James Cameron once described Gunhed as one of his favorite B-Movies.
I have to agree with that assessment.
Yeah, I know a lot of people out there have called this one terrible, or claim that they can’t understand the plot. Frankly, that puzzles me, as it seems to be a mostly straightforward sort of affair: A group of thieves land on a heavily fortified island that was once home to the massive supercomputer Kyron-5, to steal the highly valuable computer chips powering it. Unfortunately, Kyron isn’t quite as dead as reported, most of them are wiped out and they are forced to team up with the last survivor of a team of Texas Air Rangers and two children who’ve managed to survive on the island.
But it is one of those glorious examples of the B-Movie that are far too rare: not only do we have a lot of intriguing cyberpunk ideas in the mix, but we have some truly incredible battle scenes involving tank-like Gunhed Mecha battling a giant robot. The film was made by Toho during the early days of the Heisei era, so the effects work is some of the best practical work they ever did: the vehicles feel weighty; they move like giant machines, not big toys; and the filmmakers surrounded them with smoke, explosions and moody lighting.
Now the story behind this one is bizarre, to say the least: Toho held a competition to find a story for the sequel to their revival of Godzila in 1985. A lot of people liked Jim Bannon’s script where the Big G faced off against a giant supercomputer, but it lost to a script where he fought a giant rose (no, I’m not making this one up).
But Toho liked the script so much they turned it over to Masato Harada who removed the bits with Godzilla and Gunhed was born.
And yet, despite this unpromising beginning, it still turned out remarkably well.
Yes, there are some strange bits that don’t get much of an explanation, like the glow in Eleven’s mouth, or Babe getting downloaded into the Biodroid. And, let’s face it, this is a Toho Kaiju Eiga film (even if this time the Kaiju is electronic), so we don’t exactly expect great drama here: after all, it’s just there to explain (and fill in the gaps between) the giant mecha action. And it does its job well enough, particularly for those of us savvy enough with the basic cyberpunk tropes to get this one (I suspect those who didn’t understand it had never encountered a lot of ideas those of us with the most minimal exposure to science fiction now take for granted).
But the real star of the show is the Gunhed Unit which has to fight its way through a vast complex to take on the gigantic Aerobot, giving it a chance to show off its various configurations, its equipment, and even to end up with a surprising battlefield modification for its final confrontation.
Sadly, its poor reputation has left this one hard to find, but it’s worth the effort to find, not merely for the diehard Toho fans out there, but for anyone who loves great B-Movie killer robot action.
And there haven’t been that many giant robot movies that looked this good or were made anywhere near this well, or whose miniatures had anywhere near the level of meticulous detail Toho gave this one.
So find it. Do it now. And be sure to watch it with lots of cyberpopcorn and the child-like awe we used to feel when we watched the big Green Guy take on the giant monsters of the Toho-verse.
After all, that’s the way all their Kaiju Eiga films were meant to be watched.
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Or buy a 1/35 scale model of Gunhed itself: