For a very long time now, Godzilla Vs. Biollante has been my favorite of the Heisei series Godzilla films. I've had a copy in my possession since way back in 1991 or so when it first came to the USA via HBO Video on one of the first widescreen VHS tapes I'd ever seen. Godzilla vs. Biollante (GvB for the remainder of this review) was the first real stab at expanding the G universe and breaking away from the existing stable of monsters. This allowed Toho scribe Shinichiro Koboyashi and director/co-writer Kazuki Ohmori to drag Godzilla back from kiddyland matinee films into the realm of social issues film making. This time, following on the heels of Godzilla 1984 which reintroduced and modernized the nuclear angle, GvB takes on the great scientific bugaboo of the late 1980s, genetic engineering.
It's sort of strange to watch this film now with an eye on what genetic engineering has brought to the table of human history compared to the fears inherent in those first misty days when significant advances in technology sped up the pace of said engineering. Remember, we are talking about before the human genome project, before the genetic sequencing of even a common fruit fly, when genetic manipulation meant ramming different proteins and cell nuclei together and hoping the end result wasn't a monkey with four asses or a great white shark that could do algebra and figure out how to sink an underwater research lab after ingesting Samuel L. Jackson mid speech. What genetic manipulation has brought to the table are disease resistant grains, pesticide resistant vegetables, and other more mundane items.
What's sort of fun about GvB is the dichotomy of promise weighed against catastrophe. Promise, in the case of this film, is the preservation of loved ones via saving their genes and storing them in a different medium (in the case of this movie, a rose plant) until you can bring them back from death. The catastrophe is mixing that same rose and daughter melded plant with unkillable, radioactive Godzilla cells. I assume that if the film in question was called "Erica: the girl who came back from the dead as a rose and then as a person" we could make an assumption as to which way our writers imagined genetic manipulation to work. However, since the film is called Godzilla vs. Biollante, we get way more catastrophe than promise.
The Heisei series was meant to drag Godzilla back from the kiddy-matinee fare of the 1970s films into the 80s with adult storylines that harkened back to the very first Godzilla films. In fact, the chronology of the Godzilla universe is that only the 1954 Godzilla appearance happened before his return in 1984 with all of his pals, Anguirus, Rodan, Mothra, etc… never having existed.
The more adult storytelling would help Toho attract a new audience who probably grew up as kids on those same old matinee films, a little nostalgia plus some better more modern effects, bigger budget, and scientific plot elements drawn right from today's headlines. What could go wrong?
Apparently, plenty. Let's talk through the plot of the film first though, because there's some good stuff in here, glimmers perhaps, of what might have been possible with the Heisei series.
We begin with Godzilla's climactic battle with the Super X jet in Godzilla 1984 and his drop into Mt. Mihara. Right after that battle a group of American soldiers shoot up the cleanup crew and steal a clutch of priceless Godzilla cells, they are in turn killed by a secret agent from the country of "Saradia" (cue stock footage of Mecca and Baghdad). Seems that Saradi, being a desert bound country, realizes that oil is a finite resource and wants to compete as a grain supplier to the world. Making this happen will require some extremely hardy plants that can withstand the harsh desert environment. Charged with creating this new kind of plant is our mad scientist, the soft spoken (more on that later) Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) making his only appearance in a Godzilla film here. Shiragami was chased out of Japan for his work in genetic manipulation, but that's just the sort of work that the Saradians are happy to pay for. What Dr. Shiragami doesn't know is that the price of the Godzilla cells. Seems that an American company, Bio Major was responsible for the initial attack on the cleanup crew working in the rubble, and who were, as a result, killed by they Saradian guy. Clearly they will want payback for the death of their guys, they get that by blowing up the lab where the Godzilla cells are stored and in turn taking out Dr. Shiragami's daughter, Erica.
Cut to 5 years later and the Japanese Self Defense Forces have established a series of Godzilla alarms to help predict when and if a Godzilla visit is pending. Alarm 1 is any psychic, intuitive or electronic evidence of Godzilla's movements, the second is Earth tremors or detected sounds, the fourth is seeing Godzilla, the fifth is Godzilla is about to make landfall.
