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Godzilla (1954)

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 09/25/05 16:20:41

"Sadly, doesn't live up to its reputation or my memories."
3 stars (Just Average)

Revisiting childhood favorites always comes with a risk, a risk that memories have been carefully self-edited to highlight only the positives, and to minimize or erase the negatives. Unfortunately, revisiting the first, pre-kitsch "Godzilla," minus the admittedly risible Raymond Burr footage that was added for the American release (which, to be honest, I miss), proves the point that some memories are better left undisturbed.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters essentially created the formula for Japanese monster flicks, a formula actually borrowed from Ray Harryhausen's 1953 radioactive dinosaur-on-the-loose flick, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Harryhausen's film had, in turn, looked back to King Kong (Harryhausen's mentor, Willis O'Brien, supervised King Kong's revolutionary use of stop-motion animation for the titular monster), but modernized the storyline by adding nascent fears about the (negative, potentially devastating) consequences of living in the nuclear age.

Borrowing the reawakened, mutated dinosaur premise from Harryhausen's film, Godzilla first follows a series of sea and land attacks by an unseen monster, then switches to hand wringing among ineffectual Japanese bureaucrats and military types, while also clumsily incorporating a predictable romantic triangle (two-thirds of the triangle are bland and colorless). Eventually, Godzilla (actually "Gojira" in Japan, changed to "Godzilla" for English-language audiences) begins to get bolder, first showing himself (assuming, of course, that Godzilla is a "he") to panic-stricken villagers on a small island, and finally making his way to Tokyo, for the signature stomp that seemingly destroys most of the city.

What did I remember from multiple childhood screenings? The early scene of Godzilla attacking the fishing boat (an obvious model, a portent of things to come, with model work that's always painfully, and unintentionally comically, obvious), to Godzilla's first actual appearance, peeking out over a hill (an obvious hand puppet that bears little resemblance to the man-in-the-suit used for the remainder of the film), to Godzilla stomping the (miniature) Tokyo in an extended, seemingly slow-motion ten-minute scene (the Godzilla suit worn by the actor was so heavy he could barely lift and move his feet), to the final scene, a surprisingly moving, downbeat ending.

Unfortunately, I didn't remember (or more likely, my critical skills were yet to be developed) the interminable expository scenes with government officials, scientists, and the military plotting ineffectual responses to Godzilla, the heavy-handed, on-the-nose dialogue about the dangers of the H-bomb and nuclear fallout, and a slipshod, meandering narrative, and whose major, but limited, point of interest (because he's onscreen for a relatively limited amount of time) is an emotionally tortured, mentally unstable, eye-patch wearing scientist, complete with semi-secret "mad scientist" laboratory with beakers and giant electrical transformers.

Still, even if Godzilla fails as entertainment, it retains lasting value as a "cultural artifact," as a film that captures the fears and unresolved traumas connected to Japan's involvement in the Second World War. Of course, one or two comments are made about the Pacific War (a tertiary character in exactly one scene mentions Nagasaki, another tertiary character, huddled with her children on a street corner as Godzilla attacks attempts to comfort her children by telling that they will soon join their father in heaven, an oblique reference to the war's devastating effect on the male population). Missing, of course, is any soul-searching that places blame and responsibility for the war on the Japanese and the leaders who started the war.

As a figurative metaphor, Godzilla served to externalize contemporary fears, anxieties, physical and emotional traumas and move them into the realm of fantasy and horror (and the "safe" realm of dreams), where they were more easily assimilated or sublimated. As such, Godzilla allowed Japanese moviegoers a temporary catharsis their lose in Second World War (and the physical devastation and massive loss of lives) never allowed them.

For the gift of pleasant, if partially remembered, childhood memories and Godzilla's status as cultural time capsule, "Godzilla" deserves no more than a marginal recommendation, and there, primarily for fans of the Japanese monster flicks interested in seeing how it all began. Seen cold, however, "Godzilla" probably doesn't deserve a passing mark.

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