Gojira (1954) & Godzilla (2014)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
The version of this film that most Americans have seen was released in 1956, with English-speaking actors over-dubbing the dialogue of the Japanese characters, along with added scenes featuring Raymond Burr as an American journalist. At that time it was known as "Godzilla: King of the Monsters." I'm not sure when I first saw that, possibly on late night TV, maybe a Saturday morning matinee. However, it is not the version I want to discuss here. The original Japanese film, Gojira, was released in 1954, and is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray from two different companies, Classic Media and Criterion. Both versions are streaming for Amazon Prime members.
Gojira was initially unsuccessful in Japan. Audiences were upset because it brought back unpleasant memories of their country's defeat in World War II, and critics complained that director Honda seemed to be implying Japan deserved the destruction from the monster. He was also accused of capitalizing on the tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon #5), a Japanese fishing boat which had been exposed to radiation when it ventured too near Bikini Atoll during an atomic test on March 1, 1954. With the perspective of time, today's audiences can see it for the cautionary tale the filmmakers originally intended, not only as a warning against unbridled nuclear testing, but also a plea for science to remain free from political influence.
While the original lacks the polish of modern film techniques, it is a much more serious film than any of the countless sequels, for which I have little affection. Two scientists take center stage; Dr. Yamane, played by Takashi Shimura (a favorite of Akira Kurosawa), and Akihiko Hirata as Dr. Serizawa. The former is adamant about the necessity of studying Gojira and how it survived so much radiation, yet he bows to pressure when he realizes the futility of attempting to contain the monster. Serizawa initially balks at using his unique discovery to fight the monster since he fears the ultimate consequences might be a worse fate. In the end, Gojira is defeated, but Yamane speculates there are more of his kind yet to be discovered. Little did he know. With the way this film ended, it is hard to understand how the monster Godzilla was later transformed into a beloved, heroic figure, defending Japan from the ravages of a multitude of other creatures. If the sequels had taken a more realistic course, they could have been a vehicle for multi-national cooperation against a common foe. Instead, we got a succession of films that were more comic in nature rather than tragic or redemptive. As for me, I'll rewatch Gojira from time to time, and pretend the others don't exist.
That last statement now includes this latest version, which I have no intention of ever seeing again, much less any of its inevitable sequels. Gareth Edwards, who did so much with so little in the tense and understated Monsters, now gets an enormous budget and turns it into a CGI-filled, cliche-driven mess. I realize that directors, writers and actors are like everyone else. They want to work, they have bills to pay too, but it is very disheartening to see actors of the stature of Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sallie Hawkins and Ken Watanabe waste their talents on a project like this. I take solace in thinking that maybe Juliette Binoche made her appearance contingent on [SPOILER]having her character killed off early[/SPOILER].
Strathairn in particular looks and sounds ridiculous having to utter his lines about the "MUTOs," which I believe stands for Mutated Underground Terrestrial Organisms, or some such nonsense. They are the extra monsters that Godzilla battles, and defeats, so it's anybody's guess what type of creatures they'll come up with for the sequels. Edwards' instructions to Watanabe must have consisted of, "Stare off into the distance and look concerned." Either that, or Ken was suffering from a bad case of indigestion. Cranston has done much better work too, but his character is one of the few to exhibit any gravitas, but then he makes way for his son, the leaden Aaron Taylor-Johnson. There is no suspense in his scenes, nor in those of his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, since we know they are the ones we are supposed to identify with. Naturally, they will survive.
Other inexplicable occurrences include the MUTOs themselves, one of which likely hatched from an egg decades ago, and both Watanabe and Hawkins' characters are aware of it, but no one has seen a sign of it since? What about the nuclear warhead, which undergoes quite a bit of banging around during a train derailment and later events when it is air-lifted to a ship near San Francisco, then is hijacked by one of the MUTOs, yet it remains intact until the precise moment it is needed? The ending is just as ludicrous as anything that came before, with the news media declaring Godzilla a hero and defender of the city. No matter that he was partly responsible for the near devastation of San Francisco and the deaths of thousands. I'm sure all the dead will rest peaceful knowing that Godzilla is really a good guy.
All through the movie I kept hoping Gypsy Danger would show up to crush the MUTOs and Godzilla. Too harsh? I don't think so. But I probably should have just ignored it.
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