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The Godzilla Reviews

Godzilla (2014)
Soon.

In one month, Godzilla will return to theaters for the first time in a decade, but before the big guy's latest reboot, let's take a look back at his history. We're declaring this Godzilla month at emagill.com, and to kick things off, I'm going to review every single Godzilla movie Toho has produced in the last sixty years. That's no small undertaking, mind you, as there are 28 Japanese movies (alongside a single American one and two Americanized rereleases) to cover. For non-Godzilla fanatics, it's important to understand that the Godzilla saga is neatly split into three eras--Showa, Heisei, and Millenium--and that the franchise has already witnessed seven reboots (though the definition of "reboot" is a little fuzzy).

So let's start with the Showa series, so-named because these are the Godzilla movies made during Japan's Showa period. (Technically, the first movie in the Heisei series was also filmed during the Showa period, but it clearly doesn't belong in this group.) These are the movies most of us think of when we think of Godzilla--the low-budget and typically campy movies of the sixties and seventies--but we must remember that, despite the silliness that was to follow, Godzilla began as a horror icon, a blood-thirsty beast that came lumbering out of Japan's unique experiences with nuclear devastation...


Gojira (1954)
GOJIRA

Year: 1954
Era: Showa
a.k.a. Godzilla (1954)
Gojira (1954)
GOJIRA

Year: 1954
Era: Showa
a.k.a. Godzilla (1954)

THE JIST: A giant, radioactive dinosaur emerges from Tokyo Bay and kills tens of thousands, and it is up to the tortured scientist, Dr. Serizawa, to use his dangerous new technology to defeat it.

THE VERDICT: Despite thirty different attempts, no movie can truly improve upon the original masterpiece. This is a landmark film that belongs in the same list as Citizen Kane and The Seven Samurai, a classic that should be required viewing for film students and budding critics. Far from being a simple giant monster movie, Gojira is Japan's way of exorcizing its own nuclear demons and offering a commentary about the nuclear testing going on in their own backyard at the time this movie was made. However, instead of being a political attack piece (the script never once blames any nation), it is a meditation on the importance and the dangers of technological progress at the dawn of the nuclear age. It's more nuanced and careful than its American counterparts, and its more terrifying--both visually and psychologically--than any of the other movies in this list. If there's only one Godzilla movie you need to see, this is it.




GOJIRA RAIDS AGAIN

Year: 1955
Era: Showa
a.k.a. Godzilla Raides Again
Gigantis, the Fire Monster
Gojira Raids Again
Gojira Raids Again
GOJIRA RAIDS AGAIN

Year: 1955
Era: Showa
a.k.a. Godzilla Raids Again
Gigantis, the Fire Monster

THE JIST: A couple of pilots discover a new Godzilla who threatens to finish what its predecessor started.

THE VERDICT: Gojira Raids Again is a by-the-numbers sequel that was made solely to capitalize on the unexpected success of the original film. However, it lacks the thematic focus and terrifying punch, instead slogging through long, pointless sequences of boring exposition that fail to address anything relevant. The only redeeming qualities can be found in the memorable characters and the poignant death near the end.




Godzilla: King of the Monsters!
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!

Year: 1956
Era: Showa
Godzilla: King of the Monsters!
GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS!

Year: 1956
Era: Showa

THE JIST: In order to bring the original Gojira to American audiences, American producers not only dubbed the Japanese dialogue but re-edited the entire movie, splicing in an entirely new character, U.S. journalist Steven Martin (Raymond Burr), along with several new sequences in which he interacts with the original cast and experiences the devastation of Tokyo.

THE VERDICT: Despite being done quickly and cheaply, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! actually succeeds in honoring the original picture and bringing everything that made Godzilla remarkable to America. Burr is awesome and is given extrememly well-written monologues, and the way he is integrated into the original film is pretty damn seamless (especially to 1950's audiences, who actually believed that Burr went to Japan to film the picture, even though he did all of his work in three days in a tiny California studio). It's easy to dismiss something like this as a cultural bastardization, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters! deserves a huge amount of respect and credit for making Godzilla the juggernaut it is today.




KING KONG VS. GODZILLA

Year: 1962
Era: Showa
King Kong vs. Godzilla
King Kong vs. Godzilla
KING KONG VS. GODZILLA

Year: 1962
Era: Showa

THE JIST: As a greedy pharmaceutical company kidnaps the island diety King Kong and brings him to Japan as a publicity stunt, an American submarine accidentally wakes the dormant Godzilla from his icy prison. With Godzilla threatening to destroy Tokyo yet again, the military decide to use King Kong to fend off the beast.

THE VERDICT: In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I have only seen the clearly inferior American version of this movie, in which a series of intellectually vacant newscasts spell out the narrative in condescending detail. Despite this, I can say that King Kong vs. Godzilla is actually more fun and entertaining than I expected. It's a dramatic shift in tone from the first two Godzilla films, a shift that would persist for most of the Showa era, but it's a welcome one, inviting audiences to go along for the ride instead of weighing them down with horror and ethical philosophy. Still, the visual effects are really awful--worse than the original Gojira--and King Kong looks downright stupid.



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-e. magill 4/22/2014

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