The first entry in the “Alfred Eaker vs. the Summer Blockbustes” series, in which we send a curmudgeonly arthouse critic out to the cineplexes to check out the latest in pop culture with the unwashed masses.
As a movie character, Godzilla always seemed too imitative of his predecessors, notably King Kong (who had far more personality and craft) and a couple of Ray Harryhausen creations (which had more craft). Still, the 1954 Japanese original, distributed by Toho Enterprise and directed by Ishiro Honda, was an imposing manifestation of the H-Bomb. Grimness permeates the original, birthed from an authentic response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the 1954 nuclear tests in the Pacific (which had resulted in radiation sickness visited upon occupants of a Japanese freighter). The beast of nature brutally emerges, like a fevered dream, amidst raining soot and decimated fallout shelters, to take revenge upon mankind. Contemporary audiences may roll their eyes during some of the clunkier dialogue (i.e.the preachy finale) or squirm through dated FX, which do hold true to form. Horror films, more than any other genre, date quickly: but that hardly renders the original mere camp. The clicking newsreel footage, juxtaposed against the dramatic tensions between the four human characters, nearly banishes the preposterousness of it all. Predictably, American distributors demanded a dumber version tailored to Yank attention spans, which cannot handle much in the way of foreign narrative, let alone subtitles. The result, directed by perennial hack Terry Morse, cut out nearly an hour of footage and added an Americanized half hour with actor Raymond Burr, who in the role of reporter Steve Martin is awkwardly placed throughout the film, pointlessly narrating what we are already seeing. Worse, by muting the escalating human drama, Morse and company actually made the film a duller affair, robbing it of its gnawing pop power. Burr is simply too phlegmatic an actor for such surroundings, lacking the anxieties of Takashi Shimura (an Akira Kurosawa regular) and Momoko Kochi, or the haunting quality of Akihiko Hirata. Western audiences flocked to the bastardized version anyway, and, until a few years ago, when both versions were released on the Criterion Collection, most Americans were largely unaware of the Japanese original.
It was the success of the American Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), rather than Honda’s Godzilla (1954, originally titled Gojira), which set the increasingly cartoonish pattern that followed. Honda, who had previously been an assistant to Akira Kurosawa, wrote the original film’s screenplay and invested a stark sobriety into his absurd narrative. However, it was the American box office which dictated the remainder of Honda’s output. By the third entry in the ongoing franchise, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the big green lizard (still technically a villain) does battle with of one of his own influences. However, the guy in the rubber gorilla suit here looks more like an embarrassing reject from the Island of Misfit Toys than he does the titular hero of the 1933 classic. King Kong vs. Godzilla nearly serves as a new definition for “execrable.” That, in itself, could prove entertaining, but the film fatally succumbs to unbearable dullness. Even the most hardcore Godzilla fundamentalists are pressed to defend this one, and it is almost shocking to find Honda directed it as well. While the original Godzilla isn’t a certified classic, it is rousing pulp fare.
Within a few films, Godzilla morphed into a kind of jolly green giant, super-dino protector of Japan. Occasionally, the new genre injected fleetingly charming, idiosyncratic scenarios for the kiddie audience, such as a giant moth (Mothra) accompanied by twin fairies, or a mini-me son (Godzooky), who could only produce smoke rings, or Godzilla himself playing environmentalist while fighting a psychedelic smog monster. On those rare occasions, the franchise flirted with Rankin and Bass terrain, but, more often than not, Godzilla and his multifarious nemeses danced round each other like sumo wrestlers before delivering Curly Howard punches. This Godzilla is as far removed from the original as later Adventures of Superman (1952-1958) episodes were removed from first season episodes. The comparison is apt. The first incarnation of Godzilla, like the first appearance of George Reeves’ Superman, possessed grit, even amongst cardboard sets, melodramatic dialogue, and basement effects. Certainly, the noirish black and white cinematography helped the Man of Steel. Later, the color Superman looks painfully long in the tooth, confronting a martian in green pajamas. We feel equally embarrassed for late Godzilla as a predecessor to Barney, fighting laughable villains in fatigued plots.
With the law of diminishing returns holding true, an attempt was made to take Godzilla back to his original, edgier incarnation in Toho’s The Return of Godzilla (1984). This was a direct sequel to the 1954 original, ignoring all the remaining entries. As in the original, an American version followed, with Raymond Burr reprising his role in New World Pictures’ Godzilla 1985 (1984). In the home front incarnation, most of the original’s nuclear theme was jettisoned—which is nonsensical, since this has always been the series’ driving point. As stale as Return is, 1985 is downright brittle. For once, Western audiences didn’t buy it, resulting in a flop. However, Returns was a major success in Japan, which spawned a reboot cycle, with Godzillla quickly becoming a parody for the second time, battling robotic versions of himself.
In the late 1990s, Roland Emmerich directed his version—or rather the Jurassic Park (1993) version–of the character. Critics almost unanimously panned it, and zealous fans were even more contemptuous due to all the liberties Emmerich took with the franchise “rules.” However, neither critics nor fanboys could stop Godzilla (1998) from a juggernaut three hundred million dollar worldwide gross. Despite box office success, the American market steered clear of Godzilla’s radioactive breath until this summer’s blockbuster extravaganza.
Director Gareth Edwards was hired to direct today’s Godzilla on the strength of his first film, Monsters (2010), which was shot on a low budget (for Hollywood) and reaped both financial and critical success. Oddly, Edwards decided he wanted to hone in on Godzilla as a superhero (or, perhaps not so odd, since that genre has virtually doused all of our summers and those to come for God knows how long). It is something akin to how Lee Tamahori, in his Bond franchise entry, Die Another Day (2002), inexplicably decided to take the overblown You Only Live Twice (1967) as his inspiration point, rather than a superior, smaller effort like From Russia With Love (1963).
Despite Godzilla’s nearly one hundred million dollar opening, it is premature to say whether Edwards’ reboot of the character will stomp its way to or past Emmerich’s financial success, although already critical and audience consensus is considerably more favorable with this summer’s entry. Like much of the current crop, Godzilla is more an assault on the senses than actual movie. Edwards seems to have forgotten an unwritten lesson from the plethora of Godzilla sequels: apart from the original, the human occupants are an intrusion, especially when Godzilla is the protagonist. Instead, Edwards gives us an hour-long buildup with dull, stock characters we don’t give a damn about. The only freshness to be found in the performances is with Juliette Binoche, who is killed within ten minutes. That leaves us with the angst of Bryan Cranston, who is killed off within the first quarter of the movie. Of course, both are seasoned (old) actors, which leaves the remaining screen time for beefcake Aaron Taylor-Johnson who, miraculously, manages to make Raymond Burr look like an animated personality.
Of course there are other lessons: if you have a bland protagonist, give him a kid with a personality to protect from monster carnage. However, Edwards forgot the “personality” part. The obligatory doe-eyed tyke is simply plopped down on Johnson’s lap and, after a few close calls, kid exits stage left when reunited with parents.
Godzilla himself makes a belated entry and, even among the monsters, he is a supporting character. The main bug, I was informed, is a ripoff of the monster in Cloverfield (2008). Unfamiliar with that film, I looked it up: indeed, it is so. Since it is the veteran lizard, not a newbie insect, who fans came to see, it is unlikely that they remained excited after the opening weekend.
By and large, 50’s rockers aged better than their paler offspring, as anyone who has seen Keith Richards, Rod Stewart, or Ted Nugent lately can verify. Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard managed to have fun and be far more innovative without reaping notoriety from unhinged self-destruction. The bulk of Godzilla is as lethargic as a second generation rocker burnout hobbling onto a nostalgia stage. Godzilla himself, the equivalent of a 50s rocker, gets virtually handed the tourist guide to world hotspots, and has much potential stomping ground, trampling through Vegas and San Francisco. There should be plenty of merriment to be had in seeing dual sin cities leveled. While, indeed, they do get pulverized, the production team inexplicably forgot to inject humor into the proceedings. Edwards takes the fashionable route of going with an action film over the character’s horror origins, but still manages to pick and choose from the worst examples of both. Instead of investing wit into the mayhem, Edwards repeatedly cuts away to dull military defense maneuvering, with a wasted David Strathairn waxing concerned. That Edwards made a better, more imaginative film on one-hundredth the budget of Godzilla is telling.
What Godzilla does get right are the scenes when we finally get to see him as the living, breathing can of Raid. It takes him awhile to get to that Rock-’em-Sock-’em Robot ass-whompin’ stage. Godzilla looks hip again, albeit briefly, and does his thing well enough to make us forget some of the risible dialogue that could have been written better by a high school student. That takes some doing, with one too many “OMG, I can’t believe this is happening” exclamations after sight of the “unidentified creature.”
Godzilla is not entirely disappointing, and mostly avoids the numbingly generic route of Transformer movies, which may be the worst examples of 21st century cinematic excess to date. Still, this should have been better. It cannot be that difficult to write and produce a better movie about a radioactive hydrogen dinosaur.