s journey to the Moon whilst putting the exceptionalism of our daring astronauts in incredible danger for the first time, as the crew of Apollo 13 encounter a disaster which could strand them in space, sealing their fates.

“This 4th of July weekend, I wanted to give to viewers a vision of America that was good and pure in its own way. While the 1960s brought dramatic upheaval to the American Way, in many ways deserved, one shining light of pride was always our space program. While indeed started to beat the Soviets into the military high ground of Earth orbit, it became an incredible odyssey of mankind’s capacity to rise above its terrestrial origins and do what had never been done before. What a time to have been alive that would be. If you have stared up at the moon and ever wished you could have seen those events in person, like me, then this is the double feature for you. I guarantee it; you will never feel a bigger swelling of both American patriotism and love for the human race than will right here.”
– The Movie Maestro, Theater Owner

And that’s all she wrote, folks! Please remember to do your part by picking up your trash, and enjoy the fireworks on the way out! Happy 4th of July to you all!