I watched the entire Godzilla series earlier this summer. While discussing it, I frequently came across Godzilla fans eager to arbitrarily praise the Showa films while disparaging the Heisei and Millennium entries.* Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the unmistakably arrogant tone accompanying these statements reveal a kind of "vinyl is better" preservation of coolness that supersedes actual sincerity. In other words, it's bullshit.
The contest between Showa films and the other two series (a nonsensical contest to begin with) is really a matter of quality vs quantity. There's an unmistakable classic feel to the older entries, yet newer ones benefit not only from better (when practical, anyway) Kaiju effects but also an educated understanding of how to capitalize on Godzilla's comic book friendly potential. While I have enthusiasm for more Showa films then Heisei or Millennium entries, I also think the second and third best Godzilla films came long after the Showa era ended. Anyone who dismisses these films out of hand not only dismisses almost half the series but doesn't get to enjoy the incredible Godzilla vs Destoroyah or the subject of this article, Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (GMK).
I find it hard to imagine a better Godzilla film than GMK. No one will ever be able to recreate the genuine horror of the original Godzilla, but GMK approaches a much sillier approximation of what that film achieved with this character. The film was directed by the Heisei Gamera Trilogy's Shusuke Kaneko, and displays the same kind of cruel edge that characterizes those films. Godzilla is not a hero here. By removing his pupils and increasing his size, Kaneko's Godzilla loses all potential cuteness and charm. The original Godzilla provided a metaphorical response to the destruction of nuclear weaponry. This Godzilla is instead a vessel of anger for all the souls killed by the Japanese during World War II. The distinction sound like cheesy, spiritual malarky, but has a direct effect on how Kaneko's Godzilla behaves. Rather than a force of nature, he acts as an instrument of malice. He goes out of his way to kill people and fights other Kaiju with a dirtiness that evokes genuine pity.
But a good Godzilla is not enough. Great Kaiju films generally have three requirements: Good monsters, interesting humans, and, above all, smart pacing. Even among the better Kaiju films, exemplary execution of all three elements remain elusive. Kaneko's Gamera trilogy, for instance, suffers slightly from poor structures that make them feel longer than they actually are. The War of the Gargantuas is about the best I've ever seen at nailing all three, but GMK comes incredibly close.
We really only have two humans to worry about: Chiharu Niiyama as Yuri Tachibana and Ryudo Uzaki as her father, Admiral Taizo Tachibana. Both simultaneously cover the film's Godzilla event from two important perspectives: Military and media. Both are great, but the plucky, brave, resourceful, strong, and tenacious Yuri provides a particularly incredible genre heroine. She works as a television reporter. Two different coworkers have apparent crushes on her, but she doesn't seem to notice or care. Once the shit hits the fan, Yuri finds herself all alone. With a freshly bandaged head, she grabs a camcorder and follows Godzilla on bicycle, broadcasting a live report as she pedals. It's almost Spielbergian.
As a military leader, Taizo is drafted along more typical lines. There is a great moment right before a showdown with Godzilla where he admits that he's never actually been in combat and doesn't look forward to the experience. But it's his relationship with Yuri that provides the most interesting aspects of his character. Early in the film, Yuri gets so drunk that a coworker must carry her home to Taizo. Rather than be angry or even concerned about her drunkenness, he treats her like a peer and asks about night with friendly, respectful curiosity. The two spend most of the film doing their own thing, so this scene must highlight their affection for and similarity to each other, giving us a reason to care about them both.
Kind of like The Avengers, GMK has a primary plot setup busy enough that just letting it play out easily fills the film. Basically, Godzilla is back and can only be stopped by three ancient Kaiju guardians charged with protecting the world (the environment, mind you - not us or our buildings, necessarily). But also like The Avengers, the execution of this plot essentially boils down to two acts instead of the customary three. Let it be known that I am a BIG fan of this kind of movie structure.
If you are at all proficient at math, you might notice something awry here. Three guardians plus Godzilla means four Kaiju, but only three are mentioned in the title. That's because the first guardian, Baragon (originally from Frankenstein Conquers the World), does not get top billing. Poor, poor Baragon.
There are a couple of brilliant bits that come with Baragon's inclusion. For one, when Baragon finally makes his presence known, nearly everyone mistakes him for Godzilla, indicating an entire generation who has grown up hearing stories of the destructive monster without ever actually seeing him. Characteristic of the Millennium series, GDM is a direct sequel to the original Godzilla, and this touch illustrates that in a surprisingly cool and meaningful way.
Almost as soon as he emerges, Baragon makes a beeline through a heavily forested area in pursuit of Godzilla. This not only supplies a lot of cool visuals as we mark Baragon's path by the shaking of trees and sudden flurries of irritated birds, but imbues him with his own agency. When he finally meets up with Godzilla, that agency turns into heroism as Baragon is clearly outmatched and suffers a relentless ass beating. Despite this, he keeps trying to take on Godzilla until he is finally killed.
It is only upon Baragon's death that Mothra and Ghidorah get in the game, making the whole first hour of the film feel a bit like prologue, but in a very compelling way because while the later fights have more bombast and badassery, neither Mothra nor Ghidorah are able to muster the personality and drive we see in Baragon. He may not get top billing, but he definitely steals the show.
This is my favorite Mothra, however, though my opinion is probably clouded by my lack of affection for the character in general. It would be hard to deny her beauty here. Her wings are furry and flamboyant to an unprecedented degree. She is also surprisingly smaller than Godzilla, which gives us even more reason to root for her. Purists might be irritated by an addition to her arsenal which allows her to shoot thorns from her ass, but that's one of the many reasons I'm grateful for my inability to be a purist about anything.
I will admit that there have been many way better Ghidoras, but I do like seeing him as not only a good guy, but a smaller Kaiju than Godzilla. He also gets two different power ups in GMK, and each are moments of crowd cheering bliss (literally - I just watched it in a theater, and people clapped).
Even the perfunctory bits where Godzilla fights the Japanese Special Defense Forces contain fun angles. These scenes rarely have much going for them, and some Godzilla films mistakenly spend way too much time on them thanks to some supposedly superior weapon such as the Super X from Godzilla 1985 and the Super X II from its sequel, the otherwise good Godzilla vs Biollante. For GMK, military scenes serve two different purposes. The first is to provide some knowing laughs at the trope's expense, as the film has already identified the leader in charge of the military's initial attack as a witless bureaucrat, and Godzilla nonchalantly destroys his offensive in a matter of seconds. During the big monster brawl, however, the military plays a supporting role, shooting Godzilla not to kill him but to give Mothra and Ghidorah a breather between ass kickings. If the military must be involved in these films, this is how it should be done.
I like watching monsters fight each other just as much as the next person, but my real attraction to Kaiju films is those shots which evoke awe by illustrating the size of these creatures compared to us and our urban environments. This is probably why I'm so fond of the Heisei and Millennium films in general. Even when they're a little less than great, they all really nail this aspect of the genre. GMK isn't necessarily ahead of the pack in this regard, but it has some really nice moments. Baragon's aforementioned tree shaking is a good example. And it's pretty cool that two of Godzilla's arrivals on land are preceded by huge waves that only reveal him when they finally roll back. But best shot in the film, and one of the best Kaiju shots I've seen period, comes when the camera follows alongside Mothra as she soars around for another pass at Godzilla, who we see waiting for her far below in the background lit with military spot lights and surrounded by the dust of fallen buildings.
There are tons of great details in GMK that I have not been able to mention. The film is full of intelligent, well executed Kaiju moments that deserve celebration, but merely listing them would do the film a disservice. Luckily, you can watch the film for free right now on Crackle. I don't think GMK has the power to change the mind of anyone with no interest in Kaiju films, but it is possible that as a later Godzilla entry, it has not received its proper due. And if you're thinking about getting deeper into Godzilla, this is a great place to start. I absolutely adore it.
*The Showa series ran from 1954-1975, ending with The Terror of Mechagodzilla. The Heisei films ran from 1984-1995, beginning with Godzilla 1985 and ending with Godzilla vs Destoroyah. The Millennium series goes fom 1999-2004, beginning with Godzilla 2000 and ending with Godzilla: Final Wars.