Godzilla's past, present, and hopefully not lousy future: A three-film primer

Ken Hardin highlights three lesser-circulated Godzilla flicks that offer a quick survey of the Big G's film career.

The Criterion Collection's recent release of 1954's Godzilla has most film critics ruminating about how surprisingly thoughtful and provocative the pop-culture phenomenon remains, even six decades after its release. It has a 93% favorable rating at Rotten Tomatoes; of course, there's just never any accounting for Roger Ebert. And why not? Godzilla offers a serious discussion of the ramifications of atomic warfare and military escalation; it created the tragic love triangle / self-sacrifice device that's now a staple of disaster movies; and it featured performances by some of Toho Studio's best stable talent, including Takashi Shimura, one of the finest character actors of the 20th Century.

And then came the sequels.

That's not to say that the 27 knock-offs of Godzilla are all bad. None of them approach the original, but by-and-large that was never the point. Through three distinct periods of production, Godzilla has become the ill-tempered mascot of Japan, a kind of cathartic mechanism for the nation's unique history in the atomic age. And he's sold a ton of toys.

We're going to assume you've seen Godzilla (get the Criterion restoration today, if you haven't already) and are more-or-less familiar with the early films like Destroy All Monsters that once were a staple of UHF TV in America. Here are three lesser-circulated Godzilla flicks, all available on DVD, that offer a quick survey of his film career. They'll serve as a nice primer for newbies or kids who are getting excited about the next American Godzilla flick, which is rumored to be in the works and to not totally suck, like the last one.

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001): My vote for the second-best entry in the entire Godzilla franchise goes to this early release in the third series -- "Millennium," for the initiate -- in which the Big G gets back to his roots as one angry SOB. All of Japan trembles as a second Godzilla (most of the Millennium films recognize only the 1954 original as preceding continuity) arises from the depths and just starts killing everybody. In the obligatory human storyline, a schlock TV reporter chases down the legend of "Guardian Monsters," spirits of the Earth who ultimately arise to battle the unnatural threat posed by Godzilla.

The special effects are probably the most artful in the series, with filmmakers cheating occasionally with CGI on the flying King Ghidorah (role-reserved here as a mythical "dragon" good guy) and some downright creepy footage of Godzilla swimming underwater. Godzilla's eyes have no pupils in this film; it's an odd detail to note, but it adds to the overall emphasis on how "unnatural" he is, along with his constant use of atomic breath. The film even includes a mushroom cloud to hammer home the metaphor; exactly how Godzilla pulls that one off is sketchy. What sets All-Out Attack apart from the other Millennium films is a healthy dose of self-aware camp mixed in with the carnage and occasional samurai lecture. Here's a gem of dialogue: "Quick, take a picture, and then we'll run."

Watch a clip from the trailer:

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971): The Summer of Love apparently got to Tokyo about four years late, but it hits with a vengeance in this psychedelic edutainment entry in the original (Showa) series, often called Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster in the States.

By this time Godzilla had completed his devolution into kindly protector, and he is called on to smack around a giant tadpole-sludge thing that's a slithering billboard for Earth Day. It's hard to describe how weird this movie is, even by Godzilla standards. There's a scene in a disco that's pulled right from The Blob, and then there are animated insets of Hedorah being all naughty and gross that look like the Trial scene from The Wall. And unlike most later Showa films, you actually see humans getting injured by goop Hedorah sprays in his wake -- a gleefully shrill tactic to just beat you over the head with the film's environmental message.

Watch a clip from the trailer:

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991): There are at least four movie's worth of crazy plot loops in this second (Heisei) series offering, in which Godzilla is certainly not Japan's pal but is often the lesser of city-stomping evils facing humanity.

A group of time-travelers arrives in current-day Japan with a dire warning -- Godzilla will ultimately destroy Japan (well, duh) unless our heroes join a plan to go even further back in time and move the dinosaur that morphed into the Big G out of the way of those American H-bomb tests. But wait, treachery! The time travelers have also planted the seeds of a new menace, King Ghidorah, and the modern-day Japanese have no choice but to create yet another Godzilla to fight him. And that's just the start of the plot twists, which include a weird scene swipe from Terminator 2 and end up in the greatest toy ever: Mecha King Ghidorah!

It's just a lot of fun, with a healthy dose of Japanese nationalism and xenophobia lurking right below the surface. The only drawback is that the only U.S. DVD of the film is explicably in pan-and-scan, a bigger disaster than seeing Godzilla's head pop up in Tokyo Bay.

Watch the trailer here (it doesn't feature English titles and isn't dubbed, but at least you can see the effects):

By Ken Hardin

Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRe...