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Look at the Size of That Thing
Godzilla and his Kaiju cohort were regulars on late night (and afternoon?) TV in the 1970s. Like most kids my age, I was a huge fan. Of course by the time I discovered him, Godzilla had strayed as far from his roots as possible. Gojira the Cold War allegory had morphed into Godzilla: part monster, part clown, and part superhero.
For just over 20 years, Channel 11 in New York City ran Chiller Theater on Saturday nights. It started out with an Elvira-style host in the 1960s, but by the time I was old enough to watch it, the host had left and we had the six-fingered hand:
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By the time Godzilla vs. Megalon's theatrical release left me disappointed, he was officially a hero, and about to get a Marvel comic and a Saturday morning cartoon.
But even though 12-year-old Ricky found Godzilla vs. Megalon boring, the film received favorable reviews. NY Times critic Vincent Canby opens his positive review with a summary of Godzilla's shift from heel to hero:
It's been a remarkable transformation of character—the dragon has become St. George.
I might have seen Godzilla, King of the Monsters twice as a kid. Whether this is because it wasn't shown as often as the others or because I just missed it, I can't tell you. But all little Ricky knew about the first film was it made Godzilla a bad guy, the cranky Ironside man was in it, and the people talked too much.
But even if I had paid attention, or seen it when I was a little older (Megalon really soured me on the franchise,) I wouldn't have seen Ishiro Honda's original vision for Gojira. It's no secret that Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear weapons and their dangers, but the film released to the world in 1956 was very different from the original. So different that it's credited to two directors. It’s a solid film that holds up when compared to most of the better science fiction fare of that era.
Godzilla's been rebooted several times in Japan, with the budgets briefly going up and then falling back to the mean. An (underrated) 1998 American film brought him (well, her) back to basics with a twist. Then a 2014 blockbuster excised any traces of metaphor, allegory, or science fiction in favor of a summer blockbuster about a heroic fantasy dragon.
But a worthy update to Gojira made the scene in a gem I discovered during the pandemic: 2016's Shin Godzilla. While Legendary Pictures was making movies with a Godzilla-shaped monster, Toho Films crafted a masterpiece.
One reason 1956's Godzilla, King of the Monsters went over little Ricky's head is that it's hard to make a giant monster, especially one portrayed by a guy in a rubber suit, frightening. He looks like a dinosaur and well, giant dinosaurs are cool. Even Spielberg’s most terrifying dinosaurs are the size of sixth graders.
Shin Godzilla breaks the mold in all the right ways. It's a sci-fi horror movie that draws it's inspiration from the Fukushima disaster while delivering a blistering satire of the Japanese government.
Much of the first act is set in conference rooms, but it's anything but boring. It's like watching a fifty car pile up in slow motion as the bureaucrats quibble and fumble their response to a string of mysterious disasters.
When the closest thing to the Godzilla we know finally appears, he's not a malevolent, fast-moving, skyscraper-toppling dinosaur. He's a slow-moving creature, oblivious to the city he’s crushing and the denizens he’s trampling.
I don't want to spoil too much of the movie. It's worth watching it "cold" at least once. Give it a try, even if kaiju aren't your cup of tea.
Every reference to Chiller Theater I can find has it only broadcast on Saturday evenings, but I could swear I saw it on weekend afternoons, too. Memory is a strange and unreliable narrator.
Yes, he’s still Gojira in Japan and Godzilla in the U.S, but his international appeal is part of what led to his cuddly transformation.