For its 50th birthday, Godzilla was granted a special celebratory film, helmed by madcap action director Ryuhei Kitamura. It was supposed to be a culmination of 50 years of Godzilla, and while the film definitely meets that criteria, I'm not sure everyone got the result they were hoping for. Godzilla: Final Wars [Gojira: Fainaru Uôzu] turned out to be a unique mix of classic and modern Godzilla lore, blending excessive cheese with over the top action. I adored the film when I first watched it, but was slightly worried whether it would still hold up after all this time. As it turns out, that worry was completely unjustified.
Godzilla isn't really a singular thing. That's not too surprising for a franchise that's over 60 years old, it was bound to adapt to its audience and go through different stages, but it makes it quite a bit harder to produce a "definite" Godzilla film. Throughout the years the giant lizard has been Earth's biggest threat, its ultimate savior and just about everything in between, even going through a short period where he turned into a kid's favorite. Rather than try and balance everything out, Kitamura took the opposite approach. He just threw everything on one big pile and decided to have some fun with it.
Two hours seems quite hefty for a Godzilla film, but it's not that much when you consider the amount of material Kitamura had to juggle around. There's not just the King of the monsters himself, all of his old adversaries are making a comeback, there's an alien invasion that threatens humanity and a special defense squad comprised of mutants, who get to battle the Kaiju. If that wasn't enough, Kitamura also had to find room for numerous cameos (the son of Godzilla is present, Emmerich's Godzilla is in there too and even Akira Takarada - lead of the original Gojira film - makes an appearance).
The film starts with the mutant squad burying Godzilla, bringing back some peace and quiet to Earth. Soon after a ship from Planet X lands, warning humanity that a huge meteorite is on a collision course with our planet. What looks like a friendly warning turns out to be a nasty ambush, as soon after the aliens unleash a full-scale attack on Earth, using all the Kaiju they could find. Unable to deal with so much destruction, a team of mutant is sent back to dig up Godzilla, hoping he will save our planet from its impending doom. Shakespeare it is not, but it offers more than enough opportunities for massive duels.
Visually Final Wars is a clash of two very different styles. On one side you have the classic Godzilla cheese (men in rubber suits, oldskool miniature effects and sets, silly costumes), on the other there's Kitamura's trademark action aesthetic, which is more CG heavy, keeps the camera in a constant spinning mode and doesn't mind a little flashy editing. It's probably one of the more divisive elements of the film, as it combines two worlds that usually have little overlap in appeal. As someone who enjoys both though, it's a dream come true.
The soundtrack is what it is. It's not Kitamura's strong point, a film like Godzilla also doesn't need anything extraordinary in that regard. It's pretty loud, it's quite energetic and it's virtually constant, always humming and blasting away in the background. You probably won't remember it afterwards, but in the end it is quite effective, just not very notable. More important are the sound effects of the creatures, which feel very authentic, including Godzilla's trademark scream and the voices of the Mothra fairies. Small touches that add to the overall charm.
The acting is pretty over-the-top, but that too is part of the charm. Considering the silly premise, the goofy effects and the nonsensical story, it would've been odd to see the actors try and pull off a serious performance. Kitamura shamelessly pulls the kitsch card and asks the same from his cast. That makes it a little easier to stomach some downright poor performances (like Don Frye's), while actors like Kazuki Kitamura make good use of the opportunity to go all in. The cast visibly had fun while shooting, which is always an asset for a film like this.
When people think Godzilla, they think huge monsters battling it out while destroying everything that gets in their way. Realistically though, those scenes have always represented just a small portion of the films. Behind the showy fights are more traditional adventure stories, often mixed with political, ethical and ecological issues. While that's still here in some form or other, Kitamura cuts out everything that slows the film down and focuses primarily on the action. It makes for a high-paced and epic film that offers a constant bombardment of cheese. And while that differs quite a lot from earlier installments, Kitamura makes sure that it still feels like a true Godzilla film, a most worthy film to end an era (though we all know Godzilla wouldn't stay dead for long).
Kitamura paid homage to the entire Godzilla franchise without belying his signature style. And in doing so, he made the best film of the lot (that is, not counting the animated trilogy). Final Wars brings together all the things that made the Godzilla series great and stitches them together in such a way that there's never a dull moment in sight. It's decidedly cheesy, nonsensical and grotesque, but Kitamura's smart blend of vintage and modern makes it a grand spectacle that honors one of Japan's most iconic monsters in the best way possible. It was a risky bet, but it paid off extremely well.