Sunday, April 14, 2013

War of the Gargantuas (1970)

There is a reason we still watch and love Jurassic Park today beyond the fact people like watching dinosaurs eat lawyers. It's because, past all the special effects and CGI, the story underneath it all is sound. Sure, it's total B-movie logic and isn't much past being an effective monster movie, but even when the dinos aren't on screen the human characters and their motivations are strong enough that you are just as happy to watch them go about their business as you are watching raptors tear each other apart. (...okay, maybe not quite, but still pretty close.)

Most kaiju, or Japanese giant monster movies, face this problem a lot. A lot of movies in the Godzilla franchise, like Godzilla vs. Megalon or Terror of Mechagodzilla, seem to be working backwards, thinking of cool fight scenes then making a plot around how these guys would meet up, usually by aliens or mad scientists, and having a team of spies or police or whatever have to take them down while Godzilla deals with the monster. Because the two concepts are never truly connected in a meaningful way, these movies tend to feel lopsided, and the viewer rightfully doesn't really care what's going on with the humans, but just wants to see some monsters destroy buildings.

I was expecting something like this with War of the Gargantuas, a movie with a history so convoluted it's hard to imagine it being made at all, much less with any sense of competence. The movie is technically a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, a remake of Frankenstein that happens to be set in Japan and involves 100 foot monsters, which in turn was a spin off idea of King Kong vs. Godzilla, a movie originally pitched by Kong animator Willis O'Brien as King Kong vs. Frankenstein. But, surprisingly, what I found was a really good, solid monster movie. It's not Citizen Kane, but it's decent for what it is, and strangely enthralling throughout.
The film's opening is one of the strangest, most unexpected openings to a movie I've seen in a while. The movie begins at sea, with a boat driving though a storm. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gigantic octopus begins attacking the ship, sending it's tentacles throughout the boat, grabbing onto whatever crewmen it can. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a green Gargantua arises from the ocean and begins eating the octopus, Oldboy style! But just in case anybody gets the wrong idea, the Gargantua knocks over the boat while he's at it. Cut to the title. It's a legitimately fantastic opening, setting up the overall tone for the movie; silly and fast, not too concerned with making sense but instead focused on being fun as hell.

The main plot of the movie follows Dr. Paul "Not Frankenstien" Stewart (an out of place but always welcome Russ Tamblyn) and his assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno), two scientists who raised a baby Gargantua a long time ago but insist that the one who attacked the boat couldn't be their gigantic monster, cause he was gentle and liked the mountains over the ocean. Sound logic. Anyway, the rest of the movie is basically this conflict vamped again and again: the green Gargantua shows up, destroys some stuff, the brown Gargantua follows, sometimes destroying stuff by accident, the army attacks them, Dr. Stewart and Akemi beg them not to hurt the brown one, the Gargantuas run away, wash, rinse, repeat. 

And that's a good thing, really! Kaiju movies tend to benefit from simple stories. The more complicated they are, the more they tend to stray from the elements that make them so enjoyable in the first place, i.e. monsters beating each other up. War of the Gargantuas is smart enough to avoid the spy movie shenanigans so many of it's contemporaries fell into. The human characters don't have the same amount of drive to them as, say, Jurassic Park, but at the same time their story doesn't feel tacked on. It's always in response to the monsters around them, never in spite of it. This is key, and it makes the entire movie around it work. 

That, and the fact that the monster fights are ridiculously entertaining. The Gargantuas' more humanlike form lends itself to more dynamic fighting. Unlike the stiff Godzilla monster suits, the Gargantuas move and fight more like wrestlers, very acrobatic and quick. It's a refreshing change of pace, and this movie seems to take more cues from King Kong then Godzilla, which works in it's favor. Don't get me wrong, I love Godzilla more then I love most of my family, but his slow, stomping pace works more as a creeping inevitable horror rather then as a cage fighter, which Gargantuas is clearly trying to emulate.

The only problem I have with this movie is the end, which is very anticlimatic. The two monsters, after duking it out all over Japan, swim out into the middle of the ocean, where both are consumed by a sudden volcano that erupts out of the sea. As far as kaiju endings go, eh, I've seen worse. But for this movie, it seems like a cop out. Throughout the film, the characters have played up the brother vs. brother angle of the two Gargantuas, comparing them to Cain and Able. It seems to me that this movie needed to have a resolution to this battle, a real one. Instead, poof, they're both dead. It's disappointing.

Still, despite the lackluster ending, War of the Gargantuas is a winner. I was pleasantly surprised by this movie, which ended up being so much more fun and entertaining then I expected. Again, it's not art, hell it's not even Jurassic Park. But it is a great movie for a Sunday afternoon, and worth checking out if you like Godzilla in any capacity. On the Wicker Scale, Christopher Lee is desperately fighting off an octopus. 

1 comment:

  1. So true! This would be a great re-make if they stick to this story line. I use to watch this movie on channel 5. They would show it every night for a week! I never got tired of it either. When I would fight with my sister I would call her "Cherk". That was what the Green would say a lot through out the film. Loved the Brown!

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