Review: “Godzilla” (a.k.a. “Gojira”)

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the original “Godzilla,” known as “Gojira” in its native Japan.  The Japanese cut of the film wasn’t available in the States until 2004, so for roughly 50 years, Americans had to make do with the U.S. edit, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.”  It featured Raymond Burr, thanks to some…unique editing.  The biggest crime of the U.S. version wasn’t Burr’s haphazard inclusion, but the way it muted — eradicated even — the cautionary aspects of the original.

Warning: giant monsters and spoilers ahead!

Director Ishiro Honda’s film begins with a dramatization of an event that would have been fresh in the minds of Japanese citizens.  In early 1954, the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5 and the men on board were exposed to fallout from H-bomb testing.  “Godzilla” begins similarly, a group of fishermen are consumed by flames after witnessing a blinding flash of light.  Honda invites our curiosity by completely concealing the monster.  Staging the scene so obliquely, he positions the film as a haunting and even cathartic nuclear allegory.

As more ships disappear, the Japanese public demands answers.  In one of my favorite effects shots – “favorite” not to be confused with “best” — what’s clearly a model boat bursts into flames.  It floats along the surface of the water, a ghost ship, before sinking beneath the waves.  When the full nature of these disasters becomes clear, we get varying perspectives on how to deal with the problem.  Salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) wants Godzilla destroyed.  It poses too great a threat.  Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura) wants to preserve the creature for study.  What is it?  How long has it been there?  How did it survive the atomic tests?  They’re linked by Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Kyohei’s daughter and Hideto’s lover.

Among the franchise’s 30 entries, this first film boasts the most compelling human drama.  Emiko’s allegiances are torn between her father, Hideto, and Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who she’d been sworn to marry despite her true affections.  Frankly, some of the romantic melodrama could go, but the human element is juiciest when it centers around Serizawa.  Unintentionally, he’s developed a weapon of mass destruction: the Oxygen Destroyer.  When guns, tanks and planes prove ineffective against Godzilla, Emiko and Hideto urge the doctor to use his device.  Only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he’s reluctant.  “I can’t add another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal.”

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The film’s special effects centerpiece is Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, made possible by “suitmation.”  Pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya, an actor in a monster suit storms through a miniature city.  Though the technique is dated, many shots hold up.  Honda and Tsuburaya frame Godzilla from low angles with foreground elements — buildings, power lines, and a bird aviary in one case.  This creates scale while inky cinematography hides the seams and contributes to a sense of dread.

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But, in the infancy of suitmation, there are plenty of geographical inconsistencies.  Firefighters barrel through the streets only to careen off them…presumably due to Godzilla, but we never have a sense of their proximity to each other.  Still, those mishaps are easily overlooked when you consider the number of chilling moments.  A mother comforts her children as the city falls around them.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be with Daddy soon.”

So many films, post-9/11, attempt to channel the apocalyptic sense of doom from that day, but few achieve what this one does.  The morning after the attack, an eerily-calm establishing shot of Tokyo shows the city in ruins.  A young girl cries as her deceased mother is carried through a hospital corridor that’s bursting with wounded citizens.  A doctor examines a patient with a Geiger counter.  A children’s choir sings for peace.  These moments carry all the weight and immediacy of a documentary.  Despite this film having only one city-leveler — not the smorgasbord* of later installments — the stakes have never felt higher.

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The sorrowful tone is carried through to the film’s final moments.  Dr. Serizawa, seeing the aftermath of destruction, concedes to use his weapon.  In doing so, he takes his own life.  Now that the world knows of his invention, he can’t be coerced into making another.  Where many films might strike a triumphant note with the demise of the monster, this one does not.  Akira Ifukube’s mournful score recalls the choir’s prayer earlier in the film.  Like many great movie monsters, Godzilla is a victim of man’s overreach.  As Kyohei watches, the ancient creature lets out a death cry and finally succumbs.  He warns — in a bit of dialog that’s just a shade too on-the-nose — against further atomic tests.  Alongside science fiction classics like “Frankenstein” and modern classics like “Blade Runner,” “Godzilla” stands as a stirring reminder of the reckoning that follows from man’s hubris.

* – Not that I’m casting judgments.  I’m all for a smorgasbord of giant monsters!

DAM

Have you seen the Japanese cut of the original “Godzilla?”  How about the American cut?  Comment below!

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Review: “Godzilla” (2014)

In honor of the disc release of this summer’s “Godzilla,” I wanted to offer my thoughts on the film. You might remember that I’m a huge fan – gargantuan, even – of the character. The following is pretty spoiler free, with one exception, but I’ll give you a heads up.

“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man…”

Those words were sung by Blue Öyster Cult in their hit song, “Godzilla.”  It’s a philosophy director Gareth Edwards took to heart in this summer’s dazzling reboot.  A nifty title sequence sets the stage.  We learn that the presumed nuclear tests in the South Pacific of the 1950s were in fact attempts to kill the creature.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a rousing score, as we get a brief glimpse of the titular monster, his dorsal spines cresting the surface of the ocean, like the world’s largest super shark.

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Cut to 1999, a strange incident causes a Japanese nuclear power plant to go into meltdown.  Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a supervisor at the plant, provides our emotional hook into the film, as he spends the next 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  His son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home after a tour of duty.  Having spent only a few hours with his family, he’s reluctantly called to Japan to bail his father out of prison.  Joe was trespassing in the quarantine zone in an effort to discover the cause of the disaster.

Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake, as reported.

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There’s a passing of the baton, and Ford becomes the main focus.  This brings us to the film’s biggest liability: its characters.  Especially Ford Brody. The supporting roles are thin, but they’re played by talented performers, so the mediocre writing is tolerable.  In addition to Cranston, the cast includes Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, and Sally Hawkins. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t equipped to imbue his character with any gravitas or charisma, and questionable character beats and developments land with a thud.

One such moment occurs near the end of the film.  In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll just say Ford gives up at a critical juncture when he should be fighting tooth and nail.  Some have criticized the movie for the characters’ insignificance and lack of impact next to the monsters, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing.  What do the protagonists accomplish in “Seven?”  Nothing.  In fact, drama is derived from their inability to change their fate.  That’s what this “Godzilla” needed, but make no mistake, Godzilla should confound mankind at every turn.  After all, the character was born out of Japan’s anxiety over nuclear attacks.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s lack of screen time – a complaint that frankly boggles my mind.  Gareth Edwards understands, like Spielberg and Ridley Scott before him, that the quickest way to take the majesty and menace out of a main attraction is to overexpose it.  Each and every time Godzilla is on screen, Edwards makes it count.

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Indeed, he and screenwriter Max Borenstein allow their film to build toward a distinct and succinct climax, shrewdly dolling out spectacle in small doses until the thunderous ending.  I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see filmmakers respect their audience in this regard, particularly when so many blockbusters are structured for itchy teens.  Climax upon climax upon climax – after a while, it stops meaning anything.

Edwards and Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey rigorously adopt P.O.V. camerawork, with much of the action being framed from the ground level.  This creates scale, placing us in the action, and combined with the well-timed set pieces, gives the film a genuine sense of awe that’s been missing from multiplexes.  So many blockbuster directors are seduced by their budgets, and they use shots that showcase their resources but fail to involve the audience.

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Despite the bleak subject matter, and contrary to a criticism that the film takes itself too seriously, Edwards knows how to have a good time.  Just as things start to heat up, he wryly cuts away from a bit of action at the Honolulu International Airport.  (Gotta leave enough fuel in the tank for the big finish.) Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” scores the destruction of Las Vegas.  And there are so many playful uses of the camera.  As Ford waits on a tram to get to his flight, the power goes out.  When the lights come back on, we follow their progress from inside the tram.  Suddenly, they illuminate this hulking titan as it lumbers into the airport.  It’s a motivated camera movement, an organic reveal, and it provides a nice little scare to boot.

And Edwards isn’t just adept at money shots.  He’s got a true filmmaker’s eye, hanging entire sequences on simple images that are so lo-fi, they could have come from his low-budget debut, “Monsters.”  The camera lingers on an empty hallway in a power plant in crisis, as we wait to see what will round the corner.  A group of marines storm a nuclear waste site searching for something.  Nothing out of the ordinary in the first two containment facilities, but when a marine pulls back a sliding door on the third one, he’s greeted with a blinding shaft of light.  What’s that about?

Okay, it’s gonna be difficult for me to avoid spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, go ahead and skip to the next bit of bolded text.

At the end of the film, Godzilla slides into San Francisco Bay, having defeated an ancient menace that threatened the city.  Onlookers cheer as a news broadcast proclaims, “King of the Monsters — Savior of our city?”  I love the nod to the Americanization of the original film and the clever commentary on our media’s propensity to slap labels on things.

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The celebratory nature of the ending has been ribbed in some corners, but I thought it was a wonderful continuation of the film’s main theme: man’s hubris.  What could be more arrogant than to assume that a force of nature acted on our behalf?  “He did this for us!” Think I’m overreaching? Check out how Edwards’ camera descends as Godzilla submerges.  We’re left at the surface, as though we were treading water, a precarious place to be when there’s a massive beast swimming beneath your toes.  The shot holds after Desplat’s triumphant score has faded, creating an eerie calm, as though waiting for the creature to re-surface for one last attack.

Okay “Godzilla” virgins, it’s safe to come back now.

“The arrogance of man is assuming nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa intones.  It’s there in the way tsunami waters wipe away a coastal street.  It’s there in the way a dog surveys bodies at a train wreck.  And it’s there in the way nature has retaken the quarantined city in Japan, plants and animals clinging to every surface.  Rest assured, nature will retake more major cities before the movie’s over.

What did you think of “Godzilla?” Comment below!