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 Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: GODZILLA (2014)