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You would be wrong.
What most distinguishes these films is cosmological in nature. Each of these stories is spawned by a very different understanding of both Man and his world. And to the extent a motion picture franchise that began with a guy in a rubber suit stomping on toys and progressed to dozens and dozens of computer programmers working tirelessly to create the digital equivalent of a guy in a rubber suit stomping on toys, just with greater verisimilitude, can provide any insight into ourselves and our society, these Godzilla movies would seem to indicate that The Enlightenment is wearing off and a more primitive mindset is reasserting itself in Humanity.
But, we’ll get to those pretentious ruminations in a bit.
Beginning with the beginning, you Godzilla nubes out there may be wondering why I’m referring to the first film as “Gojira”. That was, in fact, the original title and name of the epic beast. “Godzilla” was the 1950s American mangling of the word and, since America from the 1950s on has pretty much ruled the world, that’s the name everybody got stuck using. I think even the Japanese have largely submitted to one of their great cultural creations being branded with a Yankee mispronunciation.
Gojira is a fable of post-WWII and post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan. In it, nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific give birth to fire-breathing dinosaur that’s taller than a skyscraper. It emerges from the sea to rampage first through an island village and then to lay waste to Tokyo itself. Nothing the government or military can do can stop the monster or curtail its seeming campaign of mass destruction and death. Despite the threat, Professor Yamane (Takashi Shimura), an archeologist/paleontologist recruited by the government to explain and understand Gojira, believes we should focus on the miraculous existence of the creature and what can be learned from it. That point of view falls flat for Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a bold young sailor who wishes to marry Yamane’s beautiful daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi).
Emiko, however, is still technically the intended of a young scientist named Serizawa (Akihito Hiraka). Bearing a terrible scar from the war, Serizawa also carries the burden of a terrible secret, which he reveals to Emiko but only after she promises to tell no one. When Emiko is confronted by the misery and suffering caused by Gojira, she breaks her promise and tells Ogata of the existence of the Oxygen Destroyer. It is a process invented by Serizawa that can disintegrate living matter in water. That’s all it can do, though, and Serizawa vows to never let his discovery be known until he can find some non-destructive purpose for it.
Emiko and Ogata see the Oxygen Destroyer as the last and only hope for stopping Gojira. Serizawa sees it as so horribly powerful that it could be even more dangerous to the world than the giant fire-breathing dinosaur. The anguish of Serizawa, even over the decades and through the language barrier, is quite palpable. He is morally repelled at his genius being used to destroy and fearful that’s all the world wants to do with it. It is only when Serizawa is forced to use violence himself to stop Ogata from seizing his notes that he must acknowledge the immediate danger of Gojira has to take precedence. But in doing so, Serizawa first burns up all of his notes and then sacrifices his own life in killing Gojira to ensure that the power and possible menace of the Oxygen Destroyer dies with them both.
Gojira is a 60 year old foreign language metaphor about the risks of not just nuclear weapons but of power and science itself. Director Ishiro Honda uses some blazingly fast filmmaking to keep the viewer’s attention until the colossal monster shows up. The pre-Gojira scenes of this movie are so short and succinct that I am reminded, of all things, of The Philadelphia Story. And no, not because of a resemblance between Katherine Hepburn and an unstoppable force that lays waste to the countryside with atomic fire. Both films are so fast-moving and so energetic that they feel entirely modern. It is a remarkable testament to the unchanging essentials of storytelling that a motion picture this old and about this subject matter can flow like the latest work of the best Hollywood has to offer.
The movie also has a few moments that let you see what life in post-WWII Japan was like. When some folks on a bus are talking about having to go into shelters when Gojira approaches, one remarks “The shelters again? That stinks.” You’ll only get a line like that in a country that remembers having to hide from bombing raids. And though it gets a little preachy about the ills of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing, it never references America as the source of those ills. There’s nothing anti-American about Gojira and that allows it to have a timeless quality, like Archie comics or Superman comics of the 1950s, 60s and 70s where you could pick an issue at random and not be able to tell when it was made.
Now, strictly as entertainment, you might be better off watching the American version that had scenes with Raymond Burr edited into the story. But as cinema and genre history, Gojira holds up pretty good.
“Good” is about the last adjective I would ever use to describe its first remake. Godzilla (1998) was nigh-universally seen as fairly bad when it first hit theaters and it has not aged well at all. While the original took a ridiculous concept and intelligently put it to thematic use, the second version is dumb with a capital D, U, M and B. Filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin compound that with a light-hearted tone that is completely inappropriate for the subject matter and exacerbate that by mindlessly trying to emulate Jurassic Park.
I’m convinced that in the very first meeting where this remake was discussed the phrase “It’s like Jurassic Park…but with Godzilla” was uttered and the person who uttered those words should have been stoned like an adulteress in Saudi Arabia. In Spielberg’s great popcorn flick, the awe and wonder at the resurrected dinosaurs came first and THEN you got to the running and the screaming and the threat of being eaten. This move first establishes Godzilla as a very dangerous thing and then tries to make the audience all sentimental about him. Emmerich and Devlin want the viewer to look at their Godzilla and go “awwww” after they’ve had him kill bunch of people and annihilate a huge chunk of New York City. What is wrong with them?
As for the plot, Godzilla shows up. He makes his way to the Big Apple. The U.S. military recruits a show tune-singing worm expert (Matthew Broderick) to help stop him. Some French secret agents join the party, along with the worm expert’s old college girlfriend (Maria Pitillo). She decides the occasion of a giant monster appearing is the exact moment she should exploit her old boyfriend to further her stalled journalism career. Godzilla lays eggs, which hatch into mini-Zillas that look and act very much like velociraptors. The ex-girlfriend repents of her behavior. All the monsters get blown up and the worm guy and his ex get back together. And I know I spent three paragraphs on the plot of the original and just one here but if I have to think about the alleged plot of 1998’s Godzilla any longer I’ll go into an epileptic fit and I don’t have anything upon which to bite down.
The list of what sucks about this remake could be very, very, very long. From Broderick, a genuinely talented performer, looking more like a trained seal in some scenes to the astounding stupidity of the end where they try and trap the mini-Zillas in Madison Square Garden so they can get blown up real good and have to ignore the gigantic hole in the floor of the arena where Godzilla emerged into the building to lay his eggs, to Vicki Lewis as a paleontologist whose only purpose in the story is to loudly and repeatedly proclaim her attraction for Broderick’s character, since the filmmakers clearly realized a show tune-singing worm expert might not come off as macho as they needed their hero to be. Why they didn’t simply change him from a show-tune singing worm expert to, I don’t know, ALMOST ANYTHING ELSE is one of those Hollywood mysteries they used to make TV shows about on the E network.
I’m not even going to get into how they reimagined Godzilla as some sort of mutant iguana, the bizarre inclusion in the movie of Hank Azaria playing a secondary male lead who is not only more heroic than Broderick’s character but actually does most of the things to move the story along that you would have thought the ex-girlfriend would do, or the mayor of New York being named Ebert and his long-suffering assistant being named Gene which is a reference so self-indulgent that God should add an 11th Commandment of “Thou shalt not name characters in thy piece of crap summer blockbuster after famous film critics for it beith extremely lame.”
The final thing to mention about this remake is that its Godzilla isn’t even that much of a monster. He causes a lot of property damage and murders more than a few but this film bends over backwards to make clear that the military could fairly easily deal with him if they just get a clear shot. Instead of an impervious force of nature, this Godzilla is more like the gopher from Caddyshack. He pops up where least expected and then escapes back into his hole when the army/groundskeeper comes after him.
1998’s remake was so awful that it took 16 years or, in Hollywood terms, a cinematic eternity for them to try again. To put that in perspective, they waited just 5 years to reboot the Spider-Man franchise after the stinktastic Spider-Man 3. It only took them 4 years to make another solo flick about everybody’s favorite Adamantium-clawed Canuck after the near fiasco of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Star Wars Episode VII is scheduled to debut merely 10 years after Revenge of the Sith made fanboys rejoice that they wouldn’t have to watch George Lucas molest their childhoods any longer. The first Godzilla remake was that bad.
It was almost worth the wait because Godzilla (2014) is serious and stylish and exciting. There’s really only two things wrong with it. There’s not nearly enough Godzilla and the filmmakers totally botch a compelling human dimension to their story. Those are two pretty big things to get wrong and while they’re tolerable the first time round, if you saw the second remake in theaters you’ll really notice them in a repeat viewing.
In 1999, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his oddly plain assistant are summoned to a jungle dig that has made a strange discovery. And I only mention the assistant’s appearance because it’s usually the kind of role where the producers stick a hot babe to enhance the scenery. What they find is a massive skeleton with one weird pod attached to the bones and another one burst open and a trail heading to the sea.
Meanwhile, nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is trying to warn his bosses about unexplainable seismic activity that appears to be heading right for the nuclear power plant in Japan where Joe and his wife both work. Before he can convince anyone of a threat, a series of seeming earthquakes strikes the plant, destroying it and killing Joe’s wife and forcing the evacuation of the plant and the nearby town where Joe, his wife and their young son Ford (CJ Adams) live.
In 2014, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bomb disposal expert with the U.S. military. He has a beautiful wife (Elizabeth Olson) and a cute son. He’s also called back to Japan to bail his father out of jail. 15 years after the accident, Joe Brody remains a broken man convinced that there’s a secret behind the disaster that killed his wife. Joe tells his dubious son that there’s something at the plant that’s started “talking” again and he’s going to find out what the truth is no matter what.
