“Gojira” – A.J. Hakari

As it stands today, the Godzilla series represents something of a landmark in the realm of B-cinema. The famous franchise, which has spanned numerous movies and countless monsters, has long since grown into its chintziness, standing firm as a provider of “so bad, it’s good”-style entertainment. But back in 1954, when director Ishiro Honda and company came together to make Gojira, their intentions were much more serious than those of the franchise’s current handlers. Sure, the concept of a dude in a rubber monster suit trampling around a miniaturized Tokyo set is inescapably corny. But you’d be surprised to see how well Gojira has held up over the years as both a work of entertainment and as a rather effective comment on life in a nuclear age.

The film opens with a seafaring vessel being attacked and set ablaze by a mysterious, unseen force. All proceeding attempts to investigate the freighter’s wreckage meet a similarly grisly fate, which has authorities left scratching their heads. At first, drifting sea mines or underwater volcanic activity are thought to be possible culprits, but all those theories go straight out the window when a survivor is found with a much stranger story to tell. He claims that a huge monster is responsible for the attacks, which is confirmed when a search party encounters the beast itself, surmised to be a dinosaur released from its underground lair by nuclear testing. But it seems as though those very test have endowed the creature, coined “Gojira” (Godzilla, to you and me), with such powers as atomic breath and invulnerability to conventional weapons, leaving scientists in a race to stop the monster before it chooses Tokyo as its next stomping grounds.

These days, Godzilla carries around a persona that’s about as imposing as a box of marshmallow peeps. But of all the Big G’s cinematic escapades, Gojira comes the closest to actually making the monstrous icon look scary. It all has to do with how Godzilla’s origins intertwine with Japan’s own atomic history, which, looking at the film, does come across as a bit of a stretch. Equating a massive lizard with nuclear warfare is sort of like using killer bees to relay a story about genocide in Rwanda; as a viewer, you never know whether to be moved or to be entertained. But as strange as it seems, Gojira does conjure up some memorable and even startling imagery. Nowadays, people cheer whenever Godzilla goes on his latest rampage, but such occasions are no laughing matter here. Honda wrings a good bit of emotion out of the aftermath of Godzilla’s attacks, providing lingering shots of those masses displaced and left homeless in the wake of the monster’s fury. Just look at Godzilla’s silhouette, outlined by dozens of fires raging throughout Tokyo, and see if the tiniest chill doesn’t run down your spine.

But aside from this surprisingly deft aspect of the storytelling, it goes without saying that Gojira just as often becomes at odds with its own self. Every time Honda draws you in with chilling parallels to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he pulls you right back out by focusing on, of all things, Godzilla. There are times when, from a distance, Godzilla looks pretty cool; other times, it looks like a deformed sock puppet that’s about as fearsome as Winnie the Pooh. But it’s actually the human factor that contributes most to Gojira’s not-so-sterling moments. Whenever the story’s not centered on Godzilla’s goings-on, the flick becomes incredibly dull, especially since there are no compelling characters to latch onto. All we get is a flimsy love triangle between a one-eyed scientist, a doe-eyed girl, and some guy whom I think is another scientist (the movie provides no clues as to what it is he exactly does), with a few other monster movie archetypes thrown in for good measure. I didn’t expect any deep characterizations out of a movie like Gojira, but the cardboard cutouts comprising the cast are so flat, they could’ve been devised by a third-grader with the flu.

Gojira is a movie whose reputation is greater than the film itself is. The flick has its fair share of flaws, but its influence, which opened the doors for a whole new wave of kaiju cinema (including the much more polished Daimajin series), is undeniable. Simultaneously chilling and cheezy, Gojira is one monster mash that cinema history will never forget.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Gojira review here.

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