Saturday, June 12, 2004

Godzilla (Gojira)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagements)

For the first few weeks, seeing the trailer for Rialto's uncut 50th anniversery release of Godzilla in front of every film at the Brattle was a lot of fun. After all, Rialto is mostly known for releases of French New Wave feautres, and the trailer has no footage, simply promising an uncut, uncensored version of a 50-year-old classic before revealing (to those who don't recognize the music) that the classic is Godzilla. There followed a reaction that was equal parts "the original Godzilla on the big screen? Yes!" and "you had me going" laughter. By last week, most of the people in the audience had already seen the trailer, though, so we were ready for it to finally show up.

One thing that's important to remember about Godzilla is that, as a monster movie, it in many ways has more in common with the Hollywood sci-fi/horror of the fifties than the roughly thirty sequels and remakes and remakes of sequels it has spawned over the past half-century. It is, at its heart, a cautionary tale about atomic weapons, with warnings about the weapons themselves and the arms race that surrounds them. It only weakens when, in the middle, it detours away from a giant monster crushing the Japanese countryside to spend time on a very conventional romantic subplot. This drags not just because it's not nearly as interesting as the science-fictional stuff, but because Momoko Kochi, the daughter of a scientist (Takashi Shimura) and girlfriend of a Coast Guard captain (Akira Takarada), just wasn't a very good actress; her response to any emotional situation seemed to be to smile a little wider.

What Godzilla has that its American contemporaries didn't, of course, is a very real first-hand understanding of what the atomic bomb meant; what was an abstract fear for Americans was a recent memory for Japan. Director Ishiro Honda works with those memories of destruction and wartime evacuations to make for some tense scenes. The action and effects generally hold up - yes, a scene where the Japanese Air Force fires approximately eight thousand missiles at a 50-meter-high monster without apparently scoring a hit is a little embarassing, and Godzilla often moves slowly and ponderously, but that also allows him to come across as an animal out of its time confused by all this human-build crap. But the miniature work is very nice, and one scene of his fire-hot radioactive breath melting a pair of electric towers was still pretty cool.

Godzilla stands out as likely the best of the 50s monster movies and apart from the kaiju movies it begat. It's good to see it presented that way, because even as Godzilla-the-monster has become a sort of timeless franchise, Godzilla-the-movie is very much a product of its time, and gains in stature when viewed as such.

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