Welcome to the Year of Godzilla, in this, the Second Year of Luigi. It is the 60th anniversary of Godzilla’s first screen appearance, a 1954 eponymous debut which was later recut for US audiences and given the eye-catching title Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, exclamation point and all. And now, there’s a new entry in a long-running collection of films about and featuring the giant atomic lizard, another Hollywood-produced bit of early summer blockbustery. Sixty years is a long run, nearly as long as Christopher Lee’s career at this point, with as many ups and downs.
I was in Chicago recently, visiting friends and enjoying the weather, and I had an afternoon to kill before making the trek home. As it turned out, the Music Box Theatre was hosting a screening of the original Godzilla (1954), and my bearded pal Shu (of Shu-Izmz fame) happened to be there. So off we went, into darkened theater, to experience one of the great Japanese science fiction films.
For those not in the know, or who have been too far removed from the first, Godzilla is overall a very somber film, one that carries a lot of weight and import, as the titular creature is a metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in late 1945. It’s intensely personal, and there’s a strong undercurrent of anti-US sentiment that runs though the film. Godzilla begins with a series of fishing boats that mysteriously disappear into the ocean, a point inspired both by atomic bomb testing on Bikini Atoll and an actual Japanese fishing ship that was consumed during a US nuclear test that yielded more than twice the amount of planned output. Later, when Godzilla destroys Tokyo, the devastation he leaves behind plays out like a slow-moving bomb attack — in a completely heartbreaking moment, a mother clutches her children, telling them they’ll be with their father soon.
Godzilla balances the human and political elements with scenes of building-smashing chaos, something later kaiju films eschewed in favor of giant monster beatdowns. Not that I’m complaining: I enjoy watching a good rubber-suited battle royale as much as anyone else, but the tone of the first film was never quite captured the same way. That said, the Godzilla films and their various spin-offs have always felt and always BEEN purely Japanese. That may seem like a terribly obvious statement given that they are Japanese productions, but they are truly born of a nation deeply affected by the horror of the atomic bomb. Translating that to another country always feels off, which is why Hollywood versions of Godzilla never quite work. And yet, that hardly stops them from trying.
And so, sixty years after the original, we have Godzilla (2014), a film that attempts to have it both ways with social commentary AND giant monster fights. This isn’t to say that movies can’t do both by way of making a statement and offering giddy entertainment, but it’s sometimes a very fine line of making that balance work. In this new film, the nuclear element is still prevalent, this time with a disastrous breach evocative of the recent Fukushima disaster. Godzilla ’14 broadens its message into a global one, expanding on the intimate feel of the first one by subtly criticizing the use of nuclear power. However, it still makes the United States the center of the action, pushing its one Japanese character (named Ichiro Serizawa, an apparent homage to the original film’s director Ichiro Honda and to its ostensible hero Serizawa Daisuke, and played by Ken Watanabe) largely to the sidelines in favor of focusing primarily on a young US Air Force lieutenant.
It’s easy to see the touches in this new Godzilla film that hearken back to the original series, but they don’t quite come together to make a solid whole. For one, the story is uneven, jumping between situations that often feel unfinished or left trailing. The main plot is concerned with a pair of MUTOs, giant monsters who feed upon radioactivity and leave a trail of destruction everywhere they go. Hot on their tails are both the US armed forces and Godzilla himself, who is described as a balancing force of nature. The final fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs is unfortunately interrupted too often to make a real impact even as fan service, although the fact that the filmmakers included an admittedly neat update to the titular creature’s atomic breath was shows that they at least attempted to make a film for both new and old fans.
Overall, Godzilla ’14 isn’t a terrible attempt at updating a classic; everything besides the giant monster fights and most of the scenes with Watanabe and a too-early-dismissed Bryan Cranston doesn’t hold up as much more than a so-so riff on films like Independence Day and Volcano. It wants to be firmly rooted in reality without the gravity of it, and even though it does a spectacular job of giving the audience a real sense of scale when it comes to its creatures, there just isn’t the sense of timely urgency that it so desperately craves to offer. Still, not a bad effort, and one that kicks off the summer blockbuster season well enough.