Thursday, March 22, 2012

Godzilla (Honda. 1954)

"If we continue conducting nuclear tests it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again..."

I want to come right out a clarify that this is a review of the 1954 Japanese version, Gojira, directed by IshirĂ´ Honda and does not feature Raymond Burr in any capacity. I am not trying to imply that there is anything wrong with that version. I simply just want to make sure that the people reading this post know which of the almost 30 Godzilla movies is actually being reviewed.

Japan is a country that has been devastated by the impact of nuclear power. Throughout history they have been attacked by nuclear weapons, been subject to nuclear testing and most recently had a radiation leak as a result of a 2011 earthquake. If you are familiar with this history, then the King of All Monsters may be more to you than just a midnight movie franchise.

Godzilla opens with a fishing boat exploding in the middle of the ocean. Though it is not made immediately clear, it is obvious that the explosion is a result of nuclear bomb testing in the ocean off the Japanese coast. As the action continues, more and more ships end up going missing and the higher ups in the government are being pressured to figure out what is happening. In a strange turn of events, scientists find organisms that have been thought extinct for many years. Soon after, they find Godzilla.

As thin as that may sound, that is pretty much the plot behind this immensely famous movie. The audience is treated to some thick political preaching followed by a dinosaur (or gorilla-whale by translation) destroying the entire city. When the monster is eventually defeated, in an anti-climactic way, the movie quickly switches back to its political message. I feel like people either forget that message or just zone out of the action when Godzilla is not on screen. Either way, under the guise of a monster flick, the movie is a stern anti-nuclear bomb statement.

But that is not why audiences have been drawn to Godzilla for almost 50 years. Rather, it is the title character that captures our attention. The original Godzilla may be the most intriguing of any incarnation because it is the monster that we know the least about. It shows up, wreaks havoc on Japan and then is defeated. It was forced out of slumber after centuries of sleep by the racket caused by the nuclear bomb. Its radioactive breath is seen to be an incredibly devastating weapon. But nothing is more frightening about the monster than its appearance. I mean, it’s a giant dinosaur! That is horrifying.

How did Honda pull off bringing the iconic monster to the screen? He famously manufactured an extremely heavy bodysuit that was worn by, maybe, the least lucky man in movie-making. Legend has it that a gallon of sweat had to be drained from the Godzilla suit after every shoot. The extensive sets were made of cardboard while the man in the suit was simply given free reign to destroy everything. Moving in the costume was noticeably difficult, and it sometimes leads to Godzilla looking bulky and clumsy. But it also makes the destruction more chaotic and unstructured. My favorite example of movie magic in the film is when Godzilla uses its radioactive breath to melt two giant fence towers. In reality, the towers were made of wax and the crew simply put a lighter underneath them to make them melt. Neat, right?

At the end of the day, Godzilla is a simple movie with an even simpler premise. The moral was timely and important, but ultimately ignored by the major powers of the world – including Japan. Unlike the many sequels, the original Japanese Godzilla had something to say and used extremely stylish techniques to relay the message. This is a movie that is far more interesting than it is good.

Godzilla: C