February 13, 2020


The 1954 production of Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, has a good deal in common with Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897. Both are remembered today in terms of the sequels and spin-offs that followed, in the process spawning new genres that have almost nothing to do with the original productions.

In Dracula, the Scooby Gang of vampire hunters led by Van Helsing avail themselves of the latest weaponry and communications technology to defeat Count Dracula. In Godzilla, a team of scientists led by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane and troubled young chemist Daisuke Serizawa must defend Japan against this nuclear natural disaster.

Meanwhile, Emiko Yamane wants to break off her engagement to Serizawa so she can marry her true love, salvage ship operator Hideto Ogata. Given Serizawa's mad scientist personality, this is a understandable decision, and these shifting relationships figure into an important plot point (that has nothing to do with anybody fighting over a girl).

It will be Serizawa who provides the scientific solution that saves the day, not battling monsters or superhero antics.

Dracula and Godzilla are works of contemporary science fiction that would fit well into the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. The two titular antagonists are, in Buffy terms, the Big Bad. As Buffy fans well know, being the Big Bad is a supporting role whose ultimate purpose is to get dusted. That's exactly what happens to Dracula and Godzilla.

So if you want to bring them back for an encore, well, something fundamental will have to change. Making the Big Bad the main attraction completely changes the nature and focus of the fundamental conflict. For starters, a way larger-than-life character stomping all over the scenery in movie after movie is going to upstage the rest of the cast.

As the series progressed and Godzilla grew larger and larger than life, more overpowered Big Bads had to be invented to keep the over-the-top conflicts in proportion. This is unfortunately true of most superhero movies these days. Godzilla set the standard for the Big Bad modus operandi of massive urban vandalism.

The bigger story problem is that, having already reached the pinnacle of badness, the Big Bad has no place to go dramatically, which can't help but reveal the ridiculousness of the whole conceit. A common solution, as in the Dracula genre, is to hang a lampshade on the character and purposely play to the stereotypes with the requisite ironic nods.

Or while playing to the stereotypes, cast the Big Bad as an antihero, the enemy you know being preferable to the worse Big Bads you don't (yet). With a decent screenplay and a compelling character arc, a Big Bad can be transformed into an unreliable ally, as with Spike on Buffy. This is generally the direction Godzilla sequels ended up going.

Less a friend of the human race than an enemy of the all other monsters invading its territory, with not very much in the motivation department aside from sheer destructiveness.

Ishiro Honda's Godzilla soon spawned the tokusatsu (special effects) and kaiju (giant monster) genres. Famously featuring the guy in a rubber suit wrecking scale models of Japanese cities, this deliberately silly and self-referential approach was less concerned with dramatic depth and more about at getting everybody in on the joke.

The first Godzilla, by contrast, is a classic work of film noir, employing black and white cinematography suffused with light and shadow, along with rudimentary but effective mattes and composites, to create a spooky atmosphere of literally looming horror. Godzilla is a keenly-felt menace that most of the time is out of reach or out of sight.

The city-destroying rampage doesn't even commence until an hour in. Leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, Godzilla is more a force of nature, like a typhoon or an earthquake or a tsunami. Or a squadron of B-29s. The focus is less about the Big Bad than on how the affected human beings react to it. And how they conquer it with human ingenuity.

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