Despite being one of the most iconic movie monsters in history, instantly recognizable by every age group the world over, few can actually say they’ve seen Godzilla’s first rampage in his self-titled 1954 film. Today, the Criterion Collection is finally unleashing the radioactive beast’s debut outing in a glossy DVD and Blu-ray release.
Most people probably associate their image of Godzilla with this film’s 27 sequels and countless spinoffs. These films, with the monster-movie genre that “Godzilla” defined, are known for spectacle and endearingly low-rent effects.
Considering this, it’s interesting to see that this first Godzilla outing is a surprisingly heartfelt and somber film, almost allowing the monster to slip into the background of the human drama happening on screen.
Almost every aspect of the film is haunted by the World War II atomic bombings that took place in Japan nearly a decade earlier. The images of Godzilla turning Tokyo into a fiery wasteland take on a chilling undertone when putting the film in historical perspective.
Godzilla himself is a product of nuclear weapon testing, and the characters are still reeling from the bombings, with one proclaiming, “I barely survived the bombing of Nagasaki, and now this!” while fleeing the monster’s latest attack.
The final act of “Godzilla” is a poignant allegory for man’s relationship with the atom bomb. When a scientist develops a potentially catastrophic weapon against Godzilla, he is swept into a moral dilemma. He could use the weapon and spare Japan from further carnage, or he could hide his discovery from the world, not risking his work’s misuse as a future instrument of war.
The plot is heavy for a fun monster movie, but ends on a bittersweet note. Images of Godzilla’s aftermath – among them, children navigating charred wreckage and bodies piling up in makeshift clinics – reveal a nation still grieving.
Despite the unexpected depth of the narrative, the film is still a fun genre outing. A rubber Godzilla suit smashing through building miniatures is a wonderful sight to behold, and the well-crafted black-and-white cinematography adds a terrific level of gloss to the carnage.
Criterion’s spotless digital restoration of the film makes the wires used to move model fighter planes and wag Godzilla’s tail painfully visible, but the low-rent effects only add to the film’s charm. You don’t see handcraftsmanship like this in movies today.
Special features included on the disc include the full-length 1956 American reworking of the film, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” This was America’s first interaction with the famous movie monster, and it borders on hilarity.
American actors are clumsily edited into the plot and the original Japanese actors’ voices are dubbed over to sound like they were raised on a farm in Minnesota. Themes of war are muffled, lending the film to a younger audience.
Additional features include reflections on the film by cast and crew, along with a deeper look into the making of the film’s iconic effects. The set also chronicles some interesting backstory into the inspiration for “Godzilla,” including the story of a Japanese fishing boat contaminated by nuclear fallout from American weapon testing, which served as the basis for the film’s opening scene.
The pop-up book styling of the Blu-ray edition is an added bonus for the child in any monster movie fan. It serves as both a celebration of Godzilla’s continued grasp on pop culture and a reminder of the bittersweet nature of his birth.