Godzilla vs. the time monster: The evolution of a giant lizard over the decades

Godzilla goes to town on a commuter rail in the original, darker 1954 "Godzilla." Credit: Embassy Pictures/Getty Images
Godzilla goes to town on a commuter rail in the original, darker 1954 “Godzilla.”
Credit: Embassy Pictures/Getty Images

There are over two-dozen official Godzilla films — that is, the ones put out by Toho Company, LTD. There is also a smattering of semi- or even non-official ones, including the American reboot out this weekend. Over the six decades, Godzilla has gone from a terrifying, belligerent kaiju to a sometimes decent antihero, then back again. There have been stragglers along the way, including semi- and non-official iterations. Here is how he has changed, stayed the same or been wildly reinterpreted for a variety of mediums.

The original, mean Godzilla

Throughout the years, Godzilla has been used primarily as mindless entertainment — a lighthearted destructo for all ages. Only a handful of times have filmmakers portrayed him realistically (or “realistically”), seriously considering the impact a rampaging colossus would have on cities and puny humans. Indeed, it started out doing just that. In 1954, Godzilla wasn’t just a fun toy concept; he was borne out of the pain of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reflecting the anxieties that came from the hubris of the Nuclear Age. Godzilla’s ransack of Tokyo and beyond is nightmarish (and in black-and-white), and his defeat brings not joy but solemnity. The people of Japan are too exhausted to party down.

Raymond Burr was inserted into the 1956 American release of the first "Godzilla," playing a yapping journo named Steve Martin.
Raymond Burr was inserted into the 1956 American release of the first “Godzilla,” playing a yapping journo named Steve Martin.

The American version of the original, mean Godzilla

To the outside world — particularly the country that had in fact caused Godzilla — the original film had a great idea but needed some “oomph.” Apart from starting a long tradition of haphazardly dubbing the Godzilla imports, the American version — released in 1956 as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” — shoehorned in new scenes, including Raymond Burr (pictured) as an American reporter named Steve Martin, who does little but narrate over the scenes as we’re seeing them. The tone is goofier, the ending triumphant. Hey, it worked! (This tact worked so well that the exact same thing happened in 1984, with the more serious reboot/sequel “Return of Godzilla.” It even brought back Burr, still named Steve Martin despite the hyper-popularity of the comedian/actor Steve Martin. More on that to come.)

Mothra, seen in the 1961 film "Mothra," proved one of Godzilla's frequent co-stars in the Golden Age of Godzilla movies. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Mothra, seen in the 1961 film “Mothra,” proved one of Godzilla’s frequent co-stars in the Golden Age of Godzilla movies.
Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The nice-ish Godzilla

For his first four outings, Godzilla was a menace. (Or at least his replacement was; having been killed in the first, he was “reborn” as another creature from the same race in 1955’s quickie sequel “Godzilla Raids Again.”) By the fifth, 1964’s “Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,” he had chilled out into a mere anti-hero, who usually battles or teams up with the likes of Rodan, Mothra (pictured), Hedorah (aka the Smog Monster) and Megalon. He even had a kid: cute little Minilla. In these, the hulking, fat behemoth became a leaner fighting machine, all so his human players could more easily wrestle without falling down (or slipping on that tail). The good times ran through 1975’s “The Terror of Mechagodzilla.” Twenty-one years is not a bad run.

Bambi awaits a possible squished end in "Bambi Meets Godzilla," an amateur film from 1969. Credit: Provided
Bambi awaits a possible squished end in “Bambi Meets Godzilla,” an amateur film from 1969.
Credit: Provided

The Godzilla that meets Bambi

Godzilla’s influence ran through the globe. In 1969 he was even one of the subjects of a classic amateur film. Marv Newland’s “Bambi Meets Godzilla” runs only a minute and a half, the majority of which shows a hand-drawn Bambi in a field while its maker’s name occupies every single credit. The rest goes about as expected. Watch it here. (There are two sequels, but neither was created by Newland.)

The 1977 Italian film "Cozzilla" took the original film and painted it psychedelic colors. Credit: Provided
The 1977 Italian film “Cozzilla” took the original film and painted it psychedelic colors.
Credit: Provided

The Italian Godzilla

In 1976, Hollywood sank a pretty penny into a big budget remake of “King Kong,” featuring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges. Someone had to compete, even if that someone was Italian trash master Luigi Cozzi (later of “Starcrash”). Thing is, Cozzi didn’t actually remake “Godzilla”: He took the original, American version of “Godzilla” and gave it a new Sensurround sound mix, an electronic score reminiscent of the Goblins and color. But colorization wouldn’t be perfected (if you will) until the mid-‘80s. So he just threw some psychedelic colors onto 20-some-year-old footage, in a process he dubbed “Spectrorama 70.” He also spliced in footage from “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” “The Train,” even, less tastefully, wartime newsreels featuring actual corpses. The result — called “Cozzilla,” after its maker — sadly only played Italy.

Godzilla was a guest on Baba Wawa (Gilda Radner) on Saturday Night Live" on March 19, 1977. Credit: NBCU Photo
Godzilla was a guest on Baba Wawa (Gilda Radner) on Saturday Night Live” on March 19, 1977.
Credit: NBCU Photo

The sketch comedy Godzilla

Godzilla was already in part a figure of fun, but he was extra ripe for the era’s sketch comedy. Having made waves (sorry) with “Jaws” jokes, ‘70s “Saturday Night Live” brought Godzilla on at least twice: as a guest for Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa and in a spoof called “Kramer vs. Godzilla.” (These things write themselves.) Also doing the talk circuit was “SCTV”’s version, which disguised him — due to rights issues, surely — as “Grogan,” and gave him fangs that zigzagged across his mouth. That wasn’t all: voiced by John Candy, he was a more mild-mannered, thoughtful titan, who relaxed in a massive chair next to talk show host Tim Ishimuni (Dave Thomas, doing a send-up of racist Japanese impersonations), only becoming angry when nervous guards shot at him.

Kim Jong-Il was responsible for this North Korean ripoff of Godzilla, named Pulgasari. Credit: Provided
Kim Jong-Il was responsible for this North Korean ripoff of Godzilla, named Pulgasari.
Credit: Provided

The North Korean Godzilla

So this happened: Kim Jong-iIl, when he was merely the son of the ruler of North Korea, really liked Godzilla. He liked him so much he asked the South Korean director, Shin Sang-ok — whom he kidnapped to make propaganda films — to make his own Godzilla ripoff. The result was 1985′s “Pulgasari,” featuring a giant lizard-like monster who eats metal and fights a feudal-era King who runs his land with an iron fist, and which is definitely nothing like North Korea. Don’t laugh: ‘80s-era Godzilla performer Kenpachiro Satsuma said he preferred it to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version.

The 1984 film "Return of Godzilla" served as a return to the starker tones of the 1954 original. Credit: Provided
The 1984 film “Return of Godzilla” served as a return to the starker tones of the 1954 original.
Credit: Provided

The 80s reboot

Ten years after the destruction of Japan’s Godzilla franchise, producers decided enough time had elapsed to reboot it. And they meant to start as it began: seriously. “Return of Godzilla,” from 1984, may have still had a lumbering guy in a suit (plus lasers). But it treated things with a degree of thoughtfulness, ushering in a new era, called the “Haisei” period, of Godzilla movies — which, like the classic run, simply became lighthearted romps where he again battled Mothra and Ghidorah, plus newcomer SpaceGodzilla. The era lasted till 1995. (And again, the first was recut for American audiences and rebilled as “Godzilla 1985.”)

The 1998 version of "Godzilla" features a star who looks a lot like a plain old dinosaur. Credit: Columbia TriStar Pictures
The 1998 version of “Godzilla” features a star who looks a lot like a plain old dinosaur.
Credit: Columbia TriStar Pictures

The 1998 Godzilla

It’s amazing that it took over 40 years for Hollywood to make their own Godzilla picture. (Although a version, by “Friday the 13th: Part Two” director Steven Miner, almost went into production in the 1980s, but was deemed too pricey.) The man for the job seemed to be Roland Emmerich, hot off the populist neo-disaster picture “Independence Day.” Unfortunately, Roland Emmerich is terrible, and his mega-sized “Godzilla” — whose tagline, “Size Matters,” led to many double entendre put-downs — took things either too lightly or too seriously, and featured thin-skinned digs at Siskel and Ebert. The latter, in his 1 ½ star review, complained that he wasn’t even stomped on.

"Godzilla 2000" brought back the giant lizard a year after the 1998 Hollywood version gave him a bad name. Credit: Toho
“Godzilla 2000″ brought back the giant lizard a year after the 1998 Hollywood version gave him a bad name.
Credit: Toho

The “Millennium”-era Godzilla

Before the stink from the Emmerich debacle — which made okay money, but far from great — had even settled, Toho relaunched their franchise. 1999’s “Godzilla 2000: Millennium” brought back the rubber suits and all that, and broke in a new era — called the “Millennium” period — that spawned six films total until 2004’s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” At this point, that is the 28th and last canonical Godzilla entry.

This is one of the few times you can mostly see Godzilla clearly in the 2014 film of "Godzilla." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
This is one of the few times you can mostly see Godzilla clearly in the 2014 film of “Godzilla.”
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The new, ambivalent Godzilla

There was no pressing concern to reboot “Godzilla,” except that it’s a possible franchise dollar-gobbler. But the new one, to its credit, is the most serious of all: a realistic portrait of what would happen if giant monsters roamed the earth, smashing up cities. Thankfully he’s not a sad, emo Godzilla: just an unknowable entity who’s sometimes bad, sometimes good, and could easily come back to do either in future installments. Also, Juliette Binoche is in it! (Our review is here.)

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



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