Ford tags along with his dad and returns to the now-quarantined site of the nuclear plant and town to retrieve Joe’s old data from before the accident so it can be compared to the latest readings. They get captured and find out the secret behind the accident was a giant monster that attacked the plant 15 years ago and has been dormant since, slowly feeding on the radiation of the plant’s reactor. The monster, dubbed a MUTO for Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism, wakes up and flies away, but not before destroying everything around and killing Joe Brody.
That’s when Dr. Serizawa turns up and tells Ford the rest of the story. The MUTO is the remnant of a time when such huge creatures roamed the surface of a more radioactive Earth and fed off that radiation. Now they expect the MUTO to seek out new sources of sustenance and the military is going to try and stop it. The real solution to Serizawa, however, is another ancient being of awesome size and power. It is a creature that was awakened by a nuclear submarine in 1954 and survived repeated nuclear bomb explosions meant to kill it. Serizawa believes it is the alpha predator that can defeat the MUTO. They call it…Godzilla.
It seems Serizawa belongs to an international agency organized in secret to study and try to understand Godzilla. And after 60 years, they appear to have learned exactly two things about him.
Anyway, Godzilla fights the first MUTO in Hawaii and, wouldn’t you know it, Ford Brody just happens to wind up stuck in the middle of it. After that, and after the even bigger MUTO from that first pod awakens, the three enormous monsters all converge on San Francisco. The MUTOs want to breed and Godzilla just want to kick some butt. Ford falls back in with the military to try and return to his family who are, you guessed it, also in San Francisco but gets sidetracked into a plan to kill all three creatures with a bomb. Yes, Serizawa reminds them they already tried that with Godzilla in ’54 but what other plan could they have? Things, of course, go wrong and Ford has to try and defuse the bomb while the Big G lays the smack down on the miserable MUTOs.
The best things about the second remake are, thankfully, the wonderful monster battles and Joe Brody’s obsession with finding out what killed his wife. Unfortunately, these filmmakers decided the audience didn’t need very much of either. A lot of the kaiju-on-kaiju action is only glimpsed until the very end and Joe gets dead before the movie is a third of the way through. I know why they did both. They wanted to take a Jaws approach to Godzilla to build up the suspense and anticipation and, I’m sure, to leave themselves somewhere to go for a sequel. If the first film was wall-to-wall Godzilla, what do you do after that? And they decided to shift the story from Joe to his son because Hollywood blockbusters can’t be centered on middle-aged guys teetering on the edge of being a conspiracy nut. No, Hollywood thinks such cinema rises and falls on The Dude of the Moment. Taylor-Johnson’s turn as Kick-Ass made him The Dude for this film but…
A. He can’t hold a candle to Cranston on screen. How many young actors could?
B. There’s no story to Ford Brody. His dad is damaged and compelled and unyielding in the way men can only be when they’ve got nothing to lose. The film makes a reference to Brody running away from the tragedy of his youth, but he ran right into a successful and impressive career with a happy family. Ford never seems to have anything at stake in the story, other than his family’s safety and that’s completely out of his control. They could have had an amazing conflict between Joe and Serizawa over whether Godzilla is something good or evil. Ford is Just Some Dude who goes from action scene to action scene like a plastic army man.
As you can probably tell, this threesome of films is a bit like a turd sandwich. Even as bad as the middle one is, it joins the others in tracing a troubling intellectual arc. At the core of Gojira is the conviction that Man is the supreme power in the world but that if Man isn’t careful, His own power could turn and destroy Him. In 1998, Godzilla still represents the idea of Man’s work getting out of control. But the remake sees Man as so powerful that there’s nothing He can’t handle, not even gigantic lizards spawned by nuclear destruction. In this story, Man is so incredible that the only thing which ultimately can threaten Him is His own incompetence. As long as the right people make the right decisions, Man will always triumph.
2014’s Godzilla rejects the trepidation of the first and the arrogance of the second. In this tale, Man is far from omnipotent. This movie exists in a world where there are many things more powerful than Mankind and we’re largely helpless if they ever notice us. It’s very much like the perspective of the ancestors of Man who sat around the fire and made up stories to explain why the seasons change or why that mountain in the distance suddenly started spouting fire. The philosophical path charted by these motion pictures begins in cautious wisdom, descends to blind arrogance and then shrinks back to an almost primitive fear. The third version of Godzilla represents a society that not only no longer understands its place in the world but no longer believes it understands the world itself.
Having said that, if the sequel due in 2018 has a whole lot more Godzilla, I’ll be there for the first midnight show. Until then, watch the original and watch the second remake if you haven’t seen it before. Avoid that middle movie like it was a leper trying to give you a full body massage.