Halloween Countdown: Godzilla x 3

One of the interesting things about reviewing movies for a long, long time is that certain franchises keep coming ’round on a regular schedule, like comets returning every few years. Here are some time-capsule looks at Godzilla pictures that orbited during my watch.

Godzilla 1985 (published in The Herald, 1985)

Thirty years ago, a monster was born in the minds of some Japanese filmmakers: Godzilla, an enormous fire-breathing dinosaur who loved to stomp on Tokyo. The film made a lot of money, but when it was exported to the United States, somebody worried that it needed an identifiable American actor. So new scenes were shot and blithely spliced into the original. They featured Raymond Burr trying to find a way to defeat the indestructible monster.

Godzilla spawned a raft of Japanese monster movies, and the big guy himself starred in many of them, often doing titanic battle with other monsters as Tokyo was repeatedly trampled underfoot. Now, just when you thought the trend was waning, it’s Godzilla 1985, a comeback picture that did good business in Japan last year. Once again, someone on the American side decided to put an American actor in place — and who better than Raymond Burr, reprising his original role?

So now, when Godzilla breaks out of his grave early in the film, there’s a cut to Burr’s face, bearded and bulkier, registering some kind of cosmic tremor. For a few minutes, it looks as though this remake/sequel might be fun.

You have the usual badly dubbed Japanese actors saying to each other, “We don’t know for certain Godzilla will attack Japan” (obviously, they’ve never seen a Godzilla movie). Indeed he does attack Japan, and a reason given here is that he wants to suck up some nuclear energy. In one scene, he strides up to a nuclear reactor and sticks his head inside, which really makes his scales glow. Of course Godzilla 1985, like so many Japanese monster movies, has a nuclear subtext. The creation of these monsters usually is attributed to the Bomb and its effects, and Burr intones that Godzilla is “a living nuclear weapon — a victim of the modern nuclear age.” In this film, Japan is portrayed as a moderating force between the Americans and the Soviets, who are both eager to deploy nuclear weapons to fry the monster.

Burr, called in by the U.S. top brass to advise in this matter, has absolutely nothing to do, and stands around saying, “Conventional weapons won’t work, General.” The Japanese dialogue scenes are tedious. That leaves Godzilla himself, who looks and sounds the same as ever. When he walks through Tokyo, squishing crowds and bumping into skyscrapers, there’s a sly look in his eyes that somehow calls to mind Dean Martin trying to find his way home after a bad night in Vegas.

It’s a disappointing film, although there are a few choice lines of dialogue, such as, “The problem is, how to lure Godzilla to the rim of the volcano?” — the kind of line that always seems funnier when the words don’t match the actor’s lips.

Burr’s role becomes preposterous at the end, when he eulogizes the brainless fire-breather after having done nothing to help capture him. Burr refers to him as “that strangely innocent and tragic monster.” At that point, you don’t know whether the guys who filmed the American scenes were kidding or not, but you certainly hope they were.

Godzilla (published by Film.com, 1998)

An ancient Japanese sailor, the lone survivor of a mysterious South Pacific shipwreck, lies on a bed. His vessel was capsized by a tremendous unseen force, and his body contains inexplicable amounts of radiation. Investigators can pry only one word from the traumatized, terrified fellow: “Gojira . . . Gojira . . . Gojira.”

Let’s give some credit to Independence Day creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. They may have the intellectual sophistication of bright, cheeky 12-year-old boys, but they sure know how to set the table. This early scene from Godzilla, like so many of the delicious kernels of popcorn from Independence Day, hits just the right notes of movie-memory and pulp dread. Since the monster is, of course, going to be withheld from our view until his star entrance later in the film, the Japanese man is a traditional harbinger of doom, like the little girl in Them! who can only shriek the title word. The fact that he’s Japanese reminds us of Godzilla’s national origins, and for hardcore fans there is the added treat that Gojira was the title of the first Godzilla movie, until the monster’s name was Americanized (and Raymond Burr was spliced in) for the stateside release of the first Godzilla.

Though this new Godzilla is once again born in the nuclear testing grounds of the South Pacific, he steers clear of Tokyo and makes a beeline for Manhattan, stomping his way across Panama en route. The movie can’t possibly justify this cross-global trip, so it really doesn’t try to; what the hell, everybody should try New York once in their life — this is Godzilla’s turn. Converging on the city to do battle with the creature is a decidedly oddball cast: biologist Matthew Broderick, his ex-flame (now budding TV reporter) Maria Pitillo, cameraman Hank Azaria, military bigwig Kevin Dunn, scientist Vicki Lewis. For reasons that are never quite clear (something to do with residual guilt over French nuke testing), a French secret service man (Jean Reno) is leading a spirited Gallic attack on Godzilla. There’s also a Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner), pudgy and bespectacled, accompanied by a bald assistant named Gene; they are given to turning thumbs up or thumbs down on a variety of issues. Make of that what you will.

After they lay the groundwork, director-writer Emmerich and producer-writer Devlin get the real mayhem off to a rollicking start with Godzilla’s New York debut, a funny-scary trashing of the city streets. The computer-generated monster couldn’t be more different from Toho Pictures’ ultra-cheap version (i.e., a guy jumping around in a rubber suit): sleek and swift and Jurassically convincing. This sequence has at least one real coup: the sight of the giant lizard’s head floating past the upper-floor windows of a TV network building (like a parade float gone terribly, terribly wrong), as an oblivious anchorman (Harry Shearer) jabbers away in the foreground.

The initial excitement gives way to a gradual slowing-down. Here are the problems: The love story between Broderick and the dippy Pitillo isn’t compelling, Godzilla has (let’s face it) no personality, and the setting becomes monotonous. The latter is the most serious hitch, as most of the action scenes consist of Godzilla rampaging between the skyscrapers of Manhattan, which is always seen either in heavy rain or at night. These sequences look suspiciously like the design for a computer game, and they don’t offer much variation. Emmerich and Devlin seem to have sensed this, because they’ve made this Godzilla — thanks to its ability to asexually reproduce — a pregnant monster, ready to lay eggs and hatch a whole lot of babies. The notion of Godzilla babies means more opportunities for the special effects folks, but it doesn’t pick up the movie the way it should, and things begin to feel dead and waterlogged. The first hour is spirited and fun, but maybe the Godzilla franchise isn’t really made for the computer-slick, big-budget treatment; after a while I honestly found myself missing the guy in the rubber suit.

Godzilla 2000 (originally published by Film.com, 2000)

According to Godzilla 2000, a project called The Godzilla Prediction Network is on the alert, monitoring offshore hotspots and ready to notify Japanese authorities about sightings of the 180-foot-tall fire-breathing lizard. A fat lot of good this does: Godzilla still lumbers out of the sea and wreaks havoc, rendering the early-warning system rather pointless.

Certain Godzilla Predictions can be safely made, however: Godzilla will snap power lines, crush train stations, and elbow skyscrapers out of the way; a monster will emerge to do battle with the big green guy in a climactic donnybrook; and the dubbing into English of this movie with be laughable. Godzilla 2000 comes through on all counts.

Yes, twelve-year-old boys of all ages, Godzilla has returned to the cheesy arms of Toho Pictures, after sampling the temptations of New York (and computer animation) in the 1998 Emmerich-Devlin production. This Godzilla is a guy in a rubber suit, with occasional digital help, once again bashing around miniatures of Japanese buildings. The plot is the old sci-fi chestnut: the head of the Prediction Network (who’s always accompanied by his 12-year-old daughter, natch) wants to interface with Godzilla, the better to understand him and perhaps help mankind; a rival scientist, whose dubbed voice is that deep baritone Keanu Reeves adopts when he’s trying to sound macho, believes Godzilla should be blasted into the ozone.

The translators had fun on this movie. Jarring slang—“Quit yer bitching” and “Bite me”—erupt at regular intervals, and one Japanese general suddenly begins quoting George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed”) when calculating the cost of fighting Godzilla. Having run out of phrases for expressions of terror from startled villagers, at one point a Japanese man opens his mouth and the words “Gott in Himmel!” come out. You might suspect the soundtrack has been prepared by the Firesign Theater folks.

Along with Godzilla’s rampages, there’s a giant rock that rises from the ocean and turns into a silver flying saucer—it looks like a piece of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Museum floating around, if the Bilbao Museum could shoot fireballs. (Memo to self: contact agent about script idea for lethal Spanish art museum.) Eventually the UFO will spew out a monster that can scuffle with Godzilla in the final reel, thus bringing this installment of the saga to a familiar close. Godzilla 2000 has its dull spots, and is unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny at times—but isn’t that what we expect? For the record, it has some cool shots of Godzilla lumbering across the horizon while a car flees in the foreground, and it’s a lot more exciting overall than Godzilla 1985, the last attempt to launch a Toho Godzilla in the U.S. And when the words THE END appear, a big red question mark hovers right beside it like Mothra preparing to strike. I’d say this movie fulfills its duties.

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