GODZILLA AND RELATED GIANT MONSTERS

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

The 1950s were a sort of Golden Age for giant monster films, partly because the entire decade was informed by a strong sense that the entire human race was in peril at the hands of huge, impersonal forces beyond human control. In some ways, this was especially the case in the United States, where the anxieties and animosities associated with the Cold War reached a peak of hysteria unmatched by anywhere else in the world. Cold War fears, of course, were related most powerfully to the fear of a nuclear holocaust, which also placed Japanese culture in a special situation during the Cold War, given that Japan was the only country in the world that had actually come under nuclear attack. This historical background was absolutely crucial to Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954), without question the most important giant monster film of the 1950s—and one that found a strong following even in the United States, a country that is in a very real sense the true villain of that film.

American Giant Monster Films of the 1950s[1]

As Carlos Clarens notes in his chapter on the science fiction films of the 1950s, these films show the anxieties of a period when “human annihilation became a possibility when not a certainty” (118). Further, he notes that these anxieties were often played out in attacks of monsters on human beings, especially attacks of monsters from outer space, because “things from other worlds offer unlimited variety as creatures of horror, untied as they are to anthropocentric codes” (122). Clarens is right, of course. However, one might also argue that the large number of science fiction films that featured anthropomorphic monsters of a terrestrial origin demonstrates that some of the fears of the decade arise, not because Americans are afraid of living in a world where everyone is different from them, but because they are afraid it will turn out that all those inhabitants of the dark places of the earth do not, in the final analysis, turn out to be very different from Americans, after all. If this is the case, the huge difference in standard of living between America and the Third World becomes indefensible and the new international division of labor is simply an extension of the exploitative structures of colonialism. Meanwhile, the polar distinction between the United States (as the champion of global liberty) and the Soviet Union (as the champion of global oppression) collapses in a heap.

Radically nonhuman monsters from outer space such as the title creature in The Blob (1958) provided especially vivid examples of Otherness, yet one of the important television phenomena of the decade was the reintroduction of the old Universal monster flicks from the 1930s (all featuring anthropomorphic monsters, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy) as late-night television fare. Meanwhile, a whole series of remakes and sequels to these films began to come out in the 1950s themselves, the most important of which were produced by the British studio, Hammer Films.Such classically gothic horror films dominated the monster-movie scene in America by the late 1950s. However, as Bill Warren points out, the phenomenal success of King Kong, reintroduced in theaters in 1952, helped to trigger a spate of big-monster films in the early- to mid-1950s, films that tended less toward the gothic and more toward science fiction. For example, the giantism of the monsters was typically produced by radiation or some other sort of scientific experiment; or, if the monsters were naturally huge, they tended to live in remote Third-World places that kept them away from civilization, until they were released by human interference, such as nuclear testing.

One of the earliest of these films was Sam Newfield’s Lost Continent (1951), in which a team of scientists and soldiers goes to a remote Pacific island to try to retrieve some crucial data from an experimental rocket that accidentally crashes there. In many ways, the film is a routine adventure. The scientists and soldiers have to climb a mountain to reach the rocket. At the top of the mountain, they discover a strange prehistoric world, populated by dinosaurs. Though one scientist and one soldier are killed in the process, the team manages to retrieve the data and leave the island, just as it breaks up from volcanic pressures and sinks into the sea. Within this simple plot, however, the film addresses a number of issues. For one thing, it is an early expression of 1950s degeneration fears, particularly fear that nuclear war might somehow trigger a reversion to primitive savagery in human life. Not only is this “lost continent” described as a throwback to prehistoric times, but there are indications that the primitive conditions on the mountaintop are somehow related to the fact that the mountain is filled with what are apparently the world’s richest deposits of uranium. Thus, one of the scientists, Michael Rostov (John Hoyt), warns the group that the forces on the island may be similar to those produced by the atom bomb, then goes on to postulate that the very rocket they are seeking (and the nuclear arsenal of which if could eventually be a part) “may have us someday all living back in a world like this one.”

