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Godzilla 1985 - Review

(a.k.a. 'Godzilla' and 'The Return of Godzilla')

A Review by Mike Bogue

2½ Stars - Pretty Good

Japanese release: Dec. 15, 1984

American release: Aug. 23, 1985 (released theatrically by New World)

Direction: Koji Hashimoto (U.S. scenes directed by R.J. Kizer)

Screenplay: Shuichi Nagahara (U.S. scenes written by Lisa Tomei)

Original Story: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Music: Reijiro Koroku

Special Effects: Teruyoshi Nakano

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Godzilla 1985 Still. In many ways, this remake/sequel to the 1954 Godzilla takes the ship of everything that worked dramatically in the original and sinks it with an iron fist.  The much-criticized Americanization incurs part of the blame, but much of the fault lies with the Japanese original.

In the first Godzilla, the “message” worked because it was largely understated.  For example, the monster itself remained mysterious – the creature seemed to be part Odo Island monster-god, part prehistoric animal, part nuclear metaphor.  Its Tokyo tour-de-force was clearly a reenacting of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  This is reinforced by scenes showing a burned out Tokyo the day after Godzilla’s carnage – the tableau over which the camera pans clearly resembles Hiroshima after the atom bomb.

But nowhere in the original Godzilla – not even in the 1956 Americanization – does anyone bluntly state that Godzilla is like a walking nuclear weapon, much less that he is one.  This concept is subtextual.  It’s there, but it’s never made explicit.  Even the notion of Nature with a capital N striking back in the form of Godzilla goes unstated.

Unfortunately, Godzilla 1985 bludgeons the viewer over the head with Godzilla’s atom age significance.  Professor Hayashida states that Godzilla is a “nuclear weapon” that was created by civilization, that Godzilla is a “victim,” and that “men are the only real monsters.”  The Big G is also likened to a force of nature, which is interesting, but the scientist also tells us, “The beast has a purpose.”  These expository moments fall flat – dead weights that are both pompous and heavy-handed.

The Americanization doesn’t help matters any, what with Raymond Burr telling the American general that we must “understand” Godzilla and “perhaps even try to communicate with him.”  (Where are those monster talk interpreters the twin fairies of Mothra Island when you really need them?)

Later, Burr delivers a hopelessly pretentious monologue spoken over the movie’s closing scenes, stating among other things that Godzilla is “strangely innocent and tragic.” (Innocent?)  These sentiments are backed up by footage from the Japanese film in which the Prime Minister and other officials weep as Godzilla meets his fate in the fiery core of Mount Mihara.  What are they crying about, for kaiju’s sake?  Godzilla probably killed at least a few hundred people during his earlier trashing of Tokyo, and none of his actions seemed the slightest sympathetic.

Godzilla 1985 Still.

Of course, that is the movie’s main problem:  telling instead of showing. What we are shown is a ruthless radioactive monster that goes out of its way to attack Tokyo.  What we are told is that the Big G is tragic, innocent, and victimized.  The monster’s actions in the film play counter to the fretting contentions of the main characters regarding Godzilla.

The story has other problems too.  The characters discover that birds calling at a certain frequency mesmerize Godzilla, so they set up a sound transmitter to lure the monster into the volcanic Mount Mihari.  As other reviewers have noted, this is like something out of a fifties Grade-B sci-fi flick.  It makes getting rid of Godzilla amazingly simple, but it is perhaps the least satisfactory strategy of defeating Godzilla to be found in any of the monster’s twenty-eight films.  (It’s also interesting to note that this means of luring Godzilla seems to have been completely forgotten in the next six Heisei Big G movies.)

Even the film’s critique of the arms race during the Cold War era appears befuddled.  The Japanese refuse to let the U.S. or Soviet Union use nuclear weapons to destroy Godzilla.  Yet when the Soviet nuclear missile is fired at Tokyo from space, the means of stopping it is another nuclear missile, this one fired by the Americans.  On the one hand the movie seems to condemn nuclear weapons per se, but on the other hand, the salvation of Tokyo turns out to be a nuclear weapon!

Of course, it’s true that the resultant “radiation storm” (if that’s what it is) unleashes lightning that revives Godzilla (apparently the Big G makes a great lightning rod, or maybe this is evidence of divine providence).  So maybe the movie is trying to say that even when a nuclear weapon is used for a good purpose, it still reaps tragic results.

Moving from the film’s pretensions to the Americanization, as all good G fans know, New World tampered extensively with the original Japanese footage.  For one thing, New World made the decision to film new scenes that would again feature Raymond Burr reprising his role of reporter Steve Martin from the 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters.  This was a great idea, but unlike in the 1956 Americanization, Burr is completely detached from the action in Godzilla 1985.  He spends most of his scenes in a cheap-looking military base of operations intoning ominous declarations while he and the military watch Godzilla’s attack unfold via TV monitors.  He also has to co-star with Dr. Pepper and Travis Swords as a Southern-fried, smart-mouthed major.

The Americanization also removed many scenes from the Japanese original, including a nice shot in which Godzilla’s image is reflected in a glass skyscraper.  Also of note is the re-structuring of the scene in which the Russian naval officer fires a nuclear missile.  In the original, he is trying to prevent the launch, whereas in the Americanization, he deliberately fires the space-based missile towards Tokyo.

Godzilla 1985 Still.

But once you get beyond the weak story and the unfortunate Americanization, there is plenty to like about Godzilla 1985.  Although Teruyoshi Nakano’s special effects run hot and cold, they are always entertaining.  Some of the miniatures – the fishing vessel tossed about at sea, the Russian submarine – are first-rate.  Others don’t fare quite as well, such as the toy laser trucks driving through the streets of a model Tokyo.  Often, both good and bad effects can be found in the same sequence, such as Godzilla’s attack on the nuclear power plant.  Much of this segment is first-rate, but some moments are inadequate, such as the close-ups of Godzilla’s feet trampling plant apparatus that unconvincingly explode like the miniatures they are.  This might not matter so much if the film’s look and tone weren’t so grave, but the film obviously wants to be taken seriously and compete with “the big boys” special effects wise, and it only partially succeeds.

In addition, fans are divided over The Big G’s comeback look.  Personally, I find it okay, but it scarcely resembles the 1954 Godzilla, and it isn’t nearly as impressive as the G designs Koichi Kawakita was soon to devise.  The much-publicized 4.8 meter Godzilla-Cybot is a bit disappointing too in terms of range of movement and usage in the film.

Still, The Big G enjoys plenty of good moments.  His Tokyo rampage isn’t quite as extensive as one might hope, but it’s satisfactory.  Much of Super-X’s battle with Godzilla proves enjoyable.  And there are plenty of spectacular explosions and such.

The best thing about Godzilla 1985 is that, given the sorry state of the G series during the seventies, it was a definite move in the right direction.  The film began the successful Heisei series, in which the special effects of Godzilla movies would receive a noticeable upgrade.

Entertaining if flawed, Godzilla 1985 is well worth any giant monster fan’s time.

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