Friday, October 27, 2017

Awesomely Shitty Movies: Gojira, or As You Know Him, Godzilla

Welcome to another installment of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at Enuffa.com, where I dissect a beloved piece of cinematic work, nitpick its drawbacks, and generally ruin it for everyone.


Today I'll be talking about one of the most famous monster movies of all time, one that gave us an absolutely iconic giant monster whose fame and marketability are nearly unparalleled.  I'm talking about the 1954 Japanese film Gojira (or Godzilla as us dumbass Americans renamed him).  Inspired by the US B-movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Gojira is an atomic age parable about a gigantic lizard monster that emerges from the ocean and decimates Japan.  Made at a time when the country was still dealing with the aftermath of World War II, Gojira is rife with subtext about nuclear devastation and its consequences; despite its B-movie subject matter the film's tone is deadly serious and its concepts lofty.  Gojira was an enormous hit and spawned literally dozens of sequels, reboots and imitations.  But how is it as a film?  Well like so many horror movies it has its pros and cons.  Let's take a look at both, shall we?




The Awesome


Creature Design

The monster design by Teizo Toshimitsu, Akira Watanabe and Eiji Tsuburaya is simply one of the most iconic and instantly recognizable in film history.  Regardless of the technological limitations and the clunkiness of the suit itself, the combination of T-Rex, Iguanadon and Stegasaurus made for such a cool-looking giant monster it's hard to take your eyes off him.  Couple that with his ability to shoot radioactive beams from his mouth like an atomic age dragon, and you've got an absolutely BOSS movie monster.  Godzilla is up there with Frankenstein's monster, Superman and Mickey Mouse in terms of pop culture iconography, inspiring cartoons, comics, and some of the best-looking Japanese toys you'll ever see.

He's just fuckin' badass-lookin'....



Political Commentary

Gojira was made less than ten years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan was still reeling from that devastation.  Thus the monster is a metaphor for nuclear holocaust, released from his underwater lair as the result of American H-bomb testing and wreaking devastation and death on the entire country.  The film is rife with themes of mankind meddling with technology they aren't equipped or evolved enough to handle.  Even Serizawa's oxygen destroyer draws parallels with the H-bomb - he's stumbled onto a terrible discovery and won't tell anyone about it until he can find a use for it that benefits humanity, fearing it will be used for destructive ends (I'm not sure what said use would even be, but that's a discussion for later).  Then there's Professor Yamane, who wants Godzilla kept alive so his resistance to radiation can be studied.  This film contains much more symbolism and subtext than is required of a monster movie, so that's a plus.



Acting

By the same token, the acting in this film is quite solid, better than a film like this necessarily needs.  Akira Takarada as Captain Ogata, Momoko Kochi as his love interest Emiko, Akihiko Hirata as the tortured genius Serizawa, and Takashi Shimura as Dr. Yamane all turn in capable performances that rise above the B-movie material and lend themselves to the human drama, making this more than just a kaiju movie.

We're talkin' about solid professionals.





Buildup

The early sequences are coy about showing the monster, instead making us guess what he looks like and what he's capable of.  The film opens with multiple freighters running afoul of a glowing ocean anomaly that destroys the ships and nearly everyone on board in a matter of seconds, while the authorities and our protagonists try to understand what's happening.  Then the fishing industry dries up and the locals suspect a giant sea monster to whom they used to sacrifice young women ages ago.  Finally we get a sequence of a village being obliterated by an unseen force, and it's not until about a third of the way through the film that we get a glimpse of Godzilla.  This movie is patient about revealing its monster and that adds to his foreboding mystique.



Tokyo Sequence

The centerpiece of this film is the extended sequence where Godzilla ravages Tokyo, leveling the city and incinerating everything in his path.  The government has built a massive electrified fence along the coastline that barely slows the monster down, and there are numerous shots of him stomping through buildings, demolishing vehicles, and using his radiation-breath to reduce the city to ash.  Despite its clunkiness this sequence has a lot of charm to it, aided by the intense lights and darks of the classic black & white cinematography.  Ultimately it's just a fun monster movie sequence to whom so many imitators owe a debt.

This stuff looks so much better in black & white



Legacy

Gojira was such a smash hit, both in Japan and here, that it spawned one of the longest-running film franchises of all time.  The original series of films boasted fifteen entries, and it's been rebooted no fewer than three times since, plus the two American remakes and a host of knockoffs over the decades.  Godzilla is, as I stated above, a pop culture phenom, beloved by millions.  That it all began with this modestly-budgeted, slapdash B-movie is pretty astounding.



B-Movie Fun

Like so many atomic age horror films, Gojira and its sequels are just fun movies to watch, with men in lizard suits smashing model buildings up real good.  Unlike modern disaster porn, these films have a simplistic appeal to them and don't veer into unpleasantness, nor are they 145 minutes long.  This movie is a lean 96 minutes, shot in glorious black & white, and serves as an amusing bit of escapism with real-world commentary.  At this festive Halloween season, what more can you really ask for?


Now for the stuff that doesn't work.....




The Shitty


Special Effects

Holy jeezus the special effects are bad.  Like even for 1954 most of the effects in this movie are less than convincing.  King Kong came out twenty years before this movie and its special effects blow these out of the water (no pun intended).  Godzilla looks fine in wide shots, particularly at night, but when they cut to the puppet head breathing fire he looks absolutely terrible, resembling in many ways, a sock puppet.  While some of the miniatures that get destroyed look okay (though still obviously miniatures), there are a few shots, like the wrecked helicopter early in the movie or the fighter jets whose missiles are clearly on wires, that are almost embarrassingly fake-looking.  Also the Godzilla suit unfortunately has very little articulation, so for example he hardly ever moves his arms - they're just sort of spread out at his sides - and he's so bottom-heavy he doesn't so much walk around as waddle.  The effects supervisor originally intended for Godzilla to be a stop-motion puppet, which would've been much more credible.  But after learning that the technique would've taken seven years to execute, he reluctantly went with the "man in lizard suit" option, and it's stuck with the franchise to this day.

This shot.....this is not my kinda shot....



Pacing

For a monster destruction movie this is very slow-paced.  As I said above, I appreciated the first-act buildup to Godzilla's first appearance, but even after that the film kinda sandbags along.  Godzilla's set pieces are bookended by seemingly interminable scenes involving the romantic leads, the professor and the scientist, and even in the third act takes overly long to get to the point.  A few trims in the second half would've kept the story moving along more effectively.



Love Triangle

While I appreciated the attempt to populate this film with real human characters and their interpersonal drama, let's be honest, this is at heart a monster movie.  Unless the romantic stuff is really compelling, you can't overload a movie like this with it or it tends to drag the movie down.  I just didn't find these characters terribly interesting and it oddly felt like their personal stuff was happening in a separate movie, far detached from the main storyline.  Rarely are any of them anywhere near the citywide destruction, so the movie feels disjointed as a result, like the human characters are in the way of me watching the giant lizard smash stuff.



"Climax"

The real climax of the movie is about a half hour from the end, when Godzilla destroys Tokyo.  After that sequence we get a very drawn out series of scenes when Ogata and Emiko try to convince Serizawa to use his oxygen destroyer and save humanity, Ogata and Serizawa go underwater to deploy it, and it kills Godzilla.  The end.  Not much of a high note on which to end this movie.  There really should've been some sort of additional Godzilla-centric sequence before they kill him, so he could at least have a final hurrah.  The ending falls flat for me.  It's like the ending of Jaws the novel when it needed to be like the ending of Jaws the movie.

Aaaand then he's just dead....



American Version

Since Gojira was such a hit in Japan, an American production company bought the rights to it and "adapted" it for US distribution, calling it Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  By "adapted" I mean "cut out all the political stuff and shoehorned an American actor into the movie."  The result is an unwatchable bastardization, starring Raymond Burr as American reporter Steve Martin ("Well excuuuuuuuse me!!") who just happens to be in Tokyo when all this stuff goes down but does absolutely nothing throughout the film.  For decades this was the only way to view the film in the US, and that's just sad.  Avoid the US version at all costs.

Dude...."It's Alive????"  Fuck this movie.





Nitpicks

-Sooo this oxygen destroyer thing.  It breaks down the oxygen molecules in the water, which somehow liquifies everything living?  How does that work exactly?  If water is two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule, wouldn't removing all the oxygen vaporize the water, since pure hydrogen can only exist in liquid form at well below subzero temperatures?  And since living creatures are mostly water shouldn't it vaporize them as well?  And what's the reach of this device?  Would it destroy the oceans completely or just a small area?  How long do its effects last?  Just long enough to destroy Godzilla or forever?  Was this the only plot device they could come up with to kill him?

-And speaking of the oxygen destroyer, Serizawa mentions that he's kept it a secret until he can figure out a use for it that will benefit humanity.  Gargantuan prehistoric lizards aside, what the fuck beneficial use could a device that destroys oxygen molecules possibly be put to?  "Way too much air in this house Beverly, hand me that oxygen destroyer...."

-Professor Yamane spends much of the movie lamenting that the authorities want to kill Godzilla rather than study him.  Does this strike anyone else as just a tad unrealistic?  He's wiping out entire cites for fuck's sake!  Of course he needs to be destroyed.  And how are you gonna study him?  He's a mindless 165-foot tall wrecking machine - what possible study would he submit to?  You gonna take skin samples?

-When trying to figure out exactly what Godzilla is, Dr. Yamane talks about dinosaurs, which he says walked the Earth 2 million years ago.  Uhh, you're off by a factor of thirty there, Doc.  Try 65 million years ago, minimum.  Was 2 million the number they'd arrived at in 1954 or is this a glaring mistake by the filmmakers?

-I mentioned the village destruction sequence earlier, which I thought was tremendously effective in getting across Godzilla's size and scope of devastation while only suggesting his presence.  Then the next day the villagers find Godzilla on the other side of a hill and his big reveal is a badly superimposed shot of his head peeking over a hill in broad daylight.  What in the hell were the filmmakers thinking not having his reveal be at night when he looks the most convincing?  The Godzilla suit looks infinitely better in the dark; showing him in daylight just exposes how fake it looks.  Just a baffling choice here.

I say again - terrible.




Conclusion

In spite of its enormous historical significance it's very tough to call Gojira a "good" film.  It's messy, it's slow, it's got some pretty shoddy effects, and yet it strives to be something more than it is, while influencing generations of filmmakers and birthing one of the greatest movie monsters of all time.  You're unlikely to find a stranger dichotomy in a successful popcorn film.  Had the filmmakers been granted more time and a larger budget this could've been one of the great cinematic spectacles.  Alas we'll just have to settle for it being another Awesomely Shitty Movie....


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I like this shot.  I like it a lot.




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