Pay close attention: there we have Mothra vs. Godzilla, a 1964 film that for most of its life was better-known in English-speaking territories as Godzilla vs. the Thing or Godzilla vs. Mothra. Here we have Godzilla vs. Mothra, a 1992 film that for most of its life was better-known in English-speaking territories as Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth. But we're going strictly by Toho's official titles here. I saw this as much for my benefit as for yours; even to this day, if I hear reference to "Godzilla vs. Mothra" my first thought is for the 1964 film, which is after all more classic and infinitely better.

Not that the official Godzilla vs. Mothra is terrible, by any means - it wasn't even the worst Godzilla film featuring the gigantic moth-shaped protector goddess of Infant Island (a title that Ebirah, Horror of the Deep clings to stubbornly). The biggest problem is that it is, in many ways, a retread-unto-remake of the 1964, and in such a way that calls maximum attention to all the reasons why that film is frequently ranked among the top two or three Godzilla films, while our present subject isn't usually even ranked among the top two or three films from the VS Series. It does a lot right, almost entirely in the areas strictly pertaining to monster spectacle. And this is not, of course, uncommon, particularly with special effects director Kawakita Koichi continuing in this film to produce some of the loveliest and most complete monster sequences since Tsuburaya Eiji at his high-budget heyday. The flipside is that while most of the Godzilla films suffer from variably pointless, ill-expressed, or lazy human plots - just the year before, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah had amply demonstrated how ridiculously convoluted and arbitrary a Godzilla script could be, to relatively little purpose - vs. Mothra is out-and-out annoying in large stretches, particularly when it turns into a half-assed family drama in the back half. Even when it's still relatively decent, while the action takes place in the South Pacific, there are plenty of dead stretches and repetitive statemens of exposition that we've already learned, enough to make one positively ache for the brain-bending time travel shenanigans of vs. King Ghidorah. At least that film had forward momentum.

I will have said all there is to say about the human plot of vs. Mothra when I say that it hinges on a massive crisis that brings a divorced couple back together. There's a lot more to it than that, obviously, but I would unhesitatingly describe myself as instantly suspicious of any film which includes as one of its plot threads a clichΓ© that was already hilariously tired by the end of the 1970s. It smacks of desperate, lazy screenwriting; but then, this film was also the first Godzilla film since the '70s to be produced and released within a year of its immediate predecessor, and so we might safely suppose that screenwriter Ohmori Kazuki (writing his third consecutive Godzilla picture, though not returning to direct this one, nor did he ever direct another) was, in fact, desperate and, if not lazy, then perhaps at least too harried to come up with anything more creative.

The ex-married couple in question are Fujita Takuya (Bessho Tetsuya) and Tezuka Masako (Kobayashi Satomi). We meet Takuya first, raiding an ancient archaeological site for treasure in a manner that will be freakishly familiar to anybody who has seen a certain movie about a certain whip-wielding adventurer named after a state; he's caught immediately, though not, alas by Nazis. While he awaits sentencing, Masako arrives with an offer, courtesy of the not remotely secretive and threatening land development corporation Marutomo: if he'll offer his explorer skills to help her and Marutomo executive Ando Kenji (Murata Takehiro) investigate an island that has been seriously affected by a recent meteor hitting Earth. The name of the place is Infant Island, a name that means nothing to anybody in this continuity, but we who've been sticking with the franchise for 28 years know that it's the home to a certain giant egg from which will spring the one unambiguously good - though, by virtue of her size, still awfully destructive - kaiju in Toho's bestiary.

From here on out, the plot falls into a very familiar groove, with a few wrinkles in the series mythology: now, Infant Island is a wasteland where no humans live, only the tiny twin priestesses now known as the Cosmos (Imamura Keiko and Osawa Sayaka). And while the precise nature of Mothra is roughly the same - she is called upon to protect the natural order when human or giant monster activity threatens it - she has a dark twin now; many thousands of years ago, a human civilisation was running rampant, and so the Earth conjured up a spirit to avenge itself on mankind's avarice, and that spirit was called Battra. Mothra herself was initially called up to combat Battra when it grew too destructive. The recent meteor strike has made everything all topsy-turvy, and with the general pattern of humans fucking about, Battra and Mothra are about to be reborn (making this the first outright fantasy in the new series of films, which has till now been heavily weighted to science fiction).

