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Godzilla / Gojira (1954)

by on 2011/01/20

It’s been decades since I last saw Godzilla and, in all likelihood, it was probably the American King of the Monsters re-edit.  I remembered it only as a kind of Japanese King Kong, the product of a world which then still held great undiscovered mysteries.

Though I hesitated in watching it, given my reaction to Rodan, the facts are incontrovertible.  With at least 28 entries in over fifty years, it’s arguably more successful than even the venerable James Bond series.

So.  It’s geeky science fiction.  It’s the first of its franchise.  Ergo, it’s getting reviewed.

The tale begins with the repeated sinking of ships at sea.  The ocean seems to explode about them.  Subsequent search and rescue attempts are also scuttled.  A sequence of headlines puts the eventual toll at seventeen.  One survivor washes ashore, claiming to have seen a monster.  An elder in the local village recalls Godzilla, a creature of old.

Amid the efforts of both the scientific and military communities, the monster reappears.  Two million years old and fifty meters tall, it irradiates the land, the water, and everything in the blast path of its atomic breath.  Resistance is futile as it trounces its way to Tokyo, apparently unstoppable.

Sounds exciting, doesn’t it?  Yes.  Feels exciting too?  Not as much as downright slow.  Not “suspenseful” slow . . . “uneven” slow.  Its inconsistent pace will have you adjusting your expectations throughout.  Matching my vague memories of Rodan, it gets better by the end but, after an interesting beginning, the middle simply sags.

The melodrama doesn’t help.  The subplots hold only slight interest.  In one scene, a young couple is trying to convince their friend to help fight Godzilla.  Although the ensuing histrionics are something to behold, the critical element which finally wins him over is laughable.  It’s a children’s chorus.  A CHILDREN’S CHORUS!

Ironically, Godzilla doesn’t seem intended for ridicule, with genuinely interesting dynamics woven throughout.  No, I’m not referring to the beaten-to-death atomic metaphors.  One scene shows a debate between “the public’s right to know” and “the dangers of sparking a panic” arguments.  Another depicts a struggle of loyalties between a daughter’s devotion to her scientist father, and her need for permission to marry a sailor who disagrees with him about their response to the monster.

The complexity extends to the portrayal of scientists.  In this era, such characters were sometimes evil, misguided eccentrics or, the diametric opposite, our saviours.  Here, while the scientists disagree and misunderstand each other, ultimately, none are “wrong”.  Each has a valid reason for arriving at a different conclusion.

Less heartening, yet just as intriguing, were a couple of moments more horrific than a man in a lizard suit.  In one scene, a child cries over her presumed-dead mother in the hospital.  In another, a mother clutches her young ones, weeping “We’ll be joining your father in just a minute.”  I found it absolutely chilling.

However, I suspect most people will be watching Godzilla for its visuals, especially that infamous lizard suit.  Still, for all the criticisms I’ve heard, its effectiveness surprised me.  Obviously, it looks utterly fake but, moving, it’s more convincing than any stop motion effect.  I’m kind of turned around on the suit thing.  I see how both methods have their merits.

Other visual elements are a mixed bag.  Some work, some don’t.  The stock footage segments are visibly grainier, and the water often looks wrong, too smooth, as if the scale is too reduced, with little surface texture around its bobbing model boats.  On the other hand, the cities look great.  The building models are as convincing intact as the smouldering ruins they’ll eventually become.

The sound is less successful.  Its design, though not unusual for the era, caught my ear immediately, more so than its contemporaries.  Oddly subdued, even muted, location audio must have gone unrecorded, or was unusable, a common issue in the early talkies.  Owing to the volume of camera operation, filmmakers generally compensated by adding foley work in post-production.

Godzilla doesn’t take this approach very far.  Voices — the original Japanese, mind you — sound dubbed in later, with rare and sharply isolated effects.  At other times, the combination of raised voices, effects, and music proved overwhelming, and the whiplash of contrasts is hard to take.

Watching this movie constantly put me in mind of others.  Overall, it (still) strongly evoked the earlier King Kong.  It also bore surprising similarities to two others produced in its same year:  Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them.  The journalist subplots reminded me of Devil Bat.  And yet, for all its similarity to these much-loved films, while I respected Godzilla, I didn’t much enjoy it.

* * *

Unrated / unknown

96 minutes

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