REVIEW: Godzilla (1954)

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Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

The Big One. Or rather, the Big G.

Godzilla, the first of many films starring the titular gargantuan reptile, ignited a tradition in the then-infant Japanese film industry, the tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and forced the island nation to come to grips with their unique and unfortunate history with humanity’s deadliest invention: the nuclear weapon. Godzilla still stands as a triumph above that final chapter of imperial shame, above much of tokusatsu that came after, and indeed, above most science fiction cinema in general.

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk, the results of neither natural phenomenon nor foreign action. An expedition to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were lost, led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.

I’m sure most of you know the story by now: several Japanese fishing vessels are lost at sea, while a giant creature living off the coast of Odo Island is discovered to be at fault. An ancient reptile awakened by nuclear weapons testing, it is dubbed Godzilla by the inquisitive Dr. Yamane before it begins walking ashore towards Tokyo, bringing a trail of fiery destruction with it. What some of you may not know is just how topical and in tune with the events of the time this film was, or how unfortunately relevant it remains today. Conceived by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after another project fell through, Godzilla is still the apex of tokusatsu, equaled by none.

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Tanaka’s idea was born out of two of Japan’s biggest events of 1954. That year saw the official end of the American occupation and the return of complete control to the new republican government and the newly-established Self Defense Forces. Before Godzilla, all Japanese entertainment had to be approved by the occupation, which severely limited portrayals of Japanese military might and government stability. Watching the film proves that this was no longer the reality by the time of its release, with the valiant efforts of the SDF against the monster and the scenes of the Diet locked in fierce debate.

The other major event of 1954 was the Lucky Dragon incident, from which the film’s first act takes heavy inspiration. During the American Castle Bravo H-bomb test of that year, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 strayed too close to the fallout, resulting in the crew suffering radiation sickness and even one death. This sparked a chill in American-Japanese relations right after the occupation, and stunned a population who still harbored fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cue the opening scene of Godzilla, aboard the fishing vessel Eiko-maru:

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In the midst of this fealty to the outside world, director Ishiro Honda presents some fairly traditional scenes of two lovers, Ogata and Emiko, trying to navigate their young relationship in the face of not only the fishing disasters, but Emiko’s father Yamane, and her fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a reclusive, scarred war vet with a terrible secret locked in his lab. Their affair quickly spirals into the background of a bitter debate when Godzilla is revealed to the world at large: Honda’s film excels at navigating the moral and ethical grey areas of the existence of such a monster, whether in the salient Diet debate over whether to publish the truth of Godzilla’s threat or conceal it to preserve order and the economy, or in Yamane’s quiet torment over being the only person to want to save the creature, seeing only its potential to unlock the secrets of radioactivity, and its resistance to it.

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In this subplot is where Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata begin to truly play with the real-world consequences of the nuclear age. While the original storywriter Shigeru Kayama made Yamane a Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cloaked figure, engaged in sabotage against the SDF to protect Godzilla, Takashi Shimura’s Yamane is much more contemplative and down-to-earth, desperately trying to salvage something noteworthy and meaningful to mankind out of its most foolish and terrible mistakes, manifest in the monster itself. Shimura becomes the easily the best performer in a strong collection of actors on screen, preserving a countenance of regret over the futility of his efforts.

Image result for godzilla 1954 serizawaSo too Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa, whose secret lab is revealed to house a new and terrible superweapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, a substance capable of liquefying any organic material in water, a sure way to kill Godzilla. But therein lies his dilemma: the Oxygen Destroyer is an easy contender for a new weapon of mass destruction in the ever-escalating Cold War, and he fears that his discovery will become another tool of the superpowers against innocent people unless he can find a better, more humane use for his compound. Like Yamane, Serizawa seems to be trying to salvage a workable future from mankind’s violent past and present, although his character arc is much more reminiscent of the real life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the remorseful creator of the atomic age.

Undoubtedly, however, the main event of Godzilla to most viewers would be Godzilla himself. Portrayed by a combination of puppets and a large, 200-lb rubber suit, Godzilla, in this original film at least, remains a wholly-convincing special effect. While the puppet shots have most certainly aged poorly and don’t fit with the rest of the footage, the cumbersome suit, worn valiantly through fainting spells and buckets of sweat by Haruo Nakajima, portrays a confused and tortured beast, staggering around a highly-detailed miniature Tokyo as if it is constantly in searing pain (the presence of keloid scars across its hide does much to bolster this observation). Honda’s stark black-and-white photography captures all of the nuances of Nakajima’s performance and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, resulting in an image eerily reminiscent of wartime footage that would have been very hard to watch for those who had survived it. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s still-haunting score, the effect is palpable.

