Gamera has always been that other kaiju. Y’know, the one that’s pretty good but since Godzilla exists as a massive, global cultural icon, this one will always be a in his shadow. But being in the shadow doesn’t mean it’s not good, and Gamera has always intrigued me. I’ve heard online that the Heisei trilogy of Gamera films is a pretty accessible place to start the franchise (other than the start, of course), since the creature has a filmography akin to that of his radioactive counterpart. With that in mind I decided to give them a try.
Basically, Gamera is a big fire breathing turtle who has rocket jets that let him fly, and he was bred for the sole purpose of defending humanity from the Gyaos thousands of years ago. The Gyaos are a small race of dinosaur birds that grow in size the more they eat. They start no bigger than Gamera’s hands, and much of the early parts of the film consist of him massacring them, but eventually grow to his size and then he has a big Tokyo showdown with the last remaining, huge Gyaos.
Guardian of the Universe (1995) was the first in the Heisei trilogy and it’s… A mixed bag. It takes a lot of concepts from other kaiju movies – the classic clichés like underwater civilisations, ancient life cycles that shouldn’t be disturbed, the heroes trying to convince the army that the monster that just killed thousands of people is actually on their side while the army ignores who the film insists is the real threat, clunky environmental messaging, anti-nuclear themes, the strange obsession of giving kids mental links to giant monsters ect. – and, to it’s credit, does these thing marginally better than most other kaiju movies I’ve seen. Marginally better.
Yeah, with only a 90 minute run time, anti-nuclear themes are reduced to “huh, isn’t it dangerous how much plutonium we’re shipping through the ocean right now”, and the environmental messaging comes down to “humans are changing the environment and the baddie monster will really take advantage of that if he beats the goodie monster in a fight”. These themes are kind of attached to the movie out of obligation and probably should have been dropped entirely, honestly. But it’s still better than the whole plot pausing to show the titular monster setting fire to toxic waste as a child narrates about how eco-friendly the monster is (see Godzilla vs Hedorah).
The one theme that does work is the whole cycle of life and preservation of nature modern kaiju movies tend to go for – Trying to preserve new, rare species and then being forced into battle against their nature. It kind of has something to say here, but the movie never really commits to it enough since all the cornier clichés take centre stage.
The most prominent cliché is the “child has a psychic link to a kaiju”. While the way this connection is gained is complete ludicrous nonsense (Gamera was made by Atlanteans and the kid finds an Atlantean rune, used by their priests to bind with the monster), what is done with is afterwards is pretty good. It’s not just an excuse for the film to summon Gamera whenever it wants, but has real consequences for the child linked to it. When Gamera is wounded, so is she. When Gamera is tired, so is she. And when her spirits rise in anticipation for Gamera’s victory, he is able to summon the power to defeat the last Gyaos. It’s more than a lot of other kaiju movies bother to do with this, so I’ll give it credit. It was probably the height of the human drama as the kid was also the best human character.
Also worth mentioning are the special effects, which are mostly all practical and done with suit-mation. And I gotta say, for a dudes-in-monster-suits movie it’s all incredibly impressive. Much more so than a lot of Godzilla’s older movies. You can tell there’s a lot of production value to the movie and it really adds to the stakes and action.
But now I do have to address the elephant in the room; I was really bored watching this. I don’t know why, but it just failed to hold my attention. I guess not caring about a single human character beyond one child didn’t help. It didn’t have a cheap charm to it that kind of carried the one-note characters; it was clearly going for something larger in scale but the characters felt as generic as those from a Roland Emmerich film. And though the action is good and there are plenty of nice set pieces, the fact the film is trying to take itself seriously means the final battle is a lot more of two monsters bumping into each other and swinging than it is incredibly unbelievable, but totally entertaining antics. I mean, I enjoyed the part where a Giant turtle had a dogfight with a giant dinosaur bird, but once they land it all slows down and feels a bit… Slow.
All in all I’d probably recommend this film to those who actively enjoy movies where giant monsters fight each other, but otherwise there really isn’t anything new happening here that you haven’t already seen in other big monster movies, aside from some superior special effects work.