“Not After Nagasaki!” Before and After Blowing Up Buildings Was Cool

“May we live without destruction
May we look to tomorrow with hope
May peace and light return to us”

Thus is the prayer the Japanese around the country sing in harmony to befell a giant lizard.

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Before the giant, reptillian explanation for seven mysteriously vanished ships lumbers over Odo Island in 1954’s Godzilla, the mysterious, legendary origins of such a monster are whispered by the natives. Like Kong before him, women were sacrificed to the king of the monsters to spare the community another day. The first scientists to speak on the threat sound more like cryptozoologists, likening its existence to that of a Yeti. As it turns out, they’re all half-right.

Unlike the lead of 1998’s much-maligned U.S. remake, Godzilla is not a monster borne of radiation, but instead drawn out by it. The missing link between the Jurassic and Cretaceous period, Godzilla has been living in the unexplored crevices of the ocean until, as a doctor explains, the atomic bomb changed its habitat. Like a Titan, he rises to wreak havoc on the modern city.

Prior to the 21st century, it’s possible that not much of North America had appropriately seen Godzilla. Rather, they’d seen the American-ized version, starring Raymond Burr as journalist Steve Martin, whose narration over Godzilla’s action curtails most necessary subtitles. Rialto ran the Japanese cut begninning in 2000 and toured it for 4 years. Watching the versions back to back has the sensation of getting two accounts of the same party.

Several scenes invoke the decade-old tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with wounded children being tended to at shattered, makeshift emergency wings and the beast leaving behind a wall rather than a trail of fire. The opening sequences are directly inspired by the members of the fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5, who returned to shore suffering severe radiation burns though they were thought to be clear of a nuclear test site. There are other references, such as poisoned tuna, that directly link to the hazards of fallout.

The film’s lead scientist, Dr. Serizawa, is a J. Robert Oppenheimer type, providing a lengthy monologue on the dangers of fighting bomb with bomb. His Oxygen destructor, the only weapon capable of destroying Godzilla. Serizawa also adamantly refutes the notion that he has any “German scientist friends;” perhaps a wartime joke, perhaps a foretelling of Operation: Paperclip.

Rather than wrestle with the emotions left behind a war-torn Japan save for a few hauntingly similar shots, Godzilla opts to play as a cautionary tale. Before he fought beings from space, a metal version of himself, King Kong and a variety of nature’s terrors, Godzilla was and remains a fire-breathing allegory.

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For imagery, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds hits on all cylinders. Following young Americans with daddy-issues cross-country through an alien war-torn landscape is as dizzying beautiful as it is frightening. Even more striking are the soundstages employed for set pieces like the initial alien tripod attack.

Spielberg once said that a version of War of the Worlds always occurs during an especially awful time. Any allegorical subtly is done away with early on in his version, as Cruise’s daughter directly addresses the likelihood of the tripod destructors being the work of terrorists.

Worlds is is purely a visceral reaction to the terrorism that occured not 4 years prior. People like to complain about the logic of the film, though that same problems can be found in H.G. Wells’ novel and Orson Welles’ radio adaptation. The common flu as a solution is a cop-out ending no matter the generation. Though more successful in the novel than, say an MS-DOS virus in Independence Day, it manages to suck even some of the best dramatic build up. What makes one look back more fondly on a light-hearted alien attack film was the brutal confrontation before Americans were arguably comfortable. That said, it’s easily one of Spielberg’s best works.
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Around the same time, when U.S. films were still digitally erasing the once-glorious twin towers from background shots of blockbusters, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour lingered on post-9/11 clean up crews. The breathtaking opening credits playing over Terrence Blanchard’s score are a series of shots of the two lights pointing skyward where the towers once stood. Lights that, at an age when cynicism was only slowly catching up to most Americans, we believed would be as eternal as Kennedy’s flame.

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Gareth Edwards’ new Gozilla would best fall between the last two films. With only one low-budget monster movie to his credit, what Edwards’ sophomore effort lacks in social commentary, it more than compensates with astonishing set-pieces. There are some brief references to FEMA, but no direct argument about their past failure to mobilize during Hurricane Katrina. If takes much more from the TOHO series of amusing, giant monster-brawls. That said, it’s the cast and Edwards’ directorial decisions to base the action at ground level as often as possible that elevate every set piece to the kind of realism that far surpasses 1998’s travesty.

— Kenny Hedges

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