How do you film something that’s real, that exists in physical reality, but is too small to see? Stalker uses color to indicate the irradiated Zone. Geiger counters have long been an aural signal that there are dangerous, invisible particles flying through the air. Onibaba turns to an uncanny mask to cover the devastating effect of nuclear radiation on the body. None of these quite captures the sense of havoc that the little buggers can wreak on our cells. Enter Godzilla (or Gojira, if you want). A monster awakened by the H-Bomb tests carried out by the United States after WWII, the giant, kinda cuddly-looking lizard is a walking, roaring, crunching embodiment of atomic power. He’s got breath that’ll melt everything in sight and he’s nigh unstoppable by conventional weapons. Here is the definitive depiction of radiation on screen, too bad it’s full of other stuff that is pretty darn boring.
There’s a really great story about weapon escalation in the film, if you’ve got the patience to get there. A scientist studying oxygen makes a device that turns all of the O in H2O into liquid (it doesn’t make much sense) and wants to hide it from the government that is looking for a solution to the giant-monster-destroying-a-bunch-of-towns-and-cities-and-killing-a-lot-of-people problem they’re having. He shows it to a woman he has a crush on, but she’s interested in this other guy. That subplot takes up more of the movie than the Oxygen Destroyer (yes, that’s the name of it, at least in the Criterion subtitles). So instead of mad scientist doing horrible things to fish with the help of crazy machines, we get a bunch of conversations about when to tell who that the woman is interested in man B instead of man A. It’s not optimal storytelling. Oh, these people also only show up about halfway through the movie. I guess they have one scene earlier in the film to introduce them, but it doesn’t really matter to the story. What’s cool is the Oxygen Destroyer and the ethical dilemma of using another superweapon to stop the monster created–or at least unleashed–by nuclear superweapons. That gets solved in the span of a scene, then there’s a really nifty underwater sequence and then the movie is over. Godzilla is pretty bad on a story level. The good news is that even over 60 years after this monster first hit the cinema it can still pack a punch.
So if the story is poor and the characters so thin you can only see them with an electron microscope, it’s probably a good thing that the design of the monster and the filming tricks used to bring it to life are still cool to see. Godzilla‘s use of miniatures and blended scenes is fantastic. Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya collaborate to turn idyllic seaside towns and big, sprawling cities into tiny versions of themselves so that the big lug can walk all over them, or they give him the top 3/4ths of the frame while the bottom is a plate of actors running away from him. While nearly every miniature is obvious, it never pulled me out of enjoying the effect, probably because I wasn’t super enthralled in the story or the characters. Godzilla is a triumph of process shots and monster design, not drama. Those techniques do work to bring Godzilla to life and turn the so-small-you-can’t-see-it threat of radiation into a so-big-you-can’t-ignore-it phenomenon. It’s no wonder that Godzilla became a hero eventually. Once the serious work of creating a story about weapons escalation was done, he could take center stage and fight for the people he once terrorized. I’m not sure how that fits into the very basic allegory this film sets up but I also don’t really care. When Godzilla roars, it’s hard to care about anything else.