The Return of the King

And I don’t mean Elvis. We all know he was taken by aliens to planet Rx.
*spoilers*

When I first heard that a new Godzilla movie was coming out, my mind immediately cringed. After Roland Emmerich’s debacle that was the “American” Godzilla in 1998, which, if not for Jar Jar Binks, might surpass Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in movie awfulness, I was understandably skeptical of this latest installment.

Godzilla has always held a special place in my heart, and brings back a lot of childhood memories of racing home to watch Monster Week when The 4:30 Movie would have that special week of sci-fi bliss. They also had Planet of the Apes Week, but I wouldn’t appreciate that classic until I was older. Apes were boring as hell, but giant atomic fire-breathing lizards were awesome. Whenever I get the bug to go back and watch one of these movies featuring Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidrah and all the rest I am reminded of just how cheesy almost all of them were. But I haven’t forgotten the boy who saw none of the cheese, either, or the things those producers accomplished without the benefit of today’s CGI tech. They are nice jaunts down memory lane, but also everything that I don’t want to see in a modern rendition that doesn’t intentionally aim for the cheese or target kids.

The original Godzilla, or Gojira, was made in 1954 in glorious black and white and remains a classic. With its muted color and adult theme I don’t recall it ever gracing Monster Week, which was filled with kid pleasing robots, monsters, UFOs, alien roaches disguised as people, and more. The first Godzilla, made less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a strong metaphor embodying the fears of a world now filled with the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the end Godzilla is stopped by the scientist Serizawa, who destroys both the atomic beast and himself while taking the secret to his own destructive device, the Oxygen Destroyer, to the grave with them. The original may have been surpassed by electronic gadgetry and other movie magic, but the story has not. When the film was brought to America, it was promptly sliced up and rearranged with new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin and a few others to help it transition better to an American audience. The attempt was creative, but ultimately takes away from the impact of the original film given the chance to compare.

From there Godzilla would evolve from a lumbering menace born of humanity’s hubris to favored anti-hero and (if benign) champion/defender of earth before going into hibernation in 1975. Nearly a decade later he would reappear in The Return of Godzila to seek out nuclear sustenance (hey, a ten year sleep leaves you a little hungry). The 1984 Godzilla was pumped up in size to compensate for a cityscape now filled with towering skyscrapers. After being knocked out and revived by the skittish Russians launching a nuclear missile, Godzilla is finally led to a volcano by tapping into his evolutionary background with some bird calls. A few explosive blasts to create a controlled eruption sends the giant to a hot bath. Again, the film was sent to America where it would be sliced and hacked. Godzilla wasn’t the only thing that grew in size, as a very rotund Raymond Burr would reprise his role as Steve Martin.

And this would launch into the next series of Godzilla films with a reboot thrown into the mix, as well as reviving such famous adversaries as King Ghidrah. Lots of higher tech movie fluff, but still lots of cheese. Then throw in the American, non-atomic fire fish-breath Godzilla of 1998. Which brings us to now.

The Godzilla of 2014 is the biggest Godzilla yet, and the film does the proper job of not showing too much of him too soon. The film follows the Brody family, which serves as the primary vehicle to transition the audience from scene to scene. Their story is unoriginal and cliché. But we aren’t really here for them. The first full reveal of the new Godzilla, along with the halo jump later in the movie and the first time Godzilla unleashes his atomic breath, are some of the best cinematic shots. This bull-doggish faced CGI Godzilla expresses a better range of creature emotion, from pissed off to exhausted. He is oblivious to the ants (people) swarming around him, and the unleashing of the atomic breath down the MUTO’s throat (MUTO = Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object) at the end before ripping its head off truly establishes Godzilla’s title of “King of the Monsters.” This is the kind of geekdom that makes my inner child roar “hell yeah!”

What the movie lacks is that its titular character, recreated with no acknowledgement of previous appearances, is not the focus of the story. The focus revolves mostly around the MUTOs, giant, radioactive insectoid monsters that go around sucking up radiation and preparing to reproduce until Godzilla comes to save the day. In short, the movie feels like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. The limited history given on how the atom bomb tests were really attempts to destroy the big G leading up to today seems like something worth exploring–“we tried to destroy it, and now look here, it comes to save us.” The movie tips the hat by having Ken Watanabe play a scientist named Serizawa, but instead of having created a WMD of devastation equal to the original Oxygen Destroyer, his job seems to mostly be standing around gawking. But perhaps I pass judgment too soon. With its success, I understand another movie is already in the works.

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