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Godzilla would become a smashing success in Japan and several other markets in its original release in 1954, convincing a skeptical public that Japan was a new contender in big special effects pictures, while still telling a dark and emotional story at its core. For its wide American release, Transworld Pictures commissioned a re-edited version, starring Raymond Burr in reshoots as Steve Martin, a newspaperman on whom the altered story would center. While toning down its more anti-war and nuclear age arguments (most certainly due to American Cold War attitudes of the time), Godzilla, King of theImage result for godzilla raymond burr Monsters! is still a solid Americanization of the original film, indeed, probably the best of them. Burr’s Martin, acting as a narrator to smooth the gaps in the story caused by the editing, is a fascinating character in his own right, and unlike later dubs, much of the original characters’ dialogue remain intact, creating a respectful image of the actors and their heritage. Indeed, without this version of the film, Godzilla may not be as popular as he is today, owing to the fact that King of the Monsters! was much more widely distributed across the world.

Godzilla seems to be an acquired taste, even with viewers who claim to be fans. Still thought of by the general populace as “that green dinosaur who fights aliens,” Godzilla may surprise those folks with its chilling realism and somber tone–if they manage to survive a viewing. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a film that I wish was, for in today’s world, it seems the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t taken seriously anymore. I can’t count on my hands how many times in a week I hear co-workers or passersby dismiss the Middle East or North Korea with a simple ‘nuke-em’ statement, and I can’t help but wonder if the Earth decided to regurgitate a monster born from this ignorant view to wreak havoc upon their lives, would they regret what they so often think?

This is the message of Godzilla. Heed it well.

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REVIEW: King Kong (2005)

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Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson, Based on a Story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Starring Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Andy Serkis, Kyle Chandler, Evan Parke, Jamie Bell

Some films are seen as sacred ground; to remake them is considered sacrilegious, if not downright blasphemous. While the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Citizen Kane have never even seen attempts at adaptations, King Kong had at least one direct remake, and most purists point to that 1976 effort as proof against the practice. But Dino de Laurentiis’ project didn’t have something that Peter Jackson’s passion project did: a true love of the original film. Was it enough to overcome tradition?

After coming into possession of a map that supposedly leads to a mysterious place called “Skull Island”, movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black), screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody), and beautiful actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) and his crew embark on an adventure into the unknown. Not before long they soon realize they got more than they bargained for, encountering new and terrifying species of animals, including a massive twenty-five foot gorilla known as Kong. 

Peter Jackson was certainly the right man for the job as far as spectacle is concerned, having already won an Oscar for directing the final part of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, in effect filming the unfilmable. He was also a complete fanatic of the original Kong, his favorite film. But this love was tempered by his talent for visual storytelling, and this allowed him and his longtime screenwriting partners Walsh and Boyens to cleverly adapt the original whilst keeping the 1933 setting, effectively turning the film into a period piece. I think this is the first virtue of Kong, a very effective script with a visionary to helm it.

“Effective script? The damn thing is 3 hours long!” you might say. Yes, Kong is a lengthy beast, just like most of Jackson’s work, but it is the only one of his films longer than 3 hours that doesn’t feel that lumbering at all. Pacing is tight when it needs to be with no slouching in the middle act, the likely spot where these problems occur. The writers also managed to play with the formula of Cooper’s characters, exploring a vaudevillian background for Ann and turning Denham into a desperate fool, just as bold and ambitious but without the reputation to make things easy for him. And then there’s Jack Driscoll, who’s been split into three characters in this version: the heroic, romantic lead of the same name played by Brody, Chandler’s Bruce Cabot, a rugged, smooth-looking actor who nevertheless shows his cowardice fast, and Hayes, the Venture’s by-the-book first officer. Again, this may seem unwieldy at first, but such is the genius of Jackson’s ideas–he is opening up the film into an epic ensemble, in an attempt to provide to modern-day audiences the same level of spectacle that moviegoers in 1933 discovered.

Jackson’s master plan extends into the art direction, squeezing as much information into the frame as he can. 1933 New York City is faithfully reconstructed, both on set and digitally. But the real marvel here is Skull Island, the prototypical prehistoric paradise that Jackson’s team sink so much creative energy into. Everything from the wall itself, half-sunken into the ocean, to diverse array of similar yet evolved forms of dinosaur and insect life tell a story of a place that has survived extinction events, ice ages, and geologic upheavals, long before humans even set foot upon it to build a civilization that would become the empty ruins seen on screen. In short, only Blade Runner manages to use the frame more efficiently.

That is not to say there aren’t any problems, Kong sure has some. Jackson and his DP Andrew Lesnie opt for a soft-contrast look, no doubt to replicate the feel of a period film, that unfortunately adds to some unconvincing composite work during several key action pieces on Skull Island. Two of these same pieces also stretch suspension of disbelief with characters rather effortlessly sidestepping gigantic creatures.

I’ve heard some fans lump acting in as one of the film’s shortcomings, but I would heartily disagree. Watts brings a heartbreaking beauty to the iconic role of Ann, and Brody works pretty well as the hero. Jack Black is still a polarizing choice, but I’m firmly on his side. His Carl Denham, as mentioned before, is a desperate auteur, smothered by the studio system and seeing his career as finished unless he can deliver the greatest film ever made. Black opts to play the role as Armstrong might have in his day, theatrically boisterous and loud. And by the end of the second act, as he embarks on his greedy quest to capture Kong, the words of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, heard earlier in the film, echo in our minds, showing how far he will succumb to make a name for himself.

And then there’s Serkis. On screen he plays a funny little supporting role as the ship’s cook Lumpy, but his bigger contribution is performing the motion capture performance as Kong himself. Back then, this was still a new technology, and Serkis was in hot demand after portraying Gollum from Rings in this way. The Kong created by his movements and the work of dedicated effects engineers is so full of life, displaying emotions ranging from amusement to rage to genuine affection. This state-of-the-art technique so completely blended effect and performance that, together with Watt’s on-set acting and the script’s careful handling of a friendship that could (and did, in the 76 film) become incredibly creepy, it has finally matched the original 18-inch armature built by Marcel Delgado and manipulated by Willis O’Brien.

If you were one of those who was disappointed by Jackson’s King Kong, I strongly urge you to give it another try. With such incredible effects work buoyed by a strong, clear concept and heaping helpings of adventurous fun, I would class Kong as one of the most important films of the past 20 years. So many other movies now use the mo-cap technique pioneered in large form here, and Andy Serkis still has one hell of a career as the master of said technique. And most importantly, I still cry watching Kong’s fall. Maybe I’m just soft, maybe I’m misguided. Or maybe its that Jackson has finally given us the tragedy he’s always seen and loved in the original.

NOTE: King Kong is also available in an extended edition, featuring 13 additional minutes of footage, most of it contained to the second act on Skull Island. These extensions replicate key effects sequences from the original 1933 film, and while they slow the pace somewhat, it isn’t too much as to ruin the film. Both are available on the blu-ray, so I leave it to you which you would prefer.

REVIEW: The Son of Kong (1933)

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Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by Ruth Rose
Starring Robert Armstrong, Helen Mack, Frank Reicher, John Marston, Victor Wong

As anyone, their grandmother, and their pet weiner dog can attest to, the original Kong was a smashing success, generating impressive revenue during an economic depression and cementing a legacy that has yet to dilute. Most people probably think that, back in the day, the studios had more sense than to immediately start playing around with an instant classic’s mystic with sequels–and they would be wrong, as Cooper and Schoedsack themselves hastily shot and released a followup a mere 9 months after Kong.

After the disastrous results of his last expedition, Carl Denham leaves New York aboard the Venture with Captain Englehorn to escape all the trouble. After a stop in an overseas port brings into the fold young and beautiful Hilda and drunken skipper Helstrom, who sold Denham the original charts to Skull Island, the gaggle survive a mutiny, and are left behind on Skull island, where they meet a smaller relative of King Kong and make friends with him.

It seems absolutely incredulous that the filmmakers would start and finish a sequel this fast back in 1933, given the sheer amount of time it took to complete stop-motion effects. But they did, and while the effects are still impressive in most places, the picture itself doesn’t fare as well. It simply takes too long to get moving; Denham, Hilda, and the gang aren’t even underway back to Skull Island until 35 minutes in, and the film is only an hour and ten. It takes another ten minutes to even catch a glimpse of the title character, and the relationship between him and the humans is flimsy from the start. It’s as if they all started channeling the unborn spirit of Steve Irwin the minute they see another Kong.

For what it’s worth, there are a few merits: Armstrong was said to have preferred Son of Kong due to the script giving Denham some much needed development. He is now a man racked with guilt over what he has done to Kong, broke and desperate. He even seems to be taking a love interest in Hilda, which is sweet to see, but again, with the short runtime of the film, it doesn’t go too far.

