Godzilla, an immense dinosaur-like creature who wreaks havoc on the Pacific. The Godzilla franchise has become a beast unto itself (Pun! Words are fun!) with its cult following, and another reboot is due in 2014, but the creature had to start somewhere, and that's the 1954 original, Gojira.
A Japanese fishing boat goes missing in the ocean, and in the aftermath, several rescue ships are lost as well. What exactly is going on? Some cite an ancient legend of a creature, Godzilla, who terrorized coastal fishing villages with the villagers sacrificing young women to appease him. Following the disappearances, a village on an isolated village reports sightings and weird occurrences, prompting archaeologist Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and a team to investigate. They find odd clues that speak to an immense creature's background, everything from radioactivity to evidence of a creature from millions of years ago. It's on the island the creature is first sighted, a reptilian creature several hundred feet tall with seemingly no weakness. What can Japan and the government do? Can anything at all be done to stop this creature?
My first exposure to the Godzilla character was this pretty bad but highly entertaining Roland Emmerich-directed 1998 blockbuster. That's not to say I was unaware of the Japanese monster's other....endeavors, but I finally decided to check the original out. The Godzilla character itself is a gem, a radioactive beast wreaking havoc wherever it goes. It's the distinct look of the creature -- dinosaur-like -- and that very unique roar (listen HERE) that is forever linked to him and the franchise/series. He is like King Kong on steroids, transplanting New York City for Tokyo, and his attacks provide some of the movie's coolest moments.
The problem I had is that there isn't enough of the Godzilla monster in this already pretty short movie at 95 minutes. From director Ishiro Honda, the story focuses far more on the human aspect of the story. We see the efforts of the doctors and scientists (like Shimura's archaeologist) who want to study and examine the monster while others in the government and military want to destroy it as quickly as possible. That's fine because a solid story on top of some epic monster attacks is gravy. Instead, this almost documentary-like style shooting is dull, stilted and preachy. Cheesy though they may be, Godzilla's attacks are the high points of the story. They're limited by 1950s special effects and a smallish budget, but there is a certain retro (read: cheap) charm to the scenes. Far more attention should have been paid to the creature, not the dull individuals hunting him.
I debated how much to criticize this next issue I had with the 1954 original. The script is less than subtle in its condemnation of the United States for nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1940s/1950s. How was Godzilla created exactly? He was some sort of prehistoric creature unearthed by the nuclear testing who grew to immense proportions because of the radioactivity. I don't want to sound insensitive when I write this, and that's why I struggled with how to even put it. The conclusion of WWII, and more importantly the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, was just nine years removed when this movie was made. The condemnation of the U.S. (and nuclear testing on an international scale) is fair, but it's so beyond obvious the message that it becomes painful to watch. Historical rant and side note; the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, started the conflict with WWII, and committed countless horrific war crimes. An invasion of Japan would have cost millions of lives. I in no way intend this to sound as insensitive as it does in my head, but a not thinly veiled dig at the U.S. use of atomic bombs sounds like sour grapes and gives an almost amateur feel to the script.
Enough ranting, let's get back to the movie. The acting ranges from impressive (Shimura) to acceptable to wooden and even amateurish at times. A story about a creature terrorizing Tokyo and Japan is stripped down to a.....love story?!? You've got to be kidding me. Yamane's daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), is in love with Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain. Oh, no! She's already engaged to a brilliant scientist, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who may hold the key to defeating Godzilla! That's the best they could come up with? A love triangle? Distractions from Godzilla attacks are one thing, but using maybe the laziest storytelling technique ever as a distraction? Yeah, I'm not going to be on board with that.
Sorry to say I was hugely disappointed with this original film. I'll stick with it to a point because Godzilla is a great creature character, but the series is walking on thin ice.
Gojira (1954): **/****