But that's just background material. The main thrust of the plot finds the Cosmos kidnapped by a greedy corporation to serve as mascots, causing Mothra in her larval form to rampage to Japan to rescue them, and this happens to take place just about the same time that a newly woken-up Godzilla is about to start causing mischief. Taken as a whole, Battra feels less like an inspired new direction to take the plot, more like a Hail Mary effort to differentiate the film from Mothra vs. Godzilla in any kind of useful way. Not that Battra isn't a neat concept, and beautifully executed - a giant black butterfly with angry red eyes, cockroach-like grabby arms, and spikes all over its head. And the underwater fight between it and Godzilla, ending with both of them falling into an undersea volcano, is one of the most novel battle scenes in the whole franchise, if ultimately a little bit silly.

Back in the human plot, our divorced couple return home to their horribly annoying daughter Midori (Yonezawa Shiori), and for some reason the psychic Saegusa Miki (Odaka Megumi), the only real link between this and the two previous VS films, where in both cases she was incorporated into the action far more logically and gracefully. Here it just plays like an obligatory small role for a character Ohmori was obliged to insert into his scenario.

The good news is that the back half of the movie is heavily dominated by monsters, and they are wonderful in all respects. Most respects. Some respects. The larval Mothra that comes to Japan to rescue the cosmos before an attack by the Japanese military sends her into a cocoon is given a lot of close-ups that make it really hard to see anything other than jointed plastic jaws and rigid skin. And as for Godzilla, we see here the transformation begin in earnest that would continue throughout the '90s, with every new suit giving the monster thicker, more rubbery legs, and a smaller head, and after the high water mark of the suit used in the previous two movies, I find it hard not to look at it and think to myself "...oh".

But the new design for the fully developed Mothra puppet is an absolute delight, brightly colored in a way that doesn't seem as obnoxious "plush toy"-like as the Mothra of old could tend to do; and the plastic illuminated eyes, looking like nothing found in nature, are nonetheless a touch that I enjoy. Plus, the level of detail and articulation has been increased to the point that she just feels more real than prior. And I mostly adore Battra in either incarnation, with the red, yellow, and black pattern of the Battra imago giving it a harsh but not unpleasantly dark look that just works really terrifically well. Kawakita's lighting through the monster scenes makes both of these flying monsters even more dramatic and attractive, while taking fully advantage of the pictorial possibilities of having light filtered and divided by butterfly wings. It's gorgeous and dramatic, and the music underlying it makes it even more exciting, as Ifukube Akira trots out new orchestrations of the Mothra theme from the '60s that turn the score into something of a battle between musical cues. It is, I'd go so far as to say, among the very best scores in the entirety of the franchise, keeping the battles vibrant and intense even as they go on for rather longer than it seems like they should be able to sustain, or when they seem to be a bit too clearly about the three-way metaphor fight between Protection, Vengeance, and Uncontrolled Technology.

But you can only go so far with that kind of thing, and while I'd rather have a lousy movie with great monster scenes than a lousy movie with terrible monster scenes like the low points of the late '60s and early '70s, Godzilla vs. Mothra has a lot of tedium to overcome. I do not know how much to blame director Okawara Takao, making his first of four Godzilla movies, and suggesting no real sense of pacing or creativity (the most visually dynamic part of the film is the one ripping of Raiders of the Lost Ark), how to blame Ohmori's arid script, and how much to blame the actors, who taken as a whole are among the worst in all Godzilla history (which is titanically large claim to make). Whatever the case, the film has one of the least-engaging storylines in the series, not at all the same as one of the worst; but aliens and time machines and sentient sewage and transmogrifying space gorillas all have a kind of zestiness that Godzilla vs. Mothra lacks, and what it achieves in basic coherence, it loses in being unbelievably dull.