February 13, 2005

Movie Review: Godzilla ('54)

You cannot believe how happy I was to see this pop up on the local theater's upcoming film list. I have been a Godzilla fan for years, not quite as fanatical as some I have met, but I really enjoy all of the exploits of the big green guy. The opportunity to finally see the original film the way it was meant to be seen was something I couldn't pass up.

Last year a new print began making its way around on the arthouse circuit, released by Rialto Pictures. The thing that made this tour special was that it is the original Japanese version of the film. No edits, no corny dubbing, no Raymond Burr (playing Steve Martin), this is how it was when it was first released in 1954. This also marks the first time that the real version of the film has been screened in the US. It has never had an American video release on any format, nor do I believe that it has been released with English subtitles anywhere.

What makes this film stand out from the rest of it's brethren is that it is a far more seriously minded film than the series would become. A tale about disturbing nature and the consequences that may invite upon those who trespass. A cautionary tale in lying in the wake of two nuclear bomb attacks and the continued testing of the weapons. With that in mind, the movie takes on a more horrific nature.

I am sure that most of you reading this are familiar with the tale of Godzilla, so I am not going to spend a whole lot of time on. The story starts off with the mysterious disappearance of a number of fishing boats all in the same location, due to some mysterious circumstances. Survivors speak of some creature, this leads us to the legend of a creature living in the ocean called Godzilla. It is around this point that the creature makes it's first appearance, and the government immediately starts devising a way to destroy the monster, while a scientist argues that this is a time to conduct studies as to why this thing is alive. The talks go back and forth, meanwhile Godzilla shows up tears through town leaving a wake of destruction. Finally, it is discovered that one of the scientists was working a device which destroys oxygen in water, and could possibly be used to aid in the assault on the rampaging force of nature. The rest is history, see the movie to find out how it ends.

The screening I went to was great, although I had some distractions amongst the filmgoers. There were the Godzilla-fanatics who insisted on analyzing what they saw, and there were the ones who treated the low budget nature as a comedy, laughing at inappropriate moments. It was far from the worst crowd I have been in, but I thought I'd mention it anyway. Granted, there are some hokey moments with miniature use and the layering of elements. Plus, there is no denying there is a certain corniness to the dialog and acting which can induce unintentional fits of laughter, such as slapping an unconscious survivor until he wakes up, and the overwrought facial expressions and posturing that some of the characters go through. Still I find it easily forgivable, as the realm of kaiju films is open to such histrionics.

Technically, I felt that the film did a great job for being a low budget production. Effects are effects, they can be good or bad, which does not mean they cannot be effective. Although the effects in this movie are clearly below the standards of today, they are still effective. I have found that I can forgive low grade effects if the heart is there. You can watch the rubber suit and the toy boats and little buildings and still be convinced they are full scale if the filmmakers believe in what they are making and in the case of Godzilla, it shows. I will say that the miniatures would have been helped if they had been shot high speed, but they still look good considering the small budget and age of the film, please do not interpret this as a criticism, merely an observation.

A small aside on the Godzilla costume. It has gone through many iterations over the past fifty years, and twenty some odd films or so, but there is always something to be said about the original. There is no way to completely disguise the fact that it is a man in a rubber suit knocking down miniature buildings, but there is a way to mask that and film it in such a way to at least temporarily convince the viewer of what they are seeing. The suit here looks very good, and that is due to the way it is shot. It is, for the most part kept in the dark, and that helps hide the seams and makes the guy seem more menacing. To conclude, it is very effective in contributing to the overall frightful aura the film generates.

I could not tell you the restored scenes, but I can say that it was great to see it without Raymond Burr. It has been a long time since I have watched the original film, so this was a reminder of the film as a whole. It was a pleasure to watch it as it was intended, the way that it should have been seen here so many years ago. The print has been restored, and it looks good. There is still a lot of print damage, but I am not sure what state the elements were in that they were working on, also the film is fifty years old.

Bottomline. This is an undeniable classic which has taken way too long to reach our shores in it's unadulterated form. Seeing it on the big screen was a treat for me and for everyone at the screening, despite their reactions throughout. I hope that you get the chance to see it on the big screen as well, and hope for a DVD release worthy of the film. Even if you are not a fan of Godzilla, please give this a shot, do not judge the green guy based on the cornier entries of the series. This is a serious film which was not intended for the sprawling franchise it became, not that I am complaining.

Highly Recommended.


Chris said...

I just wanted to test the new system.

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