Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mega Monster Madness

So, everyone pretty much knows I'm a Japanese monster junkie. I love Godzilla and all his kin-- but I'm finding more and more that I like Ultraman more than almost anything else. I've only ever seen the first series of Ultraman-- I watched it in reruns as a kid, and I bought the recent release of the series on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment (you should definitely go pick this up... it is a steal at $9 from Wal-Mart or $9.49 from There have been about a bazillion Ultraman series since the original, but each one tries its best to stay in continuity-- there are flubs here and there, but what over 40 year old franchise doesn't have a few glitches? I am only recently learning the history of the series and about the many heroes and monsters that have popped up over the years. I make mention of this for a very specific reason.

I just saw the most EPIC Ultraman movie ever made.

This is Daikaijū Batoru Urutora Ginga Densetsu Za Mūbī

Which translates to Mega Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legend The Movie. Try saying that fast ten times.

My first exposure to this film was when my good friend Spencer told me about a rather interesting Ultraman character by the name of "Belial." I had heard the name Belial before, in reference to a demon in the Bible-- he's supposed to be one of the princes of Hell. When I heard there was an Ultraman monster named after a prince of Hell, I was kinda freaked out! I had to find out more about this thing! Spencer tipped me off to this YouTube video trailer of the movie:

Needless to say, after seeing that trailer I HAD to track down a copy of the movie. Doing so wasn't easy, because it hadn't had a wide release at the time we were yacking about it, so i kind of put it on the back burner for a long, long time.

And then, just last week I found it. Bandai Visual released the movie with English subtitles, so i could finally see this crazy movie so many people on the internet were gushing about.

What did I think of it? Well, let's see...

The plot's pretty simple: When an evil exiled Ultraman named Belial returns for his vengeance against the society that cast him out, there's hell to pay. Belial takes the artificial sun that gives the Ultramen their power, and only the combined efforts of a few remaining Ultras, a plucky bunch of humans, and another exiled Ultraman can prevent Belial from ruling the universe with his army of 100 giant monsters.

Sounds kinda fun? Well it is a BUTTLOAD of fun... with some conditions.

1. You must understand that Japanese sci-fi movies are budgeted far below even the average Hollywood action movie. This means that special effects are usually done on a comparative shoestring, and studios often use cheaper CGI stuff that doesn't look as sophisticated as the stuff most American audiences are used to seeing. That said, what they did with what they had was pretty darn great. One thing I love about Japanese movies is the enthusiasm they have for just going out and making a darn movie. "We don't have the budget to make a mechanical dinosaur monster that is 30 feet tall and breathes flames." "No problem! We'll just spray paint some trash bags green and slap them on Dan from accounting! The kids will love it!" You gotta love that can-do spirit!

2. This movie is ALL OVER THE PLACE. If you're one of those unlucky saps who can't keep up with a movie that flips from location to location rapidly, this movie is definitely not for you.

3. This movie is ALL OVER THE PLACE. No, I'm not repeating myself... in this instance I'm referring to the plot. It doesn't go into a lot of back story initially, so you kind of have to roll with the punches for a while. Eventually they give you a crasher course in all things Ultra, but sometimes it's really easy to get lost. It helps to know a bit about the Ultraman universe before you watch the movie, because there are literally a billion Ultramen in this movie. Seriously. There are even Ultra chicks in this movie. And Ultra children. If I'm lying, I'm dying. And because they all pretty much look like the same guy, it's REALLY hard to keep up with who is being beaten to death by Belial at any given moment. (And yes... I know that you, just like me, will look in EVERY scene to see if the original Ultraman is in there.) It helps to go online and do a bit of research as to who everyone is. It's not necessary to the enjoyment of the movie, but when you start griping to me about not being able to tell one guy from the other, don't say I didn't warn you.

4. Japanese actors are REALLY enthusiastic. This is one of those things you either love or hate. I love it-- I would seriously hug anyone who worked on this movie, because they looked like it was about the most fun thing in the world to do besides farting in the bathtub. I know you do it. No need to lie about it... sinner.

