King of the Monsters

I like foreign films. Some people don’t like reading subtitles. They prefer to watch and listen, not read dialogue. This is certainly a fair point, but subtitles have never really bothered me. Sure, I generally prefer to not have to read subtitles when I watch a movie, but every once in a while I kind of enjoy it. It’s fun to step away from big-budget Hollywood films every once in a while to see what other talented filmmakers around the world are up to, and I have found the results to be frequently rewarding. John Woo’s “Red Cliff” and Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” are both extremely epic and badass, and could easily rival most American summer blockbusters. And the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was so good that many people wondered, myself included, if it was necessary to remake it at all (though for the record, I thought that David Fincher’s version was also quite good).

All of this is to say that when I was at Barnes and Noble last week and saw the Criterion Collection DVD of “Godzilla,” the original Japanese classic from 1954, I knew I had to pick it up. This was something of a stretch for me, since I don’t generally watch a lot of older black and white films (although “The Mark of Zorro” with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone was a favorite of mine when I was a kid). I wondered what the viewing experience would be like, nearly sixty years after the film was originally released.

And I have to say, it was a lot of fun. There’s something charmingly old-school about the kinds of practical effects used in older films like “Godzilla.” The big lizard was actually played by a guy wearing a suit, and while it does look somewhat cheesy by today’s standards, it is also oddly convincing, since you know that there was a real person in there, as opposed to a mass of computer-generated pixels. I don’t mean to knock modern special effects, it’s just that watching a movie like “Godzilla” really helps you see how far technology has advanced.

And like I said, there’s something oddly convincing about old-school special effects. It feels genuine in a way that modern effects don’t always. I really don’t have a problem with modern CGI effects, but filmmakers these days tend to use them as a crutch. Take Michael Bay, for example, who throws as much flashy-looking action at the screen as he can in an attempt to cover up the fact that there’s nothing really going on in terms of a plot that actually resonates or characters you actually give a damn about. I enjoyed the robot-fighting action sequences in Bay’s “Transformers” movies in a popcorn-munching sort of way, but it’s kind of hard to care sometimes since it all-too-often feels like there’s nothing  at stake if you don’t care about the plot or the characters.

That’s not the case with Godzilla. The story still really resonates in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I knew that the idea behind Godzilla was partly a response to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II, as well as continued nuclear testing in the 50’s. This context gives “Godzilla” a lot of emotional heft, since the situation the characters find themselves in manages to feel really genuine, despite the fact that there’s a giant monster wandering around smashing things.

There are a lot of images in the film that are very striking: a post-attack view of a destroyed and burning city is chilling, and it’s hard not to be affected by the sight of a child wailing hysterically as a parent is carried away on a stretcher. There’s one scene in particular during one of the big Godzilla-attack sequences, that shows a mother cowering in fear, holding her three children and saying, “We’re going to see Daddy now! We’ll be with him soon!” that’s heartbreaking. Scenes and images such as these give the film a sense of poignancy that I honestly hadn’t been expecting.

“Godzilla” is a true classic. The big lizard is surprisingly relevant, and it’s really no wonder that the original film has spawned dozens of sequels. Godzilla is memorable in a way that Michael Bay’s Transformers are not. There are things that stick with you from “Godzilla.” After you’ve watched “Transformers” the whole thing is kind of a blur, nothing specific really stands out as worthy of being remembered, which is not the case with Godzilla.

I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on Transformers in particular, like I said I enjoyed them for the most part. They’re good, mindless popcorn entertainment, which I really don’t have a problem with, but they’re also one of the best examples of the kind of style-over-substance filmmaking that seems so prevalent these days. Popcorn entertainment is great, but every once in a while you just want something more substantial. That’s part of why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, for example, have become so popular: they combine blockbuster action and spectacle with genuine heart and intelligence in a way that many other blockbusters do not. That’s another reason why I liked “John Carter” so much, since I felt that it was able to achieve that same balance.

So if you’re looking for a fun old-school sci-fi flick that just might make you think a little, check out “Godzilla.” It’s still a great movie, and it makes me feel obliged to end this post with a giant monster sound, so here goes:


Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.


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