Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995)
The giant flying turtle is back
Gamera has always sort of felt like the little dorky brother of the generally more popular Godzilla. Between the constant massive inclusion of the "Kenny" character (heck, I think it's what coined the term), the "Friend of all children," and the fact that it's a flying giant turtle with rocket legs, why wouldn't it be? For the most part, I've always sort of found it hard to take seriously - not that I'm really convinced that it was ever meant to be. Still, I never ended up watching any of the later entries, so today I dabbed my feet into the murky waters of the 90's to find out just how well this giant turtle could be treated. I mean, can't be any worse than some of the other mutant turtles out there.
Although plenty of giant monster movies boil down to wanting two giant creatures to beat the crap out of each other in the eyes of the watcher, I can't deny that many do have commentary to offer about things. I can't speak to whether it's intentional in many of those movies - I'm not one to really dig into commentaries and interviews or those sort of things - but you often get to at least dabble in "people being inefficient or downright incapable of making intelligent decisions" if you feel like digging in. The most common thing there would be calling into question is usually the governmental figures and the army, but you also have the whole "evils of mankind" branches. Although for the most part that's a general statement, it holds pretty true in this movie as well.
The government particularly makes many decisions that lack rationality - deciding that a giant man-eating bird is a rarity that needs to be captured and protected, whilst the giant turtle trying to kill those birds that's one of a kind needs to be put down in such a manner that it facilitates drafting a new law to allow military action. It's an odd disconnect that feels as though it's just a way to make Gamera the enemy (despite a discovered "prophecy" saying otherwise) and give at least one of the three birds time to grow and be an actual threat to the hero. For the most part though, the main characters on screen are fun, being a good level of inquisitive but not so much so they fall prey to the standard child character you'd find in these movies who just runs around shouting the monsters name and getting in the way of everything.
Of course, you could get whiplash with how breakneck the start of this movie's pace is. Character, character, character, THING! Character THING! It's just a nonstop barrage of back and forth between three or four characters with little to no real introduction as it sets up the existence of giant turtle creature and the terror trio. The pace never really fully lets up either - it's just a constant splattering of scenes as you race towards the inevitable final showdown. Although I appreciate how it keeps the movie short while still fitting in plenty of different things, there are without a doubt going to be people who miss some details as they come up just from being a little overwhelmed. It's not enough to ruin enjoyment of the movies, and many of the most major things it wants you to realize are called out rather obviously ("Look! Wounds!"), but it's something that I should call out.
With how quickly paced it is, it's almost odd how long it draws out the final showdown. Although the movie is shot well - allowing you to mostly keep track of whose where and what's going on - the final fight is sort of uneventful. The best thing I can compare it to would be if you watched a match of mixed martial arts like the UFC expecting a stand up brawl, and all you actually get are two dudes hugging it out on the ground. It works, it makes sense, but it's not quite as thrilling as you'd expect. At least the camera work does allow you to get some great looks at the creatures though - and they look remarkably nice.
Things very much look like someone put some money into it compared to what I remember of the old Gamera movies. There's plenty of details, movements of what would appear to be both puppets and suits, and beautiful explosions to go along with them. I always remember the big turtle having himself some rather goofy eyes, and it would seem (for better or worse) that that's been carried over on every creature in the movie. Outside of one scene towards the end with some nice facial animation on Gamera (like, animatronic style, not CG) most the eyes look like someone maybe modified some googly eyes a little bit so they wouldn't move as much as normal. Still, despite that and the occasional drop in effects work (a suit not in close-up looking a bit less quality, or some janky movements, or some of the missile's flying and other sorts of effects) quality, things are pretty nice.
I can't really attest to acting here, as I don't speak Japanese. How am I to judge a person on line delivery if I can't even understand what they are saying? For the most part, body language comes off great - one of my favorite moments being a government type acting all shocked at explosions while all the military personnel around him don't even flinch). There's a few moments where it's certainly not as impressive however, and the youngest of the main characters seems to suffer a little of the "robot face" effect you get a lot from some of the older Kristen Stewart type rolls. Audio around the board is good, although I don't recall hearing the old Gamera song pop up as a theme moment or anything of that sort (not that it's a bad thing, considering this movie felt as though it was trying to be far less cheesy), and it's unfortunate that Gamera's roars just aren't anywhere near as impressive as the G-man or even the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. That said, it is distinctly Gamera's roar.
It's a fun movie with monster violence and not nearly as corny as I remember the old ones. When I bought this it came packaged with (as far as I can tell) every other Gamera movie made at the time, and although I wouldn't recommend the older ones outside of to fans of that cheesy monster movie kind of thing, I'm actually interested now in checking out the rest of the 90's Gamera films that are on the disc. I have no idea how easy it would be to find this thing to rent it, although I know from when I bought it the entire pack isn't that expensive, but I still feel that despite this being fun and enjoyable to me (and probably other kaiju fans), it might still be worth borrowing from a friend or renting to check it out before you go out and get the collection.