There's a new “Godzilla” in town, and he’s stomping high-rises and squashing city parks and kicking cars in traffic jams and munching on commuter trains at a theater near you. Or at least, that’s what he’s done in previous films.
Haven’t seen it yet? Neither have I. And yet, in a way, we have.
Really, how varied is the “Godzilla” formula from movie to movie? There have been 29 or 30 “Godzilla” flicks over the past 60 years, and unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool, tried-and-true uberfan of the big guy, can you really name that sequel if you miss the opening credits? I can’t. And I’ve seen a lot of them.
Of course, one could ask the same question about “Transformers” sequels or “Frankenstein” remakes or documentaries about bears or anything with Adam Sandler. And lately, any of the interchangeable superhero flicks.
Watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” last week, a strange sense of déjà vu began to wash over me, and not just because I’d seen the “Spider-Man” trilogy of a decade ago. All of that angst about absent parents and rescuing girlfriends and hiding secret identities and battling supervillains that used to be friends … comic-book movies really are getting in a rut.
And so it is, at least to some degree, with our friendly neighborhood “King of the Monsters!” — which was the hyperbolic subtitle of the first film, if you recall, complete with an exclamation point!
Despite the “Hulk smash” blueprint each film follows, however, the character itself is often shaken up. Godzilla is unsympathetic, then he’s sympathetic; he’s a killer, then a savior. And the movies’ scientists are never quite sure what he is biologically: a reptile, a dinosaur, a sea creature, a fire-breathing dragon, mythical, Darwinian?
In 1954, the Japanese black-and-white special-effects extravaganza “Gojira” (the character’s Japanese name) used Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear warfare, just a few years after the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during H-bomb testing in the Marshall Islands.
Two years later, a shortened, edited American version was released, featuring new footage that included inserts of pre-“Perry Mason” Raymond Burr as a reporter (named Steve Martin!) narrating the story, and “Gojira” was retitled “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!”
In that initial entry, Godzilla is a hungry, destructive creature from the deep that doesn’t pay attention to where he’s stepping and threatens to wipe out the human race (or at least Tokyo).
The original “Gojira” wasn’t accessible to American audiences until just a decade ago, and it is far superior to the Americanized version. Although, the U.S. cut is still fun for baby boomers like me who saw it (again and again) when we were kids.
As “Gojira”/“Godzilla” became an enormous success at the worldwide box office, a sequel was inevitable. And one sequel led to another and then another and then another. And somewhere along the way, Godzilla occasionally morphed into a good guy, sometimes of his own volition and sometimes because he was coerced or tricked.
He became a colossus rescuing mankind from other monsters, both earthbound mutants and space-age aliens. He battled a three-headed dragon, oversized crabs, a giant moth, King Kong and many others — even a mechanized version of himself.
As with any movie this successful, it also led to many rip-offs, similar monster movies that followed the template but without Godzilla. (Is Barney a “Godzilla” spinoff?)
Some of the Japanese Godzilla sequels are enjoyable romps for a wider audience than just the series’ rabid fan base. A few are campy larks, and others are thoughtful formula shake-ups, such as “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962), “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster” (1964) and “Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster” (1966).
But as they moved into the 1970s, the movies devolved into kiddie fare — for undiscriminating kiddies at that. And after the 1975 entry, “Terror of Mechagodzilla,” the series took a 10-year leave of absence.
The franchise returned in the late 1980s and continued until 2004, but most of those films were also rather juvenile. Although, there are exceptions: “Godzilla 2000” (1999) and “Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack” (2001) are pretty good, arriving rather late in the run.
Probably the worst Godzilla pictures are the two specific reboots that reference the 1950s original, the 1984 Japanese production “The Return of Godzilla” (U.S. title: “Godzilla 1985,” again a re-edit that even brings back Raymond Burr), and the U.S. production in 1998, titled simply “Godzilla,” which has our favorite monster stomping all over Manhattan instead of Tokyo.
As a result of those, you’ll be forgiven if you feel some trepidation about the new computer graphics-heavy 2014 reboot that opens today, another U.S. production titled simply “Godzilla.”
Not that I’m pessimistic. Hey, I’m always optimistic. After all, what could be more fun than a good old-fashioned rompin’, stompin’ creature feature in the summertime?
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com