Willis O’Brien returns to realize the creatures of Skull Island once again, and his results are still extraordinary–to a point. The creatures themselves are great (except for one, literally just a giant bear), but the environments on display are a pale shadow of the lush and dense jungles of the first film. And then, as soon as some more actual dinosaurs and terribe lizards appear to menace our heroes, the island starts sinking out of nowhere. The film is over as quickly as it began, complete with a ham-fisted attempt at replicating the tragedy of the first. Apparently, Cooper and Schoedsack, having left O’Brien alone on the first film, began to interject into the the stop-motion process with this one, causing O’Brien to simply not show up for work in protest. Maybe this is the reason there is so little of it, but who really knows.

In short, unless you are Kong fan of the highest insanity, you can easily skip this and never miss out on anything intriguing. In fact, I would recommend one watch Mighty Joe Young instead; it’s a better scripted and acted film, much more ambitious with its effects, and it allows itself to have a happy ending.

REVIEW: King Kong (1933)

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Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, from an Idea Conceived by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher

The big one. The Eighth Wonder of the World. A true classic if there ever was one. King Kong has been praised, studied, and pored over for close to 85 years now. What new could I possibly offer in this review? Well, let’s find out!

Bold filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) needs to finish his movie; he already has the perfect location, the mysterious Skull Island, but he still needs to find a leading lady. This ‘soon-to-be-unfortunate’ soul is Ann Darrow (Fay Wray). No one knows what they will encounter on this island and why it is so mysterious, but once they reach it, they will soon find out. Living on this hidden island is a giant gorilla and this beast now has Ann in it’s grasps. Carl and Ann’s new love, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) must travel through the jungle looking for Kong and Ann, whilst avoiding all sorts of creatures and beasts.

The brainchild of real-life Carl Denham Merian C. Cooper, Kong quickly became the most important film not just of its time, but perhaps of all time. While Citizen Kane was more influential in terms of how Orson Welles used the camera to enhance narrative, Cooper and visual effects pioneer Willis O’Brien crafted America’s first balls-to-the-wall blockbuster picture, over 40 years before Jaws earned the moniker. From the moment the crew of the Venture reach Skull Island, the breathtaking matte paintings of its foreboding border wall dazzle. And then Kong shows up. In reality a stop-motion armature only 18 inches tall, the big ape manages to convey a lifelike quality that just convinces you totally of its authenticity, even knowing with modern eyes that it’s no more real than the action figures on my office shelves.

Such was the unbridled skill of O’Brien and model maker Marcel Delgado. Having already showed what they could do in 1925’s The Lost World, Kong represented their finest hour, in which even their mistakes became creative flourishes. Notice that Kong’s fur is constantly moving; this should be a glaring flaw in the animation process, a tell-tale sign that the model was being manipulated by human hands between frames. However, when the film premiered, critics of the time noted how lifelike it was to see the wind blowing the beast’s hair. Even in goofing, O’Brien and his team were masters of their craft.

But Kong is not the only denizen of Skull Island, as viewers discover upon viewing: a gaggle of vicious dinosaurs and giant lizards menace the actors, also brought to life by stop-motion. Despite their inaccuracy in anatomic portrayal, at least as theorized today, these creatures still amaze, as paleontologist Robert Bakker once noted in a Discovery Channel documentary: “O’Brien’s dinosaurs act and move like Jurassic Park dinosaurs. In the middle of the ’30s when most paleontologists thought dinosaurs were slow, stupid animals living alone, stuck in the swamps, he had them in dynamic action sequences. It’s a beautiful thing.” Once you see the bloodthirsty Brontosaurus attacking the search party, or the mortal combat of the Tyrannosaurus vs Kong battle, you will heartily agree.

This is not to say the visual effects are the only thing to enjoy in Kong: the acting is first-rate for the time, with Fay Wray’s charmingly cute and vulnerable Ann Darrow taking center stage. Cabot and Armstrong are more than sufficient in their roles, with Armstrong wooing the camera using his now-iconic boisterous personality. To anyone who can’t seem to get into pre-1970’s theatrical acting, try harder. You’ll be doing yourself a favor by starting with this film.

As noted before, Kong gave birth not only to many spinoffs and two high-profile remakes, but to a solidified following of effects features. For a film like this to have such sustained success during the Great Depression is a testament to that fact. And while fans and critics continue to debate whether Peter Jackson’s expensively epic remake surpassed or fumbled its predecessor’s legacy, one thing is for sure: there is no replacing the original. Kong is here to stay.