Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)

Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1999)

A hibernating species of giant carnivorous birds is awakened on a Japanese island shortly after the military encounters an unidentified floating atoll moving beneath the water offshore. It is soon discovered the atoll is in fact a giant turtle named Gamera, created by ancient civilisation as a protector of Earth. Now that the Earth is in grave danger, Gamera has appeared.

 

Daiei’s Gamera series was the poor relation to Toho’s Godzilla series back in the 50s and 60s. With far less of a budget to design amazing monster costumes and build convincing miniature cities to destroy, and without quality filmmakers like director Ishirō Honda and composer Akira Ifukube behind the scenes adding quality to the film (Ifukube’s Godzilla soundtracks are exceptional), the Gamera films were initially produced to rival the success of the Godzilla films. However, the Gamera films soon descended into campy parodies of themselves, solely aimed at children (Gamera always teamed up with a little kid to defeat the evil monster) and with cartoonish monsters and awful special effects. The films weren’t as popular as the Godzilla films and with diminishing quality and returns as the sequels were churned out, Gamera died a death when Daiei went bankrupt in 1971. That was until 1995.

Godzilla had seen a successful revival in the late 80s and early 90s with modern special effects breathing new life into the tired old man-in-a-suit monster formula – a reboot of Gamera was inevitable, especially when Toho announced that they had secured the rights to distribute it. What surprised everyone, including me, was that Gamera, Guardian of the Universe became so successful and is such a good kaiju film, that it completely blew apart its closest Godzilla rivals and set the benchmark for all future kaiju films. That was some mean feat for a monster who had been the butt of many jokes over the years, courtesy of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Gamera, Guardian of the Universe is a fantastic kaiju film for the then-modern era of the 90s. Gone were the dusty, cardboard sets of the 60s, zipper-monsters and dorky soundtracks and in came modern CGI, superb mixes of detailed miniatures and composted live-action shots, a riveting soundtrack to rival the great Godzilla scores. Rebooting the series as if the originals never existed, the film is a lot darker and serious than the goofy child-friendly escapades of the past. However, the silly plot is simply the usual nonsense that inhabit these kaiju films – lots of mystic mumbo-jumbo, characters with a telepathic connection to the monster and the humans failing desperately to stop the monsters with whatever puny toy tanks they can find. There’s a better pacing than most kaiju films, as usually they keep the best of the monster action until the finale, but there’s enough going on here throughout to keep audiences happy. The best thing is that the monster encounters get bigger and better as the film progresses, giving us tantalising glimpses of the main event. It’s an effective way of building up tension that few other kaiju films have done successfully.

Gamera looked pathetic in his original series of films. I mean Godzilla looked pretty tough, even if the suits became shabby and worn as the 70s rolled on, but Gamera always looked ridiculous. Not anymore. This new version of Gamera is a beefed-up bad ass, hitting the gym and toning up for the big fights. The costume looks fantastic – this is a giant turtle with a jetpack-like ability to fly we’re talking about here – and has lots of movement and durability. The aforementioned flying sequences are handled well and best of all, he has a new fireball weapon that he launches from his mouth. It’s a devastating attack and one which is brought to life with some fantastic CGI. The amazing thing about the giant monster sequences is that, on the whole, they look real and the interactions between humans and monsters is excellent.

Gamera never really had one standout opponent like Godzilla did with King Ghidorah or Mothra, so the filmmakers opted to revive Gamera’s least cheesy opponent, Gyaos. Looking like a giant flying bat, Gyaos’ revamped look makes him look terrifying, particularly in his final form, and he’s been given a cutting beam type of weapon. The two monsters have a couple of scraps across the film’s running time and they’re all well-shot and edited. The finale inside Tokyo is particularly breath taking – director Shûsuke Kaneko even throws in a superb shot of a perched Gyaos silhouetted against the setting sun to remind us that this isn’t just about monsters fighting but about adding artistic touches and crafting a picture that looks good too. Who said a giant monster movie didn’t need to worry about cinematography? It’s the little touches like this that brought the kaiju genre kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

 

Gamera, Guardian of the Universe confidently blasted away the cobwebs and dust of Gamera’s appalling past to breathe some much-needed new life into the kaiju genre. Think of the job Christopher Nolan did in rebooting Batman with Batman Begins and you get some sense of the sheer improvement in tone and quality here! This was a reboot done almost perfectly, with a sleek modern look which set the benchmark for all future kaiju films. Even Godzilla would be proud.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

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