Overseeing all of this stuff is a single soldier, Gondo (Toru Minigishi), who is bored out of his mind as the lone military officer assigned to protect Japan from a monster that lives in the base of a now inactive volcano and hasn't been seen or heard of in five years.
But, there are some rumblings around Mt. Mihara that suggest that Godzilla might not me locked away as permanently as thought. A series of small eruptions triggers the first Godzilla alarm. We get to meet the only recurring character of the Heisei series in GvB, Miki Sagusa (Megumi Odaka) a girl with psychic powers. She works as part of the Japanese Psyonics Institute under Dr. Asuka Okouci (Yoshiko Tanaka) and there her class of 3 and 4 year olds have all been dreaming of Godzilla, which provides the single best setup scene in any giant monster movie of any country to date.
Anyway, Dr. Okouchi was friends with Erika Shiragami, and has reconnected with Dr. Shiragami once he returned from Saradia and set up his own genetics lab in his rural home. A
Finally, rounding out the principal cast is Kazuhito Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura) the government representative and liason to one of Japan's larger Bio Research firms. He is the guy who gets Corporal Gondo access to all of the new fangled Godzilla fighting weapons that the JSDF has at its disposal. Specifically, the Godzilla cells needed to make Anti Nuclear Energy Bacteria (ANEB for this review). Mr. Kirishima ends up paired mostly with Dr. Okouchi while Corporal Gondo spends much of the film alongside Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), the leader of a new "Youth Elite" core of technological officers in the JSDF in charge of Super X 2.
Okay, with all of that spelled out let's get to the plot.
Basically, the plot revolves around who has and who wants the Godzilla cells. The JSDF has a small sample of leftover cells from the 1984 rampage frozen in a vault. The lend them to Dr. Shiragami so he can begin preparing ANEB, however, he makes a deal where he can have the cells for 7 days, unmolested, before starting work for the government. During this time he fuses the genes of Godzilla with the genes of the rose that he, five years ago, fused with the cells of Erica.
Make sense? Awesome. Well, since the cells are out of the vault, both Bio Major's agents and Saradia want them as the original cells from the movie opening were destroyed in the explosion at the Saradian university.
There's lots of plot here, actually, but as the monster stuff gets under way much of that falls by the wayside. In short, Bio Major's agents ransom Godzilla's hiding place in exchange for the ANEB, Saradia intervenes and before you can say man in suit, Godzilla's freed from Mt. Mihara and making his way towards Osaka.
Meanwhile, a giant rose has appeared in the lake outside Dr. Shiragami's home and mad scientist lab. Clearly the Godzilla infused rose cells are doing the thing of every geneticists' nightmare, turning a harmless, human-souled rose, into a giant carnivorous flower.
Feed me Seymore, feed me now!
Much of the philosophical back and forth between Kirishima and Dr. Shiragami revolves around whether or not Biollante (which Dr. Shiragami names the flower after a mythical Norse flower god thing) is beneficial or a worse monster than Godzilla. The thing is, unlike, say, Dr. Serizawa in the original 1954 Godzilla, Shiragami immediately realizes he's made a mistake and gets right into the work of creating the ANEB.
Since Erica is presumably also part of Biollante's genetics she seems to be able to influence how Biollante behaves, which is why it's just sort of standing there in the water not doing much.
Miki says that Biollante is calling to Godzilla. Before long it's a march through the JSDF's lines of Mazer Cannons and a second showdown with the Super X 2 before Godzilla meets his new enemy for the first time.
Pretty much from the moment that Godzilla emerges from Mt. Mihara, GvB could be mistaken for pretty much any of the late 1960s/early 1970s Godzillas where the main characters aren't grotesques and the plot isn't completely idiotic. Once the monsters are out it's a pretty good special effects film with little breaks for really stupid and obvious dialogue, but those little pauses don't last long enough to sap the momentum of the film. Mostly.
The special effects for 1989 are the best of the entire Heisei series, if you ask me, with no visible wires (even on the BluRay) only a few scenes where Godzilla is completely and hilariously out of scale, and the first of what would go on to be excellent miniature work with very detailed cities and equipment for Godzilla to alternatively stomp and irradiate.
