Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Godzilla'

For many monster maniacs, Godzilla was a towering, rubber-suited ruffian with a heart of gold, practicing WWF moves with a giant moth and siring (or giving birth …what gender is Godzilla, anyway?) a cutesy pie, smoke-puffing baby-zilla. In other words, Godzilla was strictly kid’s stuff. This isn’t how the towering one got started. Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Gojira was a somber, sober allegory about the H-bombs that rained horror on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was shot in artful black and white, Godzilla didn’t do any crowd-pleasing capering, and Takashi Shimura, the respected actor who was a favorite of Akira Kurosawa, starred. Gojira was a serious film with a serious reputation for being one of Japan’s greatest.

Despite the content of the monster’s debut, the name “Godzilla” will forever pack connotations of fun and frivolity and skyscraper smashing. Criterion’s new double-disc DVD does a terrific job of emphasizing the seriousness of Gojira and the goofy joy of Godzilla. Honda’s film is presented in beautiful, high-definition on disc one. The bulk of disc two is devoted to the infamous 1956 Americanized version by Terry Morse. Retitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this version retains less than 60 minutes of the original film, loses all explicit references to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and shoe-horns Raymond Burr into the plot in a cheap attempt to give Americans “someone to relate to.”  While this film retains some of Honda’s melancholy, it is closer in tone to the Godzilla films that would follow, particularly because of its awkwardness. It’s a sloppy mix of bad dubbing, bad translations, and blatantly phony attempts to make Burr seem as though he’s interacting with Honda’s cast. It’s also quite a bit more fun than the Japanese original.

The extras are similarly split. There’s a disturbing featurette about the radioactive-ash-showered fishing vessel that inspired Gojira. J. Hoberman offers a grim and engrossing booklet essay titled “Poetry After the A-Bomb”. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a fun featurette about the film’s impressive photographic effects and a totally neat Godzilla pop-up in the packaging. Film historian David Kalat provides lively commentaries for both films, which are different enough to warrant them. Of course, those films are the main selling point of this DVD set, and they look and sound spectacular enough to entice Godzilla freaks who have more than their share of Godzilla stuff to purchase these films one more time.

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