Lost Continent also directly expresses the anxieties of the Cold War. For one thing, the retrieval of the data from the rocket is depicted as being crucial because the very existence of the United States might be threatened if unnamed enemies (obviously the Soviets) were to retrieve the information first. For another, Rostov’s Russian background becomes a major issue in the film as the military leader of the mission, Major Joe Nolan (Cesar Romero), increasingly suspects, based on no real evidence, that Rostov is really working for the other side. In one crucial scene, Nolan apologizes for his suspicions, having realized that Rostov is, in fact, trustworthy after he rescues the American scientist Phillips (played by Hugh Beaumont, who was featured in several science fiction films before settling into his signature role as Ward Cleaver in 1957). Rostov tells Nolan not to feel badly about his suspicions. “I’m a Russian,” he says. “I’m used to it. Almost my whole life has been a witch-hunt one way or another.” Coming in 1951, when the McCarthyite anticommunist (and anti-Soviet) witch-hunts were at their peak, this moment seems stunning, a rare instance of courage in the face of the purges then underway in Hollywood. However, Rostov quickly goes on to suggest that the witch-hunts he means are the ones conducted, first by Hitler, then by Stalin. In fact, he reveals that his wife and unborn baby died in a Stalinist prison camp and that he himself hopes someday to return to Russia to liberate his fellow Russians from communist rule. Don’t worry, Nolan tells him, you will, and we’ll be right there with you, even if it has to be with nuclear missiles. The potential anti-McCarthy moment thus quickly becomes an anti-Stalinist one, complete with a full-scale endorsement of nuclear aggression against the Soviet Union.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) is another fairly straightforward monster film that nevertheless addresses the nuclear tensions of the early 1950s, while also drawing upon fears that nuclear weapons might somehow activate primitive forces. The giant, germ-infested rhedosaurus of that film has been frozen in the Arctic ice cap for 100 million years, only to be thawed and released when a nearby hydrogen bomb test melts the ice in which it is trapped.[2] The beast of the film was created by Ray Harryhausen, who had earlier assisted Willis O’Brien on the special effects for the 1949 ­King Kong wannabe, Mighty Joe Young. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms thus ushered in the career of the greatest special-effects master of 1950s science fiction film. Indeed, the film seems promising, especially as the rhedosaurus is a sort of triple-threat monster, drawing upon the decade’s fears of radiation, germs, and all things primitive. And the beast is indeed far more technically impressive than the dinosaurs of Lost Continent. Unfortunately, the film itself is rather unimaginative, and it does not really develop any of the issues that are potentially at stake in its premise. The mindless beast, which is not only physically destructive, but also riddled with germs that are infectious to humans, makes its way to Manhattan and starts both wrecking and infecting the city. It therefore must be killed, and scientists and the military work together smoothly to do the deed. There is a certain pathos in the death of the monster amid the flaming wreck of a roller coaster it has been demolishing, but otherwise the creature evokes little sympathy and the film raises few questions, other than the suggestion that we should use a certain caution in nuclear testing.

Of course, it should be pretty obvious that exploding H-bombs at the North Pole is not a good idea. Subsequent warnings about the possible effects of nuclear testing were a bit more subtle, however. For example, Them! (1954) warns about tests that are not only thinkable, but have actually occurred. In this film, the Manhattan Project testing of nuclear bombs in the New Mexico desert results in a nest of gigantic, man-eating ants that seem to threaten the entire nation until they are dispatched by an alliance of scientists, police, and the military, ultimately reassuring audiences that the military-industrial complex was there to protect them from such dangers, even if the dangers had, in fact, been produced by that complex in the first place.

A similar dynamic operates in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), in which nuclear tests disturb a gigantic octopus (also created by Harryhausen), driving it out of its normal habitat and to the Pacific coast of the United States in search of food. The creature is again killed by an alliance of scientists and the military, who develop a special atomic torpedo, which explodes in the monster’s brain, killing it, but only after it has destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge and ravaged much of San Francisco. Harryhausen’s monster is impressive for the time, but the most interesting thing about It Came from Beneath the Sea is the romantic triangle that arises among naval submarine commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and two scientists, the businesslike Professor John Carter (Donald Curtis) and the sultry Professor Lesley Joyce (Faith Domergue).

Joyce, though she looks a bit young for such status, is identified as the world’s leading marine biologist, which makes her perhaps the most important woman scientist in all of 1950s science fiction film, which usually restricts women “scientists” to second-class status as graduate students or technicians. She is also an unusually strong and independent woman for the films of the time, though she occasionally seems on the verge of melting beneath the onslaught of Mathews’s masculine charm. Mathews has never met such a woman, so Carter has to explain to him that Joyce is one of a “new breed” of women “who feel they’re just as smart and just as courageous as men—and they are. They don’t like to be overprotected. They don’t like to have their initiative taken away.”

By the end of the film, Mathews and Carter have proved equally heroic, each at one point saving the other in the battle against the monster. They also both appear still interested in Joyce, who has similarly acquitted herself well in the battle against the monster. But Joyce remains independent. Though she seems more physically drawn to Mathews (he is the only one of the two she kisses during the film), she is clearly more intellectually attracted to Carter. Mostly, though, she remains committed to her work. Thus, when Mathews suggests to her that they might marry and settle down, she counters with the suggestion that they collaborate on a book about the giant octopus instead. Then she prepares to go off to the Red Sea on a scientific expedition with Carter. Mathews, seeming amazed that she is able to resist his macho magnetism, simply shrugs, turns to Carter, and says, “Say, doctor, you were right about this new breed of woman.”

It was standard practice to have one beautiful young woman scientist among the cast of characters in the science fiction films of the 1950s, though they usually played a secondary role and lacked the firm independence of Lesley Joyce. Still, even this minor gesture suggested a growing destabilization of gender roles in American society. In this sense, it was not just aliens and monsters who were among the mysterious Others of science fiction film, and Pete Mathews was not alone in having a great deal of trouble learning to cope with women in such new roles. Generally, however, these women were safely contained in a romantic relationship by the end of the film, just as the monsters and aliens were generally killed or sent back where they came from.

In Them! the female scientist, Dr. Pat Medford(Joan Weldon), is doubly contained. First, she is the daughter of Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), a more prestigious scientist, to whom she serves as a sort of assistant. Second, she becomes the love interest of FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness), who is attracted enough by her beauty to overcome whatever vague anxieties he feels about her status as a scientist. Meanwhile, even more than the octopus of It Came from Beneath the Sea or the reptilian (and diseased) rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the ants of Them!, as the title indicates, are unremittingly Other, and there is never a suggestion that moviegoers might consider having any sort of sympathy for them. Ants, of course, were an ideal choice for this project. As insects, they seem to have little in common with human beings. As matriarchal insects, they are even more foreign and threatening. And, as highly organized, communal insects whose every activity is orchestrated by central planning, they served as a perfect metaphor for the 1950s fear of regimentation, either communist or capitalist.

In this vein, some viewers of Them! in the 1950s must have been bothered by the role played by the consortium of soldiers, scientists, policemen, and bureaucrats that mobilizes to seize control of the situation and defeat the ants. Granted, the chief scientist, Dr. Harold Medford, is presented as a benign figure, seeming throughout most of the film more like one’s favorite comic uncle than a wielder of power. But the police and military in the film, roughly represented by the alliance between federal cop Graham and local cop Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), are not quite so unequivocally positive. Granted, they are humanized to an extent, delaying their attack on the ants in the storm drains of Los Angeles in order to save two children who are trapped in the drains with the ants. But they show no hesitation in suspending civil liberties in order to deal with the ants in an unencumbered manner. Realizing that the ants are in Los Angeles, they quickly declare martial law to prevent interference from the citizenry, presenting a potential suggestion that, when faced with a serious outside threat (like, perhaps, Soviet communism), the forces of authority in America were more than willing to dispense with democracy in order to meet the threat. Meanwhile, if this aspect of the film makes its figures of authority look a little like Joseph McCarthy, other aspects of the film make them look like stereotypical Stalinist hacks. Attempting to avert a public panic, the authorities carefully suppress news of the existence of the ants through most of the film, suggesting a willingness to do away with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and free flow of information whenever the need arises. In one scene, an individualistic pilot (Fess Parker) spots one of the queen ants flying toward Los Angeles and seems anxious to announce his sighting to the world. In response, the authorities, echoing Cold War rumors about the Soviet use of mental asylums as political prisons, order the pilot detained in a psychiatric ward in order to keep him quiet, even though they know perfectly well that he is sane.

Them! seems to address the decade’s ambivalence toward Otherness by repressing it, making the giant ants clearly Other and clearly evil, even though this repression merely displaces its ambivalence onto the film’s images of authority. The success of Them! meanwhile encouraged other films to use the same big-bugs-created-by-radiation strategy. In Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957), ordinary locusts eat some huge vegetables created by radiation experiments. The locusts in turn grow huge and soon take over Chicago, which the feds decide to nuke to get rid of them. Fortunately, this radical bit of pesticide proves unnecessary when entomologist Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves), with the full cooperation of the authorities, manages to synthesize the sounds that the locusts use as signals, luring them into Lake Michigan, where they drown.

Here, the monsters are unequivocally bad and the authorities are unequivocally good, making for a pretty dull film except for the way in which it addresses the decade’s anxieties over experiments with irradiated food. After all, it was Wainwright who grew the tainted vegetables in the first place.[3] Meanwhile, in the oddly interesting (because of its Tobacco-Road-meets-Peyton-Place subplot) Attack of the Giant Leeches (1960), radiation emanating from atomic rocket tests at Cape Canaveral contaminates a Florida swamp, causing ordinary leeches to grow larger, sprout arms, and generally begin to look a lot like men in cheap plastic leech suits. The leeches begin to suck the blood out of the local white trash, but are quickly dispatched by a charge of dynamite from the local game warden.