The Godzilla costume for BvG is great too, with a lot of the original detail added back in (ears and snaggly teeth) and no reliance at all on that terrible robot Godzilla prop from 1984. Admittedly the Heisei series suit was super-bulky and as the films went on relied more on big fights with breath weapons rather than monster smashing action. But that too played into the more realistic and gritty approach to the films that the Heisei series would take. Wrestling moves and low-G jumps weren't anything that the Godzilla suit could handle, so they don't even try.
Biollante, in both forms, the toothed rose and the giant Audrey II form are both great. It's unfortunate that Biollante never really returned to the series, other than as a partial reason for the emergence of Space Godzilla (The Heisei series lowest point). From what I've read, Biollante didn't do the expected amount of box office, Toho panicked a little and brought back one of the classic monsters to try and leverage that nostalgia. We got Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, which wasn't a great film by any stretch, but, because it kept the same creative team, still offered more mature and complex plot elements spicing up a fantastically stupid time travel story.
The score, when it leverages the elements created by master composer Akira Ifukube is great, and when it updates those into terrible disco and adult contemporary rock music is ear shatteringly awful. Fortunately, the disco stuff isn't super often… the other elements by Koichi Sugiyama are not quite throwaway, but don't have any really distinctive themes, and when it's up against Ifukube stuff it's completely lost.
The BluRay and DVD comes to us via Miramax and it's absolutely not at all loaded with features. What we get that's nice is the original Japanese language track in either 5.0 or 2.0 surround, direct translation subs or subs pegged to the dubbed script, and a monophonic English Dub, which for this film, even for G purists like me, is the best way ever to enjoy GvB.
Why, you ask? Because it appears that only one or two actors did ALL of the voices for the HBO video released version, and that's the dub we get here. So it's sort of a fun drinking game to play along with the GvB is drink whenever anyone says "Godziller" and drink when Dr. Shiragami says "I think I've made a mistake" and drink whenever we get a reaction shot from a rose bush. Drink whenever some hilarious "Godzilla Science" makes an appearance, you know, Oxygen Destroyer Bombs, or Synthetic Diamond Mirrors, mumbo jumbo about genetics and atomic energy that would make Neil deGrasse Tyson go all Jules Winfield on someone's ass.
You'll be shitfaced before Godzilla walks out of the mountain.
The BluRay picture quality seems washed out with no deep blacks even when they are really needed, but, that said, I have never seen this film look any different as far as clarity and lighting goes so it may very well be in sort of soft-focus. If you throw this in, you'll see, it's got no pop.
Let's talk for a moment about Dr. Shiragami as played by Koji Takahashi. He walks around this film like he's in a daze, I don't understand how his character was allowed to be so subdued. Admittedly, perhaps Ohmori was going for the opposite of the usual bug-eyed mad scientist, but Shirigami is so far removed from anything in the film you have to wonder why he was even included. It was entirely possible to shoot this thing without him and the story would still hold together, provided a few tweaks to the plot were made to account for the daughter's genes in the rose. Or, you know what, drop that stuff as it adds nothing to the Biollante character anyway.
For our mad scientist to be interesting, he has to die. He has to sacrifice himself to save the world from having this deadly technology. Ishiro Honda knew this in 1954 and gave Dr. Serizawa the best film suicide in a long time, so why the hell doesn't Ohmori have that happen here? Oh, Shirigami get whacked, all right, but like everything else he does, it's a passive death. Shot by the Saradian agent after the whole monster plot is resolved. ANEB is out in the world, even the Japanese government doesn't seem to care that the ANEB is loose, worse, that Godzilla just hoofs it back to sea, as if he won't ever come back.
It irks me to no end that I enjoyed this film so much less this time, but I guess that happens with age. I can still watch and appreciate it, and wish some of the stuff that should have been carried on into other films would have. Major Kuroki, for one, who is one of the lynchpin characters here is never brought up again, only the irritating Miki Sagusa makes it into the other movies.
All that said, it's still better than the other Heisei films.