Godzilla (1954)


Underwater hydrogen bomb testing awakens a prehistoric monster from the depths of the ocean in this Japanese classic that launched a mighty franchise still active today. Godzilla is a lot like King Kong or the Universal Monster Movies in spirit and execution, balancing special effects mayhem with a strong message about the perils of scientific advancement. Other Godzilla movies would improve on the former ambition, but not many the later.

This original film maintains a dark, troubled tone and approaches its third act attempt to destroy Godzilla with surprising respect and solemnity. One of the leading cast members, Akihiko Hirata, plays a scientist whose invention, the “Oxygen Destroyer,” can disintegrate living animals. An early demonstration on an aquarium of fish leaves nothing but bones floating in the murky water. The sight elicits a scream from co-star Momoko Kôchi, and sets the final act on an ecologically progressive course. Our heroes do what they must to preserve their lives and their land, but there’s certainly no joy in having to kill Godzilla. Hirata’s character even questions whether he’ll be able to live with himself after seeing his invention fully realized.

Like so many sci-fi movies from the 50s, Godzilla spends a little more time than necessary trying to explain itself with scientific mumbo-jumbo. One can’t help but guess the filmmakers wanted to pad the runtime with boardroom meeting scenes far less expensive and challenging than the later, much more satisfying ones of Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo. But the film gets momentum by the midpoint and maintains it well through a surprisingly emotional ending.

With Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai) and Akira Takarada. Directed by Ishirô Honda.

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