Tuesday, February 11, 2014

GodzillaMania #3: Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 56/B-

Raymond Burr. A skillful actor, but also one of the names that have turned into a curse word among Godzilla fans (see also: Roland Emmerich). To be fair, it’s not Burr’s fault that he’s an unnecessary addition to the first American Godzilla film: a man named Edmund Goldman found the Japanese horror classic playing in a small California Chinatown theater, bought the international rights, and sold it to producers Terry Turner and Joseph E. Levine, who then formed a new-ish film around the existing footage by shoehorning in Burr so that western audiences would have an American protagonist to identify with. Released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, it’s not the disaster some make it out to be, but it is almost undeniably damaged goods.

Burr stars as a reporter with the retroactively hilarious name of Steve Martin. He’s on the way to Cairo for United World News, but on his layover in Tokyo, he learns of a monster destroying ships in Japan. Martin accompanies security officer Tomo Iwanaga (Frank Iwanaga, another added actor) to the islands where the creature has attacked, meeting paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi), and her naval officer boyfriend Ogata (Akira Takarada). The creature is Godzilla, and Martin watches in horror as the creature destroys Tokyo, and as his troubled college friend Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) comes up with the only way to destroy the monster, a potentially disastrous weapon called the Oxygen Destroyer.

The new footage was directed and edited Terry Morse, who admired original director Ishirō Honda’s work and strived to match the film’s look. That’s an admirable effort for a dubious project, but the results are spotty, at best. Some of the lighting and set matches are passable enough, but more often the sets are noticeably cheaper, the lighting flat. More embarrassing, Burr (whose work here is professional, if hardly inspired) interacts with the characters from the original version by facing towards whatever direction the original footage is thrown in, then speaking to Asian (?) actors in the new footage who turn their backs to the camera to hide that, no, in fact, they are not Takashi Shimura or Akihiko Hirata.

That’s hardly the only problem with the new version, however: the film is also given a flashback structure that’s meant to fit Martin’s reporter status but mostly feels clumsy. The film opens with shots of a destroyed Tokyo from Honda’s original, then awkwardly intersperses shots of Martin trapped in the wreckage and narration that kills the original’s somber mood. It’s even worse in the next scene, where Martin is brought to the original’s hospital scene, and the narration over the death and pain of the Japanese characters feels as tone deaf as Deckard’s voiceover in Blade Runner. Other reedits are more noticeable when viewed next to Godzilla (Martin traveling to an island that, if one looks at the material from Godzilla, he was already on), but the structural changes give the film a lumpy feel even if one completely forgets about the earlier film.

Then there’s what’s taken out of the film: the film has been trimmed from 95 minutes to 80, which is more notable when one considers the added American footage. There are still a handful of references to the hydrogen bomb, but the film removes any overt references to American testing or the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, robbing the film of its prescience. Gone are Shimura’s mournful speeches and the hints that Serizawa was irreparably damaged by World War II, replaced by standard B-movie rationale. At one point, one person asks, “What brought this upon us?” It’s pretty clear that the new edit of the movie doesn’t know.

Still, Honda’s original material is still plenty atmospheric and striking when it’s not being narrated over, and Godzilla is still a great monster. Serizawa’s sacrifice stays too – the film has the decency to keep the Japanese hero, though it makes Burr’s presence seem all the more useless. But the character’s dopey narration interferes again: “The menace was gone. So was a great man. But the whole world could wake up and live again.” It’s a standard happy ending for a film that benefited from being more thoughtful and conflicted, an extraordinary movie turned into something adequate but resolutely ordinary.

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