Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla: The Unstoppable

I, like many fans of the big guy, fell in love with Godzilla when I was a kid and saw the original movie on Creature Features for the first time. I suppose I should clarify that it was the 1956 version. Known in Japan as "Gojiro," a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale", the 1954 film was re-titled "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" when it arrived in the U.S. in 1956. It was also re-edited, most notably using the American actor of Raymond Burr, to help sell it to Americans. When I was a kid, that was the version shown on TV in the 60s and 70s. Of course America had made its share of rampaging giant monster movies but never before was anything like this seen. This was a beast of absolute destruction, appearing as if from no where and leveling cities in a single attack.

The American version of "Gojiro".
I suppose it isn't unusual that 69 years after A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese film makers would personify (so to speak) that kind of horror in the form of a giant monster rising from the sea.

Of course I'm sure the subtext was lost on me in my first viewing of this film. I just liked dinosaurs and here was the mother of all dinosaurs, charging through Japan. Learning more about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as I got older made those shots of the wounded after the attack in "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" even more striking because they mirrored those scenes of the wounded in documentaries of the two leveled cities. 

Godzilla personified the consequences of using science for destruction. The creature even had radioactive breath that enabled it to destroy with a concentrated blast of radiated power. He was a force of nature throwing that destruction back in our faces. 

The 1954 movie became a huge hit in its home country and abroad (especially in America in 1956 though the message of nuclear destruction was lost for the most part on the U.S., a country deeply devoted to the nuclear arms race). It was the first of many such films (popularly known as "kaiju") and spawned an incredibly successful Godzilla series.

Godzilla's later films in the 60s and 70s generally lacked the message and majesty of the original. In fact they seemed to be more excuses to dream up new monsters for Godzilla to fight. He was no longer payback for human arrogance but rather a friend to humans, helping us when other giant monsters rose up to bully us. He lived on Monster Island with his son and other monster pals.

The trailer for "Son of Godzilla"
Some of the movies through the 60s and 70s were clever, some scary, some ridiculous, others well done. But they definitely followed a formula, plot, dialogue and direction leading up to the big monster throw down, and as time went on the patches in the Godzilla suit began to wear thin. 

In 1984, Japan released an attempt to reboot the series with the movie known as "The Return of Godzilla" and while it failed in America, possibly in large part to a poorly edited version, it was a reasonable success in Japan. As if the movies of the 60s and 70s never happened, this is a return to the rampaging Godzilla of the 1954 movie. In this movie, he's come to shore seeking nuclear power, which he feeds on, and thanks to people ignoring the warnings of the previous thirty years, there is plenty to be had.

Godzilla marches into the 80s.
It was a good movie, giving the character more bite then it was having as the friend to Earth. A series of movies followed through 1995 and slowly Godzilla became the hero again, but by default. He retained that element of danger even in the redesign of the suit which boasted more muscle on the body and a more vicious set of teeth. So desperate was mankind to rid the world of Godzilla that they often resorted to backing other monsters to fight him. And once these monsters turned on humans, it was up to Godzilla to save the day (though, once the monster was dealt with, the likelihood remained that Godzilla would start stomping on Tokyo again).

Godzilla's origins had always remained speculation until 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" offered the explanation that he was at one time a creature know as a Godzillasaurus that had the misfortune of living on Lagos Island in the South Pacific when the US was testing a hydrogen bomb. The radiation mutated the creature into what we know today as Godzilla. 

Godzillasaurus saves a group of Japanese soldiers.
That series ended with the brilliant "Godzilla vs. Destroyah" which brought back the oxygen destroyer that Dr. Serizawa created in the 1954 movie. In "Gojiro" Dr. Serizawa balked at allowing the military to use his weapon for he feared it was too dangerous for humans to control. Eventually, he was convinced. True to form, a colony of microorganisms mutated by the original weapon arrive on the scene and continue mutating into the monster "Destroyah". And in the "when it rains it pours" category, Godzilla's heart, which is like a nuclear reactor, is apparently at last starting to meltdown, which could be disastrous for the world once it occurs. The end of this movie is one of my all time favorite moments.

The death of Godzilla...or is it?
This series, aside from the 1954 movie, perhaps best honored the notion of Godzilla as a force of nature. He was something to hold in awe, something perhaps even to root for, but also something that could turn on us in an instant. The more we tried to control him, the less control we had. 

Then, in 1998, something terrible happened. Well, terrible in the eyes of most Godzilla fans. 

In 1998, America tried its hand at a Godzilla film and broke the hearts of fans world wide. The buzz was positive. This movie was being handled by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, guys who had a little experience with making blockbusters. The FX was more sophisticated (after "Jurassic Park" showed what could be done with CGI). The budget was certainly there. 

I took the day off of work specifically to see this thing. It started out suitably ominous. I was concerned by the opening credits implying that Godzilla was created by A-bomb testing in the Pacific and was, essentially a mutated iguana, but I was willing to give it a chance. I became more hopeful as the story continued. When at last Godzilla entered New York it was one of the best sequences I'd seen. And it all went down hill from there. The producers tried too hard to be clever, went way too crazy with the special effects, relied on wild leaps of credulity (a creature the size of Godzilla able to live in the sewers?) and tried to interest us in the human characters who weren't at all interesting. Poor Matthew Broderick: when this movie is brought up his name is often linked with "That Matthew Broderick piece of crap." It wasn't his fault. It was the fault of the production team who didn't really seem to care about the whole Godzilla mythos that at this point is as strong as the creature itself. They turned a giant dinosaur into a giant walking iguana. They forgot completely that he breathed radioactive fire. When they went "Jurassic Park raptors" on the movie and created thousands of eggs that hatched into little, human-sized versions of Godzilla, that was it.

I'm sorry, you don't chase Godzilla; he chases you.

As if to take back their own, in 1999 Toho released "Godzilla 2000." Say what you will about guys in monster suits stomping around toy buildings, this movie is head and shoulders above Hollywood's attempt (at a fraction of the budget). The movie gave Godzilla back his power, pitting him against a mysterious alien space craft that turns into a monster. It kicked off what's known as the Millennium Series that ended with the less then spectacular "Godzilla: Final Wars."

One of the coolest versions of his nuclear breath.
All in all, there is something about this monster that has kept him relevant decades after he first stomped across the screen. When on his home soil, the Godzilla tale stood a better chance of being told right. When America gets a  hold of it, it doesn't turn out very well.

So when I heard that America was going to have another bash at it, I was both excited and worried. As I discovered when I got the chance to see 2014's "Godzilla", I was wise to be both. But that's for the next installment.

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