Godzilla: Tragedy and Comedy

A lumbering, fire-breathing legend, Godzilla has reduced countless model cities to ash, earning a place among the giants of monster cinema. The radioactive dinosaur’s 60-year career, a span marked by critical vitriol and equally intense adoration, enters a new phase this May with the release of Warner Brothers’ and Legendary Pictures’ much-hyped Godzilla. Advertised as a throwback to the rampaging lizard’s grim initial appearance, the movie promises to make up for past comedic missteps.

To the casual viewer, this dark direction may seem unusual. Thanks to a series of laughable Japanese duds, most people think of Godzilla flicks as light children’s fare — poorly written, poorly filmed B-movies intended for Barney’s target audience. While this is certainly true of numerous Godzilla films, particularly those made in the ’60s and ’70s, a few of the monster’s most memorable outings are positively gloomy and surprisingly adult.

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Gojira, Godzilla’s 1954 debut, is a true horror film — a haunting, atmospheric classic. A post-war commentary on the destructive power of atomic weapons, the movie lacks the aliens and robots found in so many subsequent Godzilla installments. Instead, the piece centers on the governmental and scientific response to a deadly threat created by the H-bomb. The work’s grainy black-and-white palette makes its looming title character all the more terrifying, giving scenes a dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality. Godzilla 1985, released as Return of Godzilla in Japan, revisited the grave atomic theme of the original, rejecting the cutesty precedent set by intervening Godzilla films.

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But Godzilla can’t outrun his goofiest chapter. No matter how many times he’s reborn as a sinister figure, the towering radioactive terror will always carry the scars of the cornall ’60s and ’70s. Although Godzilla never approached the cuddliness of kid-friendly kaiju Gamera, the green scourge turned into a benign figure during this era, becoming a dancing (yes, dancing) dough-eyed snuggle-muffin. In this disarming guise, the king of monsters repelled numerous martian attacks and battled some depressingly silly oppponents, laying the groundwork for Power Rangers and other monster-on-monster, robot-on-monster kids programs. 1967’s Son of Godzilla introduced Godzilla’s comical, smoke-ring-blowing offspring, an incredibly goofy heir straight off of H.R. Pufnstuf. A ’70s cartoon series further softened the once-fearsome tyrant.

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Despite Godzilla 1985‘s revival of a darker tone and a few films that followed suit, the comedic Godzilla made a lasting impact. Clearly influenced by the hokey monster of the ’60s and ’70s, Roland Emmerich and company embraced a more light-hearted approach to Japan’s scaly icon in the late ’90s. The result was 1998’s Godzilla, a vapid, cringe-inducing special effects smorgasbord devoid of dramatic value. This unfortunate effort’s lead players, mostly comedians, stumbled through a nauseatingly tongue-in-cheek script. Jokes about asexual reproduction and the hard-to-swallow involvement of a French secret agent drove the production’s intentional absurdity home.

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That late ’90s stinker revealed a lot about Hollywood’s perception of Godzilla. The creature obviously wasn’t seen as a fanged embodiment of man’s recklessness, a metaphorical response to the horrors of the A-bomb. American filmmakers seemed comfortable with action figure Godzilla, and the spectacular lessons of Gojira and Godzilla 1985 were jettisoned in favor of Saturday morning stupidity. To be fair, the creators of the 1998 movie only followed the example of previous Godzilla filmmakers, but many viewers desired another serious take on the monster. Now, that seems possible.

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In less than two weeks, a gruffer, colder Godzilla is due to hit theaters. At long last, an American party seems to have taken a real interest in the neglected substance of Godzilla, and the prominent role of heavyweight Bryan Cranston reflects that commitment. Maybe, this time, the message will stick.

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