I won’t beat around the bush here: Godzilla (especially in Japan) is one of the biggest characters in cinema. He’s the face of the kaiju genre, has the longest continuous movie franchise with 28 films released since the mid 50s, and is so well known Toho have opened legal battles to stop people thinking the character’s in the public domain. I haven’t watched many giant monster movies myself, with 2005’s King Kong and 2014’s Godzilla being the only ones I can think of, but even I know how big a deal he is. This has gotten me thinking about what his original movie was like.
The original script was notably different from the movie we ended up with. It featured much less destruction, changed the relationships between some of the human characters, and the reveal of the titular kaiju came later. On top of that, Godzilla was much closer to an octopus in the original outline than a dinosaur, and went through a gorilla phase early in production. Initially, it didn’t pay off. In spite of being the eighth highest attended film that year in Japan (and the second most attended Godzilla movie to date), reviews were mixed at best. It wasn’t even a decade after the two nuclear bombs were dropped at the end of World War Two, making it come off to some as exploitative. Hell, even the fact that it featured a giant monster was held against it, strange as that may sound today. According to the director, it was only once the film was released to better reception in America when opinions started to change. And that was after 2 years, so how has it changed after 64?
Godzilla is a 1954 Japanese giant monster movie released by Toho. A giant, ancient creature is woken from its slumber at the bottom of the sea near Odo Island after Japanese H-bomb tests. First destroying nearby ships, Godzilla expands his destruction to Odo Island and ultimately Tokyo, all the while the citizens of Japan argue over whether to study it or kill it before it destroys them all, if they even can.
Before I get started on anything else, I feel like I need to address the human cast of the movie. I thought that the people in kaiju movies being very stock (for lack of a better term) was just a stereotype, but unfortunately, in my opinion it rings true for this film. I can’t speak for their actual skill not speaking the language, though it seemed at least passable (though every time the female lead cried, it always seemed like she was smiling beforehand, which seems like a strange inflection). But at no point could I remember, or even really care, what their names were. Only one of the main characters, the man the female lead is supposed to marry, has a key role in the plot. The female lead and the man she wishes to marry only serve to get him to where he provides that role. Everyone else is just a talking head, relating information to the audience without much care for who they are. This person is here to tell us about the history of Godzilla, this person is a straw man for people who think the dangerous thing should be researched instead of instantly destroyed, this man will tell us about the island’s culture, and so on.
This is especially notable in the first act of the movie, where everything seems to be at a breakneck pace. Following the initial scene of a ship being destroyed, each scene contains just a few sentences expositing information about what has happened, what people are thinking, and how people (mainly the islanders of Odo) are reacting. Once the information is given, there’s a wipe transition to another scene, where even more information is dumped. It wasn’t painful to watch, though, more odd. I’m sure it was necessary at the time, needing to build up a type of monster that didn’t really exist at this point. But these days, with how people instantly know what to expect from Godzilla and even just the difference in how films are made, I feel like it could have been made considerably better. It could give us information without setting aside twenty minutes to exposite it non-stop, or even just exclude some of the more unnecessary info. I’d say my issue with the film’s pacing ends with the first reveal of Godzilla, but even that feels rushed. You’d expect the reveal for one of Japan’s biggest names to have a large build up, having parts of his body revealed first before slowly showing the full picture, almost like was done with the Xenomorph in Alien. But no, you’re shown Godzilla poking his head over a hill, giving more a feel of “Yep, that’s the monster for the next hour” instead of the much more desirable “Oh my god what is that thing”.
First impressions aside, Godzilla does feel like a genuine threat in this movie. This is what I was most worried about going in, all my exposure of early Godzilla being clips from later films when he started to slide on his tail to dropkick an enemy or propel himself through the air through his atomic breath, for example. No, this is a serious and somber warning message about nuclear weapons, and the film knows it. There may have been a couple of awkward moments (the aforementioned initial appearance, a later scene where it looked like Godzilla had googly eyes, and when Godzilla exits the water he looks like a kid playing in the bath), but for the most part I wasn’t watching a man in a suit, I was watching an unstoppable titan. Even if it was obviously models Godzilla was destroying, that didn’t take me out of the experience at all.
This is where the true strength of the movie lies. Once you’ve got past the brunt of the exposition and into the second act, the film becomes highly engrossing. They try and kill Godzilla through depth charges, they bring in experts from around the world, they build massive electrical wiring as tall as Godzilla around the coastline, they do everything they can to stop Godzilla in some form. And in each scenario, Godzilla no-sells whatever’s thrown at him, and continues to wreak havoc. This is probably at its height during the scene where the kaiju attacks Tokyo, with the character wanting to see Godzilla studied watching the ruins in horror, with the next day showing hospitals crowded out with people both bearing physical injuries and radiation poisoning. Granted, between this and the final lines of the movie (which warns of more Godzillas should humanity not stop nuclear weapon tests) the anti-nuclear sentiment can feel heavy handed, but with how Japan was only so recently affected by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even looking on the film now it’s excusable.
But for as good as the middle of the film is, the film’s ending feels extremely anticlimactic. While I feel that spoilers is not something I should really be worrying about on a blog where everything I review is 5 years old at a minimum, I’ll still refrain from explicit spoilers in case whoever reads these reviews wants to watch the subject matter themselves. Visually, it’s very unclear. We know what’s happening, thanks to a demonstration earlier in the movie, but what was then an instant effect now becomes really drawn out, all the while Godzilla is masked so it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on. If we weren’t explicitly told the fate of him, you’d be easily excused for thinking otherwise. Music-wise, an oddly somber tone is playing, sending off mixed messages. Granted, as aforementioned, the final lines are the promise of more Godzillas with no way to fend them off should nuclear armament continue, but it plays long before then. The entire movie you’re told ‘Godzilla is a menace, Godzilla will destroy everything, those who think Godzilla should be studied due to the invaluable information it could contain are sorely misguided’. But now, when they might have a genuine chance of killing the beast, the soundtrack suggests we should feel sorry for him. This isn’t an avenue Godzilla movies should never take, especially when looking at him in a more animalistic sense, something unaligned rather than an active force of good or evil, but it contradicts the tone set up in the preceding 90 minutes.
Whether you’re looking for a giant monster movie or a nuclear allegory, Godzilla will provide what you want, and should be recognised for starting the kaiju genre. Its flaws can’t be ignored, however, with the great parts of the movie sandwiched between an exposition-filled start and a tonally confused anticlimax.
Do you remember watching this movie? Want to tell me how the ending is a work of cinematic brilliance, or anything else? Please leave a comment!