“Godzilla” is lumbering back out of the deep, spoiling for a fight and hungry for various delicious looking landmarks. Be warned, this relic of Japan’s atomic age nightmares has grown grumpier (and apparently more pot-bellied) in his fifteen years away from the big screen. And he’s definitely still growling from his treatment in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 big-budget disaster starring Matthew Broderick.
In this newest iteration of cinema’s favorite Kaiju (Japanese for “monster” - something made exhaustively clear if you watched any of Guillermo del Toro’s plodding, nonsensical “Pacific Rim”) you’ll see the requisite shots of anonymous roving citizens gazing upward in horror, running full tilt, and glancing over their shoulders as cars tumble over the Golden Gate Bridge, sewer gasses explode, and your favorite bodega is demolished with a sweep of Godzilla’s powerful hind parts.
But will you get your money’s worth? Should you spend the extra couple of bucks for 3-D?
Early returns are mixed. What I’m hearing from my preview spies is that the film boasts great monster action (price of admission), but uninspired, on-the-ground character work. Assuming a good bit of the film actually takes place on the ground (the trailer and poster feature some pretty fancy aerial displays) this is not good news for seasoned actors Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, and Juliette Binoche - nor for us, the paying public. The report is that a red-faced Cranston tries to fend off the shallow writing by chewing as much scenery as the title character.
So, for this weekend, here’s a tip: check out one of these bigger and badder movie monsters that will have you quaking in your boots and calling in the National Guard.
(Note: other sites may proclaim “King Kong” and “Jaws” to be monster movies. As a purist, I heartily disagree. Monsters, by definition, must be aliens, mutations, or Elmo …I view the aforementioned “monsters” as a very large gorilla, a very large shark, and a furry red imp that has bewitched our children, respectively. If you disagree, sue me.)
The Thing From Another World (1951)
This monster movie classic from 1951 is a particular favorite of mine. Even though the monster in question (played by an unrecognizable, pre-”Gunsmoke” James Arness) isn’t big enough to flatten the Eiffel Tower, it is genuinely creepy. “The Thing” had me covering my face with a pillow at age 12, and I’m still kind of hesitant to peek out. When a UFO lands in the Arctic, a military unit is sent to investigate. There they find a frozen spaceship containing a very large, forbidding alien creature, one that tends to react rather negatively when thawed. “Thing” is a B movie that plays like an A picture because it was the brainchild of the remarkable director Howard Hawks. If you liked John Carpenter’s 1982 remake starring the cleft-chinned Kurt Russell (and ignored the forgettable 2011 schlocky reboot), might I recommend screening the original? You won’t be disappointed.
One important by-product of the Cold War’s atomic scare was the Bikini (so-named because it was meant to be the cultural equivalent of the H-bomb dropped at Bikini Atoll). But another, almost as explosive, idea was the threat that nuclear fallout might cause normally tiny, harmless animals to grow huge and become our overlords. “Them!” ranks as one of the most popular of the “irradiated creature becomes a deadly monster” genre, and for good reason. It’s exciting, well made, and makes you squirm. When radiation from a nuclear test site causes a nest of ants to become 20-foot sugar-fiends, it’s up to the FBI, the Army, and a father-daughter team of scientists (Joan Weldon & Edmund Gwenn) to save Los Angeles from these chittering, chitinous beasts. It’s also one of the only movies to feature entomologists as heroes (though I think the scene from “Silence of the Lambs” with nerdy guys playing chess with roaches is probably a more accurate portrayal of the profession).
Or if you’re Japanese, “Gojira” which translated (I kid you not) means: Gorilla-Whale. Less than a decade after the A-bombs “fat man” and “little boy” swung out of the Enola Gay’s bomb bay doors to end World War II (and very soon after the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, where a fishing boat was irradiated accidentally by an H-bomb test) ,“Gojira” (1954) appeared. More than a crackerjack monster movie, the film contained deep insight into how Japan was reeling in paranoia about the horrific danger of atomic power. After a spate of nuclear tests in the Pacific off the coast of Japan, dozens of ships begin disappearing. When paleontologist Kyohei-Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) are called in to investigate they find a huge, irate, radiation breathing sea monster that goes on to shake Japan to its already tectonically delicate core. This film spawned an entire sub-genre of movies, some of which feature Godzilla as a defender of the earth, others where he goes on the killer rampage you know and love. A bit of trivia: for the American version, released two years later (originally titled “Godzilla: King Of The Monsters”), new scenes were added featuring Raymond Burr as an American reporter. Watch it and you’ll see why no big-budget retread can topple the original. All hail the king of the gorilla-whales! Click here to stream "Godzilla" now!
Jurassic Park (1993)
“Life will… uh… find a way.” warns Dr. Ian Malcolm, played by the ever-quavering and weirdly entrancing Jeff Goldblum. What he means is it will find a way to chew and swallow you. “Jurassic Park” is, of course, the Oscar-winning thriller from the undisputed king of summer blockbusters, Steven Spielberg. Based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel, the film concerns a brilliant but misguided mogul (Richard Attenborough) who recruits a pair of paleontologists (Sam Neill & Laura Dern) to vet his island theme park – a place where he’s managed to bring dinosaurs back from extinction. When an unscrupulous worker (Wayne Knight) uses sabotage to steal dinosaur embryos, his machinations, combined with an oncoming hurricane, knocks out the power on the isle and …sadly… turns off the electric fences that surround the carnivore cages. Suddenly, the place becomes a smorgasbord for the nasty creatures. Boasting two sequels, and another in the works, the original is by far the best, featuring some truly terrifying confrontations with a t-rex (the moment with the dilating eye still gets me) and the other dino that the film made famous, the wily velociraptor. Sparing no expense, Spielberg creates a masterpiece with perfect special effects and pulse pounding surround sound (turn up your sub-woofer). Click here to stream it now!
The Host (2006)
If you’re looking for a hidden gem, play guest to “The Host,” a Korean creation you won’t soon forget. In this film, we move from atomic nostalgia to the dark consequences of pollution. U.S. Army scientists have started using Korea’s Han River as a chemical dumping ground and subsequently, one of the river’s underwater residents mutates into a large, be-tentacled sea creature. On shore, Hei-Bong (Byeon Hee-Bong) lives with his large dysfunctional brood, (ironically) running a snack shack perched appetizingly near the river’s edge. When the lurking creature reaches out a tentacle and kidnaps Bong’s daughter the family must band together to seek revenge, while at the same time avoiding Korean authorities who want the family quarantined. Deftly intermingling welcome doses of humor and emotion amidst first-rate special effects, “The Host” avoids the fundamental script issues that plagued other waterlogged entries like the lackluster “Lake Placid” or “Anaconda.” Click here to stream it now!
So this weekend, instead of yielding to the blockbuster juggernaut, kick back with one of these crafty creature features. They beat the proverbial big and tall pants off what any modern era, explosion-happy CGI monster can bring. Monsters… FIGHT!
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