Friday, May 2, 2014

"Godzilla" (1954)

Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihito Hirata
Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Running Time: 96 Minutes

Off the coast of Japan, fishing boats begin to go missing. Survivors are soon found - wounded, delirious, telling stories of a gigantic monster that attacked them. The fishing community of Odo Island is hit by what is first assumed to be a typhoon - but the survivors describe a massive creature stomping their homes.

The country's eminent scientist, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) heads an expedition back to Odo Island and makes startling discoveries: Gigantic footprints that are radioactive, and a living specimen of a trilobite, which should have gone extinct millions of years ago. As Yamane and his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), along with her lover, a salvage ship captain named Ogata (Akira Takarada) investigate, Godzilla appears once more.

Soon enough, Japan is gripped by fear. What is this creature? Where did it come from? Most importantly: How can it be stopped? The answer may lie in the research of Emiko's fiance, Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata)... who doesn't yet know that Emiko is really in love with Ogata.

The original! The classic! Gojira! Godzilla! I had the pleasure of seeing this classic projected up on the big screen at my favorite theater ever, the Somerville Theater here in Somerville, MA. This place is great. I cherish it, and I'm thankful that they've given me the opportunity to see a lot of great movies that I wouldn't have otherwise seen up on the big screen!

While nowadays, Godzilla is a bit more of a camp hero, this film wasn't meant to be as such. In fact, the last act of the film is rather dark - and the film's final moments are filled with sorrow and grief and loss.

Parts of the film are a bit rough; the early scenes don't flow particularly well. The loss of fishing ship after fishing ship almost feels comical. The hysterical wailing of the people as they attempt to understand what's happening out in the ocean borders on comedy, but never quite crosses the line.

But the second half of the film, once things have started to gel and we're in the thick of the plot, things get far more interesting. Godzilla's assault on Tokyo is lengthy and devastating, but it's the aftermath that are some of the film's most poignant moments. Shots of the ruined city, casualties laid out in triage wards, wailing children... it's very effective.

These are powerful images, and the film's message becomes clear. Made less than a decade after the end of World War II, "Godzilla" is pretty obviously full of fear of the nuclear age and its consequences. The film might be beating us over the head with this concept, but then, exactly how much subtlety were you expecting? But just because the idea is obvious doesn't mean that it doesn't work, either.

And, as I said, the film's ending is one that took me by surprise. There's no heroic triumph here, only the realization that Godzilla's devastation is all our fault - that the wounded, the dead, the suffering, it's all our fault... and it could happen again.

The script smartly addresses things like whether the population should be told of what's going on, and scientists wanting to study the creature rather than destroy it. Central to the Serizawa character is his fear of the arms race - as developer of the weapon that could possibly destroy Godzilla, he tells Ogata that he's afraid once its existence is revealed, every politician in the world would come after him to use it. Where does it stop? he wonders.

The special effects work is dated, but commendable for the amount of effort that went into them. Sure, it's painfully obvious that Godzilla is just a guy who can barely move in a bulky suit, stepping on model trains. But the trains are really well made. The streets and buildings have a lot of detail on them, so even if they're obviously miniature, they still look pretty good - especially when they get smashed, explode, and lit on fire.

What's most impressive about these model effects is that the filmmakers really commit to them. Even on down to a shot of what is definitely a toy fire truck rolling over and hitting a building.

The original "Godzilla" is a bit rough, but a fascinating trip back into an earlier time in filmmaking. Tapping into a culture's fear of nuclear arms, channeling that into a creature that has since become an icon, it still has power to grab an audience today even if the effects are dated. But if you can look past that, get drawn into the growing sense of fear and panic that sets in as the movie unfolds, even a guy in a cheesy rubber suit seems entirely forgivable.

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