At the risk of antagonizing countless fans of a certain beloved behemoth, I believe the only artistically credible Godzilla movie is the Japanese-language original, Gojira (1954), a horrific atomic-age parable about a prehistoric monster drawn from the ocean’s depths by the use of nuclear weapons. Although exemplary in its original form, the picture was sloppily recut for American audiences, with new scenes featuring U.S. actor Raymond Burr inserted, and given the new title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956). Thus began the diminishing of the Big G, whom most viewers of a certain age remember primarily as a stunt player in a silly-looking monster suit, stomping his way through scale-model sets in a seemingly endless series of goofy children’s movies. I confess that I dearly loved these movies until I was about 10 years old, and it is with no small measure of regret that I note how utterly these pictures have lost their ability to delight me.
The sequel cycle started with Godzilla Raids Again (1955), and then continued through the ’60s with such self-explanatory flicks as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and Godzilla vs. Mothra (1964). Cheaply made and juvenile, these pictures were distinguished by campy special effects, comic-book-style fighting scenes, wild soundtracks, and, for American viewers, badly dubbed English-language dialogue played over scenes of Japanese actors mouthing words in their native tongue. By the mid-’60s, Godzilla had transformed from rampaging beast to crusading hero, an all-purpose savior summoned whenever an even worse radioactive critter threatened Japan.
The Big G entered the ’70s with Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, which is compelling simply because it’s top-to-bottom insane. Riding the then-current trend of eco-themed cautionary tales, this one pits the Big G against a giant pile of sludge that represents man’s abuse of the environment. Describing the story is pointless, but the memorable bits include a sequence in which both Godzilla and Hedorah (aka the Smog Monster) learn to fly so they can fight in mid-air. Because, hey, why stop at fire-breathing dinosaurs and anthropomorphized detritus? Especially in its original Japanese version, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is incredibly weird, featuring random bits ranging from musical numbers (I’m still humming the melody of “Save the Earth” decades later) to psychedelic sequences—and did I mention that Godzilla flies? Of all the Big G’s ’70s adventures, this is the by far the most mind-meltingly odd.
Next up is Godzilla vs. Gigan. In this one, the Big G battles a favorite foe from his ’60s romps, the three-headed flying dragon creature King Ghidorah, who is sent by aliens to conquer Earth. Aiding Godzilla is Anguirus, some kind of giant thorny dinosaur/lizard/turtle thing that appears periodically in the series, and the “Gigan” of the title is King Ghidorah’s ally, a Godzilla-like upright lizard monster with a bird-like beak and giant tusks for hands. You get the idea—Godzilla vs. Gigan is basically an episode of WWE Monday Night Raw with giant creatures instead of human wrestlers, a lot of noisy fighting and property destruction without much of a recognizable plot. And, yeah, this is the movie in which Godzilla speaks. The mind reels.
Godzilla vs. Megalon was the follow-up, and this one has many fans among former ’70s kids because Godzilla’s sidekick is a giant superhero robot called Jet Jaguar (more on him in a minute). The main villain, Megalon, is another monster sent to conquer Earth, and he’s a lumbering Godzilla-like creature with an insect head and pointy drill-things for hands. Gigan returns, but this one’s all about Jet Jaguar—or, as his name is pronounced repeatedly, “Jet Jag-yoo-ar!” A silver-bodied robot with a pointed helmet and a splashy primary-colors costume, Jet Jaguar even has a theme song (which, appropriately enough for a Godzilla movie, is sung in a lounge-lizard style). The robot’s powers range from flying to magically transforming from human size to gigantic proportions. What’s not to like? Oh, and one more note about Godzilla vs. Megalon: Even though the story takes place entirely in Japan, the film’s super-duper-awesome American poster features the titular monsters standing atop the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center while they trade blows. Not for nothing did this memorably ridiculous image end up as the centerfold pin-up in the 1979 debut issue of Fangoria.
The end of Godzilla’s original run manifested, appropriately enough, as a pair of films in which the Big G battles a mechanical version of himself—a sure sign the franchise’s creators had run out of ideas. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is yet another monster mash, with a combination of new characters and old ones—the fresh creatures include Mechagodzilla, who looks like Godzilla wearing silver battle armor, and the weird King Caesar, a dog/lion/reptile/whatever. The narrative of Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is enervated even by the low standards of the series, and the trite doppelgänger device loses its novelty quickly. That said, the production values of the Godzilla movies kicked up a notch once Mechagodzilla hit the scene, so the final ’70s entries have an appealing level of sci-fi spit and polish even if the onscreen mayhem is sillier than ever. By this point, it seems the Big G had become a form of cinematic comfort food, so the folks at Toho (the production company behind the whole series) mostly concentrated on delivering such familiar flavors as Godzilla’s ominous theme music and the Big G’s inimitable roar with the most flamboyant packaging possible.
Underscoring the notion of creative fatigue, the fake Godzilla returned in Terror of Mechagodzilla, which picks up where the previous film left off—not that continuity matters much in this series. Stomping through miniature cities along with the dual Godzillas is Titanosaurus, a giant red-and-blue dinosaur/fish/lizard beastie, who is—of course!—controlled by the same aliens who tried to conquer Earth in several previous movies. Can you say “running on fumes”? That answer to that question is naturally “yes,” but appraising the relative quality of Godzilla’s ’70s adventures is somewhat beside the point. Unlike, say, the James Bond series, in which producers try with each new film to outdo the predecessor in terms of scale and spectacle, the Godzilla movies are like episodes of a TV show. Some installments have cooler monsters, some installments have more impressive fight scens, and some installments drift way too far into campiness. Yet each delivers the goods, inasmuch as Godzilla shows up, tussles, and leaves. Viewed that way, each of the ’70s Godzilla movies is equally good or equally poor, depending on your affinity for the character—although I stand behind singling out Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster as a demented high point.
The Big G took a much-needed rest after the Mechagodzilla movies, reappearing a decade later in The Return of Godzilla (1984). Since the mid-’80s, the rompin’-stompin’ fire-breather has resurfaced many times, in cartoons, comic books, myriad Japanese films, and even a big-budget Hollywood release, the 1998 underperformer Godzilla, with Matthew Broderick. Although a Matrix-flavored 2004 Japanese release—the 28th in the series!—was optimistically titled Godzilla: Final Wars, the Big G resurfaced once more with a megabudget American reboot, Godzilla (2014), featuring Bryan Cranston, and a sequel to that picture has already been announced.
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster: FREAKY
Godzilla vs. Gigan: FUNKY
Godzilla vs. Megalon: FUNKY
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla: FUNKY
Terror of Mechagodzilla: FUNKY