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Godzilla (1954)

Criterion Collection
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/24/2012

All Ratings out of




Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/22/2012

In my recent reviews for Sid and Nancy and Dead Poets Society, I wrote about movies which I probably should have seen in the past, but hadn't. The converse of this is a movie which you are convinced that you've seen, but once you watch it, you realize that you haven't. That was the case with the original 1954 Godzilla (and it's fraternal twin, which will be discussed). As a child, I can remember one Godzilla movie or another being on all the time. Every few months the "Dialing for Dollars" afternoon movie would do a whole week of giant monster movies. But, for some reason, I had never seen Godzilla. Was it because it was in black & white? Whatever the case, I've now seen it and I'm ready to talk about it.

Godzilla opens with a fishing ship being destroyed by a bright light coming out the water. The boat sent to investigate this is also destroyed. Investigators, including Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), visit a nearby island to check this out, and there they see a giant reptilian monster emerge from the sea. The islanders claim that it is the ancient legend "Godzilla" come to life. Dr. Yamane hypothesizes that the creature was awakened by Hydrogen bomb testing. Dr. Yamane returns to Tokyo where he gives his report to the government, who become determined t kill the beast. Meanwhile, Dr. Yamane's daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), is involved in a relationship with a sailor named Ogata (Akira Takarada). She goes to visit her former flame, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a scientist. As Godzilla advances on Tokyo, all efforts to stop him fail and the creature rampages through the city. While Dr. Yamane insists that the creature needs to be studied, Emiko realizes that Serizawa's research may hold the key to stopping Godzilla.

Godzilla is one of those films in which the viewer must project themselves back in time to fully appreciate what is happening. The film was released only 9 years after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan during World War II. Horror movies often reflect the social anxieties of their times, and Godzilla is a strong metaphor for nuclear horror. We see the monster level entire cities, just like an atomic bomb, and there is great debate between the military and scientists about studying the monster and how scientific discoveries can be used if they fall into the wrong hands. Actually, Godzilla is often an afterthought in the movie, as it focuses mainly on how to deal with the threat, and somewhat on Emiko's relationships with Ogata and Serizawa. I feel certain that for the citizens of Japan at the time, Godzilla was cathartic, but also a reminder of what the power of the atom could do.

Seen today, the bulk of the film comes across as too talky. Godzilla is first show at the 22-minute mark (not bad), but only makes a few appearances before his rampage through Tokyo. While this is pretty cool -- even back then the models looked good -- it's short-lived. Again, the bulk of the movie is debate and a romance which is way too subtle. I won't go as far as saying that the movie is boring, but it's certainly deliberately paced and it took me several tries to finish it. There were two very interesting things about Godzilla; First, the ending was quite surprising given the multiple Godzilla films which we've seen over the last 60 years, and secondly, having not seen this film, I was surprised by how some moments were mimicked in Roland Emmerich's 1998 remake.

This Blu-ray Disc also contains Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, the 1956 American version of the film. Director Terry O. Morse took Godzilla and edited in new footage featuring Raymond Burr as Steve Martin (Classic!), an American reporter who is in Tokyo on assignment and finds himself reporting on the Godzilla phenomenon. This movie has to be seen to be believed, however one must watch Godzilla first. Morse must have been a creative genius and his editing and blending techniques put Roger Corman to shame. Morse cleverly blends shots from the original film with new scenes with Burr using stand-ins for Emiko and Serizawa who never face the camera. This version only alters the story a little and it runs some 16-minutes shorter. I feel certain that Godzilla completists don't like this version of the movie, but I preferred it's pacing. We get to see all of Godzilla's rampage without all of the debate. Does this make the movie less serious? Of course it does. But when a movie has a guy in a rubber suit stepping on toy trains, how serious was it in the first place?

I interview the star of the film.

Godzilla proves once and for all that Japanese women are freaked out by fish bones on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of The Criterion Collection. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. Knowing Criterion, they used the best possible elements for this transfer, but this still shows some issues. Some shots are sharp and clear, showing nicely balanced black & white photography. However, show slight grain and scratches from the source material. The nighttime scenes, especially the Tokyo attack sequences, are dark, and it can be hard to see Godzilla against the dark background. Still, this is probably the best that this movie has ever looked. The Disc carries a Japanese Linear PCM 1-channel audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 2.3 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. As one would expect, we don't get any dynamic audio effects here, but there is no hissing or popping, and the music or the Godzilla sound effects never drown out the dialogue. The movie makes nice use of Godzilla's thunderous footsteps -- one can't help but wonder what Director Ishiro Honda could have done with surround sound.

The Godzilla Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, provides AUDIO COMMENTARIES for both versions of the movie. "Cast and Crew" offers interviews with actor Akira Takarada (13 minutes), Godzilla himself Haruo Nakajima (10 minutes), effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai (30 minutes), and composer Akira Ifukube (50 minutes). "Photographic Effects" (9 minutes) offers examples of how shots were layered to simulate a giant monster attacking various locations. Koichi Kawakita and Motyoyoshi Tomioka explain how the process was done. "Tadao Sato" is a 14-minute interview the critic who discusses the impact and importance of Godzilla. "The Unluckiest Dragon" ( minutes) is an audio-only essay by Greg Pflugfelder which reveals how a real-life event inspired part of Godzilla. The final extra is the Japanese TRAILER for the film.

Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long