5. Japanese movies are more about themes than the details. This pretty much means that if you watch a Japanese movie and get the main idea behind it, you had a successful viewing experience. If you sat there and tried to figure out every little detail and tried to figure out the science behind this and that, you have just achieved epic fail. It's like trying to watch Alvin and the Chipmunks and then write a thesis on the adverse effects of cinnamon on the livers of Chipmunks. Translated: Japanese movies are really weird and kinda goofy, and you'll get nowhere trying to figure out all the quirky stuff. Get used to it.

OK... so.. was the movie good? YES. The movie made me feel like I was 5 years old again. It's not a particularly original or deep story, but it's done really well for what it is. Like I said before, the CGI is not great CGI (there are shots of spaceships and stuff that look like bits from video games), but they never really try to pretend that it is... it's just another way they have of telling a larger than life story. Once you get into the movie it's really not distracting, because you start digging the heroes right away. If you have a beef with moral absolutes, this movie isn't going to be your bag, because the Ultraman code is all about right and wrong. But in that service to justice, these big guys are willing to give their all. The movie deals with themes of honor, justice, sacrifice, respect, family, and redemption. I really didn't expect that going in, after having read several reviews online. Most people get hung up on the fact that the movie is 90 minutes long and has a lot of fighting. Well, duh, Sherlock... it's a freaking Ultraman movie. Ultraman fights monsters... it's his day job and his part time job he keeps on the side. Did people honestly expect a 2 hour rom-com with Ultraman trying to woo Jennifer Love Hewitt while simultaneously trying to impress his boss at his new office job? (admittedly, this is a movie I'd probably watch).

Yes, the movie is a long, relentless battle, but that's kind of the point. The Ultras live to protect the innocent. They'll die doing that. They don't care who it is they are protecting either, as long as they are unable to defend themselves. When you take up the job as the defender of the universe, you never get a vacation. Heck... you don't even rate a staycation.

There's an underlying theme in the movie about the allure of absolute power. I really like how they deal with the fact that the actual power itself isn't the corrupting part... it's the willingness to disobey everything one knows to be good and true to obtain it. It implies that the problem was with the seeker in the first place as opposed to the sought after item. The power in this case has the potential to be extremely positive-- it is just the decision of the user as to which ends he will use it.

Nothing in the movie really seems like a throw away item... all the parts make sense to the story, and even the humans, who normally make monster movie fans groan, play a significant and welcome role in the film. They are our ticket to understanding what the heck is going on. When the main human character stands there slack jawed like we are when we watch the movie, you can bet there's about to be a helping portion of exposition. But it's always right at the time you need it... it never becomes annoying or unwanted. That's a tough feat to pull off.

There are some things that don't really make sense timing-wise and a few things that happen way too conveniently, but anymore that's the norm in movies. I'm not saying it's a good thing... it's just there. I'm sure someone could explain to me why a certain character pops up EXACTLY when he's needed in one particular scene, but I know that person would be pulling the explanation right out of his butt. It's just one of those things, I guess.

Would I recommend this movie? Not to certain people. If you're looking for an Oscar-worthy film, I'd tell you not to watch it. If you are looking for a kick-butt, sci-fi action movie that has lots of cool looking good-guys, crazy looking bad-guys, some of the most insane martial arts wire-work you've ever seen, and a really good moral -- then YES. I couldn't recommend it any higher.

You know... a twisted, freakish lump in my brain kinda wishes that a big Hollywood studio would take the Ultraman franchise and make a really nicely-crafted special effects masterpiece, but the rest of my brain went on a bloody rampage and killed that malignant pustule for having a really bad idea. Hollywood would suck the very life from Ultraman and spit out a shiny, polished, industrial-strength turd of a movie starring Ryan Reynolds as the wise-cracking, foul-mouthed Ultraman, who, of course, looks like Ryan Reynolds with a silver CGI costume.

You laugh... that's exactly what it would look like.

Give me my goofy old Ultraman any day of the week!

Best part of the movie? When Hayata (played by Susumu Kurobe, the actor who played him in the original Ultraman series) lifts the Beta Capsule into the air and the Ultraman theme music plays for a brief few seconds. I was literally squealing with geek joy.

You know... it really doesn't take much to keep me happy does it?

No comments: