In the early ‘70s it became clear to everyone, audiences and Toho executives alike, that the once-majestic Godzilla franchise was taking a precipitous slide down the crapper. There were reasons for this. A number of behind-the-scenes figures fundamentally responsible for the films’ early greatness (most notably director Ishiro Honda and special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya) either left the franchise for other projects or died. Combine that with shrinking budgets that hit the special effects department first, and the on-screen results started looking pretty shabby. Increasingly tattered monster costumes were re-used from film to film; once-elaborate miniature cities became rows of balsa wood boxes, and as a last resort, fight scenes from earlier films were edited into new films to save time and money.
Beyond that Godzilla himself had changed, as had the stories surrounding him. Godzilla, that once fierce, unstoppable demonic metaphor for Japan’s atomic past had somehow morphed into a cuddly, funny, cute defender of Japan and a friend to children everywhere. Suddenly the films were targeted to the short pants crowd, but those crowds were starting to dwindle, and Toho was losing money. Americans in particular were coming to see Godzilla films as a punchline, as the cheapest of the cheap and the dumbest of the dumb. Even bringing Honda back to direct 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla didn’t help. Although it marked a definite uptick in quality, it may have come too late. So after the film’s release, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka decided it was time to take a break. After fifteen films (and all those life or death battles) Godzilla, like any other heavyweight, needed a breather to recharge his nuclear batteries. It would also give the writers a chance to come up with a few new ideas.
A decade later Godzilla finally returned to the big screen amid a blast of hoopla, fanfare, and even a little controversy. That the 1984 Japanese release was called simply Godzilla (it was also known by the original Gojira, The Return of Godzilla, and Godzilla 1984) reveals that Toho’s intent here was to start over and recapture (but very self-consciously) the spirit of the original, and to essentially erase the mythology (and hopefully the reputation) created by all the films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The American version released a year later (as Godzilla 1985) drives this point home even more bluntly with the subtitle “The Legend is Reborn.”
Erasing Godzilla’s past had always been a part of the game. In film after film, although everyone knows Godzilla by name and immediately recognizes him, no one seems to recall he’d leveled Osaka just a year earlier and Kyoto a year before that. Here for the first time since the first sequel in 1955, people not only know Godzilla, but remember him for his one and only previous rampage 30 years earlier. Through several of the films that followed this would become the standard understanding, that Godzilla had only appeared that once in ‘54 and had not been seen since. This approach of ignoring a franchise’s less critically acclaimed or successful entries is something that’s becoming common practice in Hollywood (2006’s Superman Returns ignored all but Richard Donner’s film, the recent Halloween sequel ignored all but the original, etc), but it was a novel approach in the ’80s.
I think I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, here. Or maybe not. Director Koji Hashimoto’s film, while not exactly a reboot or sequel, is packed with visual and plot nods to the original, which again are only pounded home further by the US version. It’s an odd and lively amalgam of sequel and remake with plenty of in-jokes and a completely rewritten mythology. Best of all for fans, after all those years of putting up with a heroic, happy-go-lucky, dancing Godzilla, the King of the Monsters is mean as hell again. He’s not a friend to the children, he’s not a friend to anyone, and it’s reflected in a suit that returns to the sharper saurian design of his early days.
As in the original, the film opens with a fishing boat disappearing mysteriously, leaving one crew member and a (giant) living trilobite behind. When the sailor reports the boat had been attacked by Godzilla and a young reporter tries to write about it, he finds his story’s been killed for national security reasons and the sailor has been safely hidden away somewhere to keep him from yapping. It turns out, see, the prime minister remembers that first Godzilla attack all too well and doesn’t want to start a national panic, so the whole thing is hushed up in the dim hope the monster will simply go away. Well, no such luck.
Godzilla films, to a greater or lesser degree, have always reflected the times in which they were made. Since the world had changed a good deal over the course of 30 years, and since Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident were no longer quite as fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences, the politics of the film had to change as well to keep things relevant. This was the Reagan era after all, and Japan was merely a Cold War bystander. So when a Soviet sub sinks mysteriously and the US and Soviet Union both go on high alert, it’s the Japanese PM who has to intervene before the missiles start flying. He calls a press conference and admits publicly that no, no the sinking of the sub wasn’t an act of aggression on anyone’s part. It was just, y’know, Godzilla. Unfortunately no one outside of Japan seems to have the slightest clue who or what this “Godzilla” is. Not sure what that says about the state of international journalism in the mid-’50s, but I’ll let it slide. After the prime minister’s announcement, several interesting, even clever things happen.
First, much to everyone’s surprise, the US and Soviets team up to fight Godzilla themselves. This essentially means they want to fire a volley of ICBMs at Japan. The prime minister is understandably not tickled with this idea, but in terms of this film’s relationship with the original the plan would once again make Japan the target of potential nuclear annihilation.
Second, the young reporter, looking more into this whole Godzilla business on his own, finds a biophysicist who’s been studying Godzilla ever since his parents died in ‘54. Back then Dr. Yamane concluded Godzilla was a dinosaur mutated by H-bomb tests, but this guy takes it a step further. After decades of research, the scientist describes the monster as “a product of civilization,” “a victim of our modern nuclear age,” and “a living nuclear weapon, destined to walk the earth forever.” In fact, we learn, Godzilla actually feeds on nuclear fuel. That’s why he attacked the sub and why whenever he stomps on land his first order of business is attacking nuclear power plants.
Beyond that, though (and this is kind of a big leap if you ask me), the biophysicist has also decided the prehistoric bird portion of Godzilla’s brain explains why he’s so attracted to flocks of birds. It’s a conditioned response, and he’ll follow the sound of chirping birds wherever they lead him. Yes, well…you see enough Godzilla films you simply learn to accept conclusions like that. The theories mark the first time since 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again that anyone has speculated about Godzilla’s nature, origins or motivations. Since then he’d simply been accepted as something that was always there and always would be, inexorable and indestructible, and he had something to do with nuclear bombs or something.
Third and most importantly though, in the US version Raymond Burr reprises his role as reporter Steve Martin, the only American to have witnessed the ‘54 attack and therefore the only American who knows anything at all about Godzilla. Now much older and fatter and bearded, he shows up at the Pentagon to help out, looking about as thrilled to be making a monster movie as he did in the original. This time might even be worse, given no one at the Pentagon even sees fit to offer him a chair.
It’s the first time since King Kong vs. Godzilla that new scenes with American actors were cut into a Godzilla film for the US release. Here, though, it’s absolutely appropriate given the nature of the picture. The English scenes edited into the original to create Godzilla: King of the Monsters were pretty painful. They were shot on a different film stock and mostly involved Burr standing against a blank wall looking all serious and sucking on a pipe as his translator explains what’s going on. Here at least he’s allowed to move around the set (probably looking for a chair) and interact with American actors (including the great Warren J. Kemmerling from Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Burr’s Martin does his best, telling the generals that weapons are useless against Godzilla, that he needs to be treated like a force of nature, a hurricane or a tidal wave, but they have no time for any of chubby’s silly theories.
While the US military might be portrayed as a bunch of bumbling trigger-happy nitwits, the film’s real villains in the end are the Soviets, who had become the Nazis of ‘80s action films. Not only do they lie and cheat and set up a secret military operation in Tokyo Bay, they even launch a missile straight at Tokyo. Godzilla may be responsible for kajillions of dollars’ worth of pyrotechnic carnage, but he never did anything that rotten. Not in the last 30 years, anyway.
In another major shift from the original, the American scenes are often played for laughs (sometimes unintentionally in Burr’s case). In fact while the original was a dark and somber parable ending with Tokyo in flames and the streets filled with bodies, Godzilla 1985 is a bright, fast-paced fantasy action film with great special effects and laughs scattered throughout. The change of tone was made evident to audiences even before the film began, with theatrical screenings in ‘85 opening with Marv Newland’s now-classic 1969 short, Bambi Meets Godzilla. Yeah, that’s kind of a tip off you aren’t gonna see a Bergman film, though after Fukushima scenes of Godzilla tearing into a nuclear plant as workers scramble to shut down the reactors might give some viewers pause. Godzilla 1985 isn’t much of a parable either, but then again none of the films after the original were parables. It does, however, begin to reinvent a Godzilla mythology for a new age, and remains a key film, a bridge between the lighter, goofier fairy tales which preceded it and the darker, more adult, and often more overtly political adventures that would follow.
Beyond all that it’s a great-looking film, with lively cinematography and rich colors replacing the sparse, washed-out look of the ‘70s. It represented a clean break and a new start for the series, a huge step forward that set the tone and visual style for the next ten years. It may not capture the spirit of the original, but it was a different time, and the film reflected the era with full consciousness of its own past. That was the important thing.
Oddly enough, although Godzilla here is much nastier than he’d been in years, it turns out to be a strangely sympathetic portrait. We see only a few bodies, he doesn’t spread radiation poisoning wherever he goes, and most of the damage he inflicts seems to be to property (though those damaged nuclear plants, as we all know, can be irksome). In fact the film, like the original, ends with a tragic suicide, though this time it’s Godzilla who takes the plunge. Following that, a sober (or at least half-sober) Burr offers a monologue in which he argues Godzilla is an innocent, a force of nature, a mere by-product of what we’ve created and so we can only blame ourselves for the mess he caused.
So is the film a reboot? A sequel? Good as it is, I think what the film really boils down to is a 90-minute, $20 million soda commercial. And this is where the above-mentioned controversy comes up. Product placement has been a part of movies forever. Nothing new in a corporation forking over a few bucks to insure the neon Blatz sign is visible in the bar scene or a character is driving a Dodge Dart.
What was different here was the outrageous and single-minded extent of the product placement. Everyone’s drinking Dr. Pepper. There are cans of Dr. Pepper on everyone’s desk, and in one hilarious shot we even see two men having a serious conversation as the camera is centered and focused on the Dr. Pepper machine at the end of the hall. It seems the only one who doesn’t drink a Dr. Pepper here is Godzilla himself. But that’s only in the film proper, given it was a cross-promotional deal with Godzilla appearing in a series of Dr. Pepper commercials in which he does indeed hoist a can or two. Critics at the time raged that it set a frightening new standard and marked the beginning of an ugly new era of hypercommercialization. And you know, they were right.
But long soda commercial or not, Godzilla 1985 still injected enough fresh energy into the series to keep it going through another decade and a string of strong Godzilla pictures. Then, after 1995’s Godzilla vs Destoroyah, Tanaka once again decided it was time to take a break, given how well that seemed to work the first time. And that’s when Sony pounced…