Not Rated. It's a monster movie. People die, but in fairly tame ways. Like, they get smooshed real good, but it's not like you see the jam that is made out of their corpses or anything.
DIRECTOR: Ishiro Honda
That's right. I'm enough of a hipster to find the one still on the Internet that isn't of Godzilla himself. Take that, nearly every other Godzilla review out there. I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to this movie. I like kaiju movies. I do. The thing is...I really haven't seen any actual kaiju movies. I like Pacific Rim. That's it. So, welcome to my professed blasphemy. I like the idea of kaiju movies and my very vocal nerd would like to claim that he likes kaiju movies, but I haven't seen jack. The things I have seen, I haven't exactly loved. So I keep pulling out Pacific Rim and claiming that I get it. I don't. I'm a big fake, which made me excited to finally sit down and watch the mother of all kaiju movies: Godzilla. I was so pumped! So pumped! Then I started to get bored. Then I realized that I might not be the kaiju fan I thought I was.
There's a problem with the kaiju movie to begin with. The giant monster movie needs to set up how scary this thing is by teasing its big reveal. This is always the best part of the movie. Godzilla is no exception. The beginning of this movie is fantastic. The little teases of how destructive this force is does not feel like this movie was made in 1954. There's a scene within the first twenty minutes where Godzilla attacks this sleepy little island in Japan and it is amazing. He comes in the form of a storm and I started doing the physics in my brain. I know nothing about science, so my sci-fi brain started taking over. What if Godzilla was so big that he affected the weather patterns around him? What if his latent radioactivity created a strange offshoot of a nuclear winter around him? I think the storm was just a coincidence and added to affect the mood of the viewer, but boy-oh-boy, this scene was cool. I'm good enough to ignore the models in this sequence because I'd like to think that I'm not that attached to special effects...or so I thought. Either way, this scene is super effective. The house swaying with the footsteps, it's the equivalent of the ripples in the glass of water from Jurassic Park. The scene breathes exactly like it needs to and it is kind of scary. Remember, this is Godzilla before he becomes the joke that he's associated with in the later films. There is no hint that he is the hero of Japan here. He is the actualization of the radioactive age come to revisit destruction on the people of Japan.
How weird must it have been to see this movie in the theater in Japan? This movie is about a decade removed from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The population seeing this movie had lived through this great national tragedy. Their country had been blasted into oblivion and then a movie talking about how that same radioactivity would destroy them again, despite the fact that they did not create it. I don't mean to be flippant, especially so near to the Fourth of July weekend, but it might be like the ghosts of the World Trade Center had reaped terror upon the citizens of New York. Godzilla is a very strange metaphor. The clear parallel between the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are mentioned. The filmmakers want there to be a connection to what the people of the country had experienced. The audience is meant to be Japanese. Yet the movie is meant to be entertaining. The movie is darker than what would come in future incarnations, but it is still a science fiction action movie. I can't wrap my head around America doing the same thing in the face of a tragedy, but that message is still here regardless.
Going back to the problem of monster movies, the format is the same. The filmmakers have a choice. They can either give about twenty to thirty minutes of suspense and reveal the monster for too long in the film, leading to boredom during the action or keep the suspense going until the viewer gets frustrated and doesn't care about the big reveal. The Godzilla American reboot (did I review that one on here?) does the latter. There's so much teasing in that one about what Godzilla actually is that the moment is lost. This one does the former. The first twenty minutes of teasing is the best part of the movie. Then the monster reveals himself (and this is where my noble apathy towards the quality of bad special effects evaporates and I roll my eyes real hard) and I get a few minutes of "Look at the fun explosions" until I get bored. It is really hard not to get bored with monster movies. I really wanted to be interested, but watching a guy in a suit destroy models over and over again gets really tedious. This is where the diminishing returns section of the movie begins. The rest of the movie is about twenty to thirty minutes of guys in suits discussing how to destroy the monster, with a variation of "Should we destroy the monster?" and then more disaster until the monster is put down in the last few minutes. The tension of the reveal is gone by this point and it can't just be brought back because there is nothing being destroyed. People sitting around in rooms gets boring. Then there is the moral crisis that didn't seem all that morally ambiguous for me. The primary scientist played by Takashi Shimura (whom I love!) argues that the monster shouldn't be destroyed. He talks about how Godzilla's ecosystem has been ravaged by radiation and that we, as humanity, has woken him from his slumber. But Godzilla is killing folks because he can. There's no food or defense going on here. Godzilla murders out of revenge and that's no good. On top of that, the story in the film is that Godzilla has been around since before the H-Bomb explosions and he required ritual sacrifices. Yes, kill Godzilla. That monster totally deserves it. Lots of people were being smooshed.
Now, I may be coming down pretty hard on a movie that actually is pretty respected. It is [raises pinky] a CRITERION, after all. But the movie really shines not with the characters, but with the detail. I didn't care much about the characters. The guy with the patch over his eye? He's more of a delivery system for a theme about the danger of rushing science without thought of consequences. Excellent message. Totally matches the story. I don't really care as much as I should. As an American in 2017, I enjoy many liberties and securities that the people of Japan did not. Yes, this theme is universal, but whatever. It doesn't affect me in the cultural setting as it did the people in 1954 Japan. But the movie crushes when it shows the devastation of Godzilla's rampage. There is one scene of a mother just holding her child and rocking her as she cries. The implication of this scene is that this is one mother and one child, but also that every street corner in Japan is dealing with this. This is the Grave of the Fireflies moment of the film where the details represent a much larger tragedy that is happening all over the country. Perhaps it is because I like dark things and perhaps it is because I like when filmmakers don't just write off film as entertainment, but these are the scenes that make the movie worth watching to me. Similarly, the scene during storm had a haunting shot of a victim simply screaming at the screen as rain washes down his face. The destruction has consequences. This is more important than the disaster porn that I'm used to seeing in American disaster movies. It is harder to watch the suffering of a mother and daughter than it is knowing that buildings full of people are being knocked over. That's a weird thought, but it is easier to relate to the parent holding her child than knowing that the same thing is happening to a massive group of people.
The theme is so cool too. I suck at segues sometimes, but I put on the theme just now because it is so good. Just putting that out there.
So I'm a poser. I watch the American kaiju movies and think that they are cool. But those American kaiju movies love the Japanese ones. This movie has a lot going for it, but it suffers from a really rough structure and criminally dated special effects. If I heard someone tell me that exact commentary at a party, I'd roll my eyes at them and probably come off as rude. But I can't help it. My brain can't get around certain limitations that this movie carries with it. I've watched every episode of Doctor Who, yet my brain could accept those. The guy in the suit and the obvious models hurt my focus so much that I couldn't invest in those moments. Ah well, I'm glad that I saw this one, but I don't think I'll be going out and investing in the Godzilla collection...
...unless Criterion put it out. [sips tea and adjusts monocle]
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.