The atomic bomb has been used just twice in war, both times on Japan. The destruction the bomb wrought led to nuclear escalation between the US and the USSR, and a permanent change in the Japanese psyche. Post-war atomic testing on uninhabited islands still had fallout. Even now, nuclear energy isn’t trusted fully. In science fiction, atomic radiation leads to mutations. Marvel Comics’ X-Men are specifically called the Children of the Atom. Spider-Man gained his powers from a irradiated arachnid. Going back further, though, leads to the grandfather of atomic changes.
Gojira first hit Japanese movie theatres in 1954 and featured a monster that had been reawakened by nuclear weapons testing. The monster symbolized the destructive potential of nuclear weapons, something Japan had experienced first hand. Although not the first kaiju*, Gojira became the example of what giant monsters, daikaiju are. The movie starts with ships being attacked at sea near Odo Island by an unknown vessel, one that disappears as quick as it appears. The investigators discover that the islanders used to sacrifice girls to a monster called Gojira to appease it. During a storm that wracks the island, more destruction occurs, far worse than accountable by the storm. This time, there is a witness who can identify the cause – Gojira!
An archaeologist discovers large radioactive footprints and a trilobite that is normally found in the depths of the sea. An alarm sounds, and the archaeologist, along with the villagers, run to the hills, only to meet Gojira himself, towering over the island. A short, desperate skirmish breaks out long enough for the villagers to get to safety. Gojira returns to the ocean.
In Tokyo, the findings are given over to a commission. Nuclear explosions are responsible for reawakening and freeing the daikaiju. A discussion about whether to reveal the monster’s existance or not later, the public is informed. The Japanese Self-Defense Force sends ships to drop depth charges. Instead of killing Gojira as planned, the charges merely attract his attention to the ships and Japan. Gojira attacks Tokyo, emerging from Tokyo Bay, leaving a trail of destruction not seen since the Allied bombing of the city. Emergency measures are put in place, including a fence of electrical towers that will give off a 50 000 volt shock when walked through and the evacuation of Tokyo. Gojira returns. The electric fence does little to slow the monster down; Gojira destroys the wires with his atomic breath. Tanks fire but can’t penetrate Gojira’s hide. Once again, Tokyo suffers under the rage of the daikaiju until he leaves in the morning.
However, Tokyo may have a chance at surviving. Daisuke Serizawa has developed the Oxygen Destroyer, a side effect of his research into cleaner energy. The Oxygen Destroyer does exactly what it says on the tin – it destroys oxygen atoms. Anything needing to breathe oxygen is left asphyxiating. Serizawa is well aware of the potential misuse of his invention, though, and is hesitant to use it. Once he sees the extent of Gojira’s destruction, he changes his mind. To be safe, he burns his notes on the Oxygen Destroyer so that they can’t be used to create more. Serizawa is taken by ship to the last known location of Gojira. Finding the monster, Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer, then cuts his own oxygen cable. Both he and Gojira perish.
The implications of Gojira, that the monster is more an unstoppable act of nature caused by nuclear radiation, is woven through the movie. The military is helpless as Gojira rampages through Tokyo. The destruction is immense. Nuclear weapons testing led to Gojira’s reawakening, which in turn led to Tokyo’s destruction.
In 1956, the movie was retitled Godzilla: King of Monsters and brought over to North America. New scenes with Canadian actor Raymond Burr were added to reduce the amount of dubbing needed. Burr played an American reporter who was on the scene when Godzilla first attacked Tokyo, telling the story as a flashback. This Godzilla was then released in Japan in 1957 and was popular like the original.
Despite being an actor in a rubber suit, Godzilla moved like the giant monster he was supposed to be. Part of this came from the sheer mass of the original suit. The added verisimulitude helped win popularity, which led to Toho producing /Godzilla/ movies through to 2004. Along the way, other daikaiju either fought or teamed up with Godzilla, inluding King Kong, King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla. Godzilla also served as inspiration for other giant monsters, including Gorgo and Gamera. As mentioned, Godzilla wasn’t the first giant monster, but he was the most influential. Few other daikaiju had songs written about them. Over the years, Godzilla became less a danger and more the protector of Earth, defending the planet against would-be destroyers and conquerors, including humans.
In 1992, Tri-Star picked up the rights to Godzilla with an eye on making a trilogy. The first, Godzilla, was released in 1998. It starts much the same as the original, a fish canning ship is attacked by an unknown creature and is found washed ashore, this time in the Atlantic. The US sends the military to investigate, pulling in experts in biology and paleontology, including Nick Tatopoulos. Nick, played by Matthew Broderick, was pulled from his investigation of the effects of radiation on worms in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Meanwhile, Philippe Roaché, a French insurance investigator, is also looking into the attack on the canning ship, ostensibly for purposes of insurance payout. He tracks down a survivor of the attack, who is only able to say one word, “Gojira.”
Early appearances of Godzilla are brief; the most seen of the monster are the spikes along his back. It’s only when Godzilla arrives in New York City that the audience sees him fully. Instead of being an actor in a rubber suit, the new Godzilla is rendered with CGI. Jurassic Park, originally released in 1993, helped make great strides in rendering dinosaurs with CG, and the new Godzilla benefited. However, the new Godzilla was based on iguanas and lizards, creating a new look for the giant monster. Still, New York suffered the same fate Tokyo did in the original Gojira, with massive damage to streets and buildings. And, just like the original, the military was helpless to stop the monster.
As New York is evacuated to New Jersey, Mayor Ebert tries to stay on top of matters, more to help get re-elected than anything else. During the chaos, the military loses sight of Godzilla. As blame gets thrown about, the civilian specialists work out what happened just as an Army recon squad reports that one building they checked had no more floor. Godzilla went underground. Nick comes up with an idea to get the monster back above ground to give the Army another go at him – fish. A large pile of fish is dumped near Times Square and manhole covers removed to let Godzilla smell the bait. The plan works; Godzilla breaks through the street from underneath and goes after the fish, giving time for the squadron of Apache helicopters to move in and attack. The helicopters’ missiles are useless, missing Godzilla and destroying the Chrysler Building instead. The reason – the missiles carried are heat seekers and have nothing to lock on. Being cold-blooded, Godzilla is the same temperature as his surroundings. Switching to miniguns, the Apaches pursue Godzilla through the ruins of mid-town Manhattan. The tall buildings become a maze, and the pilots lose the monster. The monster, however, did not lose the helicopters, and prey becomes predator again. Hemmed in by the towers, the helicopter pilots aren’t able to pull away* from Godzilla and are made a snack. Godzilla disappears again.
Nick makes a few calculations and realizes that the amount of fish from the canning ship, from three fishing ships that disappeared, and from the pile he had the Army make was far more food than needed. He grabs a sample of Godzilla’s blood, then finds an open pharmacy where he buys every pregnancy test available. While in the pharmacy, he runs into an old girlfriend, one who had rejected his marriage proposal. He takes her back to his tent, doubling as a lab, catching up on old times along the way. Nick finds out that his ex works at a TV station, then finds out that Godzilla may very well be pregnant, either about to lay eggs or has just laid them. The biologist runs off to warn the Army of his discovery and to perform proper tests to confirm his results.
With Nick gone, his ex, Audrey, played by Maria Pitillo, takes a tape showing the path Godzilla has taken, including footage of the survivor saying, “Gojira,” to her station. The tape is immediately placed on the air, right as Nick is trying to explain the pregnancy. Nick is kicked off the investigation. As he leaves, he meets Philippe. Nick explains the problem and gets Philippe, played by Jean Reno, on his side. Turns out, Philippe isn’t an insurance investigator; he works for the Direction génèral de la sécurité extérieure, or the French Secret Service. Philippe has been tracking the destruction from French Guyana to New York with an eye on stopping the monster. Nick, Philippe, and Philippe’s small team head into New York to look for the eggs.
Back in New Jersey, the collective armed forces of the US come up with a new plan to kill Godzilla. Once again luring him out, the Air Force directs Godzilla towards the ocean, where two submarines wait. Torpedoes are fired, but Godzilla is not only able to out-swim them, he lures them into one of the subs, destroying it. A second brace of torpedoes is fired and this time, Godzilla is hit. Mayor Ebert hears the news and starts insisting on having the evacuees returned to their homes in Manhattan. Colonel Hicks, played by Kevin Dunn, wants to confirm the death of Godzilla.
Back on the island, Nick and the French spies discover Godzilla’s nest. All of seats in the stands of Madison Square Garden have an egg, each one on the verge of hatching. As the Godzilla-lings emerge, hungry, they go after the fish and anything that smells like fish, including Nick and the French. The group makes the only rational decision possible – to run, blocking the doors to the arena. However, they’re still stuck inside the building. Fortunately, Audrey and her cameraman, Animal, were following him and know where the broadcast room is. Philippe, the sole French survivor of his team, assists in unlocking the door to the broadcast room. Audrey forces a break into the TV station’s live feed, letting the Army know where the offspring are. Nick joins her and explains the problem; Godzilla’s offspring are asexual, born pregnant, and are hungry; basically, they’re less fluffy tribbles.
Colonel Hicks calls for an air strike, giving the survivors inside Madison Square Garden six minutes to escape. It’s close, but they do get out. The baby Godzillas are derstroyed, but Godzilla returns. During the chase, where the heroes have borrowed a taxi to try to outrun a monster that can hit 80mph, Nick gets a message through to Colonel Hicks about Godzilla. A last ditch plan is made; draw out the monster to a bridge so that the Air Force can use missiles without buildings being locked on instead. The first missile strike staggers the monster; the second kills it.
The first half of the movie does a good job recreating the events of the original Gojira. The problem begins when the tone of the movie switches from “giant monster” to “action”. The original Godzilla took extreme efforts to stop; the subsequent films either have Godzilla as an act of nature, impossible to stop, or a protector, one who inflicts a lot of collateral damage. The design of the new Godzilla is closer to Repitilicus and The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms, with a touch of The Giant Gila Monster. Toho, the company that created the Godzilla franchise, has renamed the monster in the movie “Zilla”, but hasn’t completely disavowed the film.
The scene involving Zilla chasing the Apache helicopters had an odd special effects failure. Nothing wrong with Zilla’s CG. New York just looked like it was a model, as did the helicopters. Given the nature of the movie, was it an error or was it deliberate, a callback to the use of a model Tokyo and model military vehicles in Gojira? Given that the rest of the movie didn’t show any problems, the choice seems deliberate.
Godzilla has issues as an adaptation, as pointed out above. The issues, though, do really start after Zilla reaches Manhattan. Until then, it does feel like a proper adaptation of Gojira.
* Apparently, the pilots forgot that they could go in three dimensions, specifically up. The Apache has a service ceiling of about 21 000 feet, much higher than even the tallest building in New York City.