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Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)::rating::2.5::rating::2.5

When I first saw Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, I had no idea it was an awkward stitchwork of two different productions.  After all, the kaiju flicks have since become iconic in the States for their poor dubbing, model-kit skylines, and dudes rampaging in rubber monster suits, so a little clunkiness is just part of the package.  Well, it turns out this is a hybrid of 1954’s Godzilla, and a few Americanized scenes shot two years later, starring Raymond Burr as a breathless reporter.  With that knowledge, I can now rewatch this Godzilla with new eyes, and the result is a film that feels even more mechanical and contrived.

For American audiences, this was their entree into the Godzilla mythology.  And despite its irritating issues, this re-working actually functions as an adequate origin story.  All the character’s greatest hits are here:  At the dawn of the nuclear age, a great beast has emerged from the Pacific.  All those H-bomb tests have imbued him with extraordinary powers, and it seems that nothing can stop his lethal rampage.  Shellshocked islanders offer wild-eyed rants about Godzilla, a terrible god-monster from somewhere in the deep.

It falls to Steve Martin (Burr, although I’m here for a remake starring the actual Steve Martin), an intrepid American reporter, to inform the world about Godzilla’s radioactive wrath. Martin essentially becomes a bubbling fountain of exposition, billowing details of the plot for anyone not blessed with the ability to speak Japanese.  The filmmakers also shoehorn a few bit players with Burr, just to make sure looks like he belongs in the rest of the movie.

Does it work?  Well, it sure fooled twelve-year-old me.  Still, the tacked-on American scenes are like a stain on a t-shirt:  Once it’s been pointed out, you can never unsee it.  Burr’s scenes (allegedly filmed in a few short days) stand apart from the primary action like oil and water.  This is two very different movies smushed together into one ungainly product.

And that brings up Godzilla’s biggest issue:  Any decent screenwriting professor will tell you that the protagonist of your story should drive the action.  To Western audiences, Burr is the most famous face, and his solemn baritone narrates almost every scene.  Despite all that, his character has almost nothing to do with the actual plot.  His only function in the story is to offer bewildered stares and ask someone for an English translation.  As a result, Burr might make this movie digestible for an international audience, but his presence here is totally inert.

So, you might wonder how Godzilla, King of the Monsters! can manage that many stars when it sounds so bad?  To be honest, I’ll give it some credit as a curiosity.  Godzilla has become a cinematic icon, and this movie offers a fascinating glimpse of how it all started.  The original Toho production wasn’t available for decades, so for many fans, this version was the version.  That means if you have any interest in the character’s history, this film is required watching.  For everyone else, you’ve been warned.

80 min.  PG.  Max.

See also:

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla vs. Kong 

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