Even by the standards of a movie franchise whose immediate prior entry featured an 80-meter dinosaur spitting beams of nuclear energy at a giant carnivorous rose that was cloned from the dinosaur's own DNA, the 1991 film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is really peculiar. Not, entirely, peculiar and bad. And I do not regard as a problem the single thing most often cited as a damned flaw in writer-director Ohmori Kazuki's script, that it doesn't get time travel right. As though time travel was something that has actual real-life rules with which we're all familiar. You want to know how time travel works? Close your eyes and say "Mississippi". I just sent you one second forward in time! But I digress.

By any rational definition, vs. King Ghidorah is a movie absolutely lousy with plot holes, though by the same token, it's pretty clear that the film isn't coming from a rational place. One could nitpick the thing to death - arguably, one should nitpick the thing to death - but that's tiresome and tedious. For my part, the only nitpick that matters is that the film's villains have taken the most absolutely ridiculous, long-winded path towards achieving their goal imaginable, particularly for people with a time machine. The only way to square the thing is to assume that they can literally only travel between 2204, 1992, and 1944, and are obliged to manipulate the timeline at those exact moments. Even that doesn't really let us square the behavior of one character whose motivation and characterisation never seems to be thought through at a deeper level than "what does she have to do in this exact scene to move the plot forward?" But once those big points are knocked out, all the other plot holes are just sort of collateral damage. The film is dysfunctional. So be it.

If the film leaves itself more open to complaints about its script than other Godzilla movies, that's largely because it spends such a titanic stretch of its running time stubbornly refusing to give us either of its titular monsters (Godzilla himself doesn't show up until an hour into the film). Which gives us plenty of time to dwell on the strange "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" mentality to the convoluted plot, in which three humans from the 23rd Century - Wilson (Chuck Wilson), Grenchiko (Richard Berger), and Emmy (Nakagawa Anna) - come to the 1990s to recruit some contemporary Godzilla experts to go back to 1944 and destroy the dinosaur godzillasaurus that has managed to survive for the millennia on an isolated South Pacific island, thereby preventing it from being around in the '50s when American nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll transformed that long-lost creature into the massive Godzilla we all know and love. In so doing, the Futurians - for that is their name - hope to prevent Japan from being utterly destroyed when Godzilla demolishes several nuclear power plants in the 21st Century, leaving Japan an irradiated hellhole. This is of course a lie - the technologically advanced visitors from another place in a monster movie never mean well - but it's creepy as shit that, minus Godzilla, we are apparently now staring down the barrel of the exact scenario they lay out.

The real plot is to introduce three genetically engineered superpets called Dorats, which look entirely too much like Fraggle Rock puppets to show up in a daikaiju eiga, into the path of those future nuclear tests, so that they might be turned into some kind of powerful monsters to be used, back in 1992, to destroy Japan for real. See, in 2204, Japan is the most powerful nation in the world, and the future-Americans and future-Russians don't care for it; and Godzilla, destructive though it be, simply can't do as thorough a job of razing a country as the thing created by the three Dorats fusing together and turning giant: a golden three-headed, two-tailed dragon that everybody in the film instantly understands is named King Ghidorah.

Fuck the film breaking the "rules" of time travel, my bigger problem is that both Godzilla and King Ghidorah are saddled with frankly dumb and unnecessary origin stories; I much prefer the implication threaded into a couple of scene that in such a nuclear-heavy time and place as Earth in the latter half of the 20th Century, atomic monsters like Godzilla are simply an inevitability. That's not an idea that very much gets done with (though it vaguely prefigures the "Godzilla as a force of nature" theme of the run of films produced in the 21st Century), because no idea is explored very much in vs. King Ghidorah. It is a movie uniquely full of ideas and apparent symbolism in the Godzilla franchise, all of which it completely bungles. Ohmori had ideas, I have no doubt, but it is not always clear what those ideas are. In the meantime, the film relies on what was then the 27-year-old narrative crutch of alien invaders (and for all intents and purposes, the Futurians might as well be aliens) trying to destroy Japan with their remote-controlled giant monster, a story that was fresh in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, still fairly zesty in Invasion of Astro-Monster, and increasingly wearisome in all of the 70 or 80 films where it was trotted out after those two.

The good news is that all of this only hurts the film so much. And not even just because the monster action is great; it's good indeed, but it comes awfully late to be a film-saving through. However, there are good effects throughout; the Futurians' time machine flying saucer in particular is a breathtakingly beautiful piece of work. True, there are too many dodgy laser effects, and an android (Robert Scott Field) that can run very fast through the magic of some appallingly awful rear projection for 1991. But the opening shot of the time machine pays for a lot of crap later on.

Also, Ohmori is a pretty talented visual storyteller, and it's sad to think that after just two movies, his tenure with the Godzilla franchise ends here. On the whole, vs. King Ghidorah isn't as impressive as vs. Biollante - the newer film takes place largely during the day, robbing it of the dramatic night imagery - but the directing never sinks below good and in many passages it's quite fantastic. A sequence set in 1944 during a pitched battle between American and Japanese forces leaps to mind as a great exercise in communicating a lot of action with a minimum of resources (it was also the subject of some controversy among American critics, unaccustomed to being reminded that countries besides the U.S. of A. had their own nationally-tinged experiences in that war); better yet, he manages to keep the early patch of the movie, before the Futurians are revealed to be evil, bouncing from beat to beat quickly enough that it's hard to get too bored.

The best parts, of course, do involve the monsters: Kawakita Koichi was beginning to really settle into his role as effects director, and despite a Godzilla suit that was still too limiting for Satsuma Kenpachiro to really exert himself, the action sequences are almost the equal to vs. Biollante, with sets very nearly as rich and detailed as the magnificent Tokyoscapes of The Return of Godzilla. And Satsuma himself, no matter his tendency to suffer blackouts from the weight and heat of the suit (which has, in this case, oddly beefed up pectoral muscles relative to its use in vs. Biollante), was really starting to gel with the character; his body language was starting to become quite expressive and nuanced without sacrificing the focus in the VS Series films that Godzilla was an animal, not a personality. He had to lumber a lot, which is a pity; but he lumbered with intention and purpose that's particularly dramatic here.

That being said, any movie with King Ghidorah in it is, for me, going to have Godzilla sidelined in interest; and doubly so when that monster is resurrected for the final act as a cyborg - Mecha King Ghidorah, easily the coolest-looking kaiju of the 1990s, from any studio. The climactic fight is, in fairness, not nearly as brilliant as the Godzilla and Biollante duel, but with a monster design like that, I frankly don't need it to be; doubly so when Ifukube Akira is back to score the thing with a mix of robust military themes and reorchestrations of his old motifs that work just beautifully.

Let me not overstate what the thing is: the good parts are wonderful, but they are backloaded and buried under a science fiction plotline that is interesting mostly because of how confusing it gets. And there's something sad about seeing a Godzilla movie forced to be a Terminator knock-off with quite the gusto that this film is in some of its android scenes (and in the same calendar year of T2, no less!). Every daikaiju eiga is graded on something of a curve, based upon its monsters, and vs. King Ghidorah is very much a film that needs a monster as fantastic as Mecha King Ghidorah to make up for all the flailing about that goes on before then, with all the thinly-described characters doing nothing of note - and I just realised that I have mentioned not one single main hero in the movie (Emmy becomes a hero, but doesn't start that way). Which is telling of the interest the film has for its human element and actors, none of whom are "bad" (though the American stars range from tolerable to brain-shatteringly vile), not that they get to do much but hang around as meat puppets in a film that does, honestly, take its damn sweet time in getting to anything that isn't vaguely stupid.