In a slight variation on this motif (with bugs replaced by crustaceans), the title creatures of Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) are made huge (and aggressive) by fallout from American atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, thus following directly in the giant footsteps of Godzilla. In a film that is far creepier and more campily entertaining than any quick summary can make it sound, these giant crabs also have a form of extrasensory perception, drawing upon the decade’s fascination with telepathy and other parapsychological phenomena. In particular, they have the ability to eat people’s brains, absorbing their minds and memories, which they can then use to contact other humans telepathically, luring them to their doom. This power, in fact, is so impressive that the crabs (though there are only two of them and one of those is quickly killed) conceive a plan to conquer the world. Luckily the crabs cannot stand electricity, so the last one is quickly zapped, ending the threat.

Other big bugs were produced not by radiation, but by primitive antiquity, drawing upon the decade’s fear of all things ancient and primitive. Thus, the giant bugs of both The Black Scorpion (1957) and The Deadly Mantis (1957) are primeval creatures released into the present by volcanic eruptions. Both of these films, of course, draw upon the fact that their insects have scary reputations even when they are of normal size. Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955) draws upon a similar fear. In this film, the monster is again unequivocally evil and the authorities who battle it are unequivocally competent and good, while the central issue is again radiation experiments. This time, however, the film includes other complexities, managing to encapsulate many of the decade’s anxieties about, not only radiation, but also degeneration, population growth, the hostility of nature to humankind, the suspicious activities of scientists, and changing gender roles. In Tarantula, Leo G. Carroll plays Professor Gerald Deemer, a well-meaning biologist who hopes to use his research to produce new sources of food for the earth’s burgeoning population. This project is related to the nuclear fears of the 1950s in that Deemer uses a radioactive isotope to “bind and trigger” his experimental nutrients, which cause normal baby animals to grow abnormally large within a matter of days, or even hours. Moreover, we find out in the course of the film that Deemer began his research while working at Oak Ridge years earlier, which, in the context of the mid-1950s, was meant to indicate to audiences that he had worked on the Manhattan Project. And the entire film is set in the desert Southwest, which could not help but recall the White Sands nuclear tests, as well as allowing the desert itself (which is at one point in the film described as “evil”) to stand in for the dangers posed to man by a sometimes inhospitable nature.

The monster of the film is relatively uninteresting: it is merely a tarantula that escapes from Deemer’s lab after receiving injections of his nutrient. Loose in the sinister environment of the desert, the spider becomes gigantic and begins to menace the locals, though it is quickly, and rather easily, killed by the air force before it reaches the local town. However, like most Jack Arnold films, this one does have its interesting aspects. It is not for nothing that John Baxter calls Arnold  “the great genius of American fantasy film” (116). One thing that is interesting in this case is that the monster is killed by napalm bombs, oddly anticipating the role such bombs would play in the (unsuccessful) attempts of the American military to subdue the combined forces of inhospitable nature and incorrigible natives during the Vietnam War.

What is even more interesting about Tarantula is the way its treatment of the science-without-restraint theme resonates with the theme of degeneration. The title creature of Tarantula is described as arising from a “primitive world,” suggesting the way in which so many film monsters of the 1950s were equated with the primitive. As Biskind notes, in the science fiction films of the 1950s, “the American, European, Asian, or African past is equated with ‘primitive,’ ‘barbarous’ nature,” while nature itself, as the opposite of civilization, often comes out as sinister in such films as well (108). More importantly, the film’s depiction of Deemer and his experiments is largely a reinscription of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), the all-time classic of degeneration induced by unbridled scientific inquiry. Thus, Deemer is predictably injected with his own formula (as two of his associates had been before him), then spends the rest of the film gradually degenerating, becoming more and more simian and beastlike. Given that the formula is radioactive (and that Deemer has already been linked to the Manhattan Project in the film), the message is clear: modern science, having unleashed the atom, may also be in danger of unleashing the primitive beast that lies dormant within us all.

Meanwhile, the obligatory romantic subplot of this film seeks to allay fears about changing gender roles by showing us that they need not interfere with normal sexual relations. This subplot features the budding courtship of Matt Hastings (John Agar), the local country doctor, and girl scientist Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), whose pursuit of a normally masculine occupation is signaled by the fact that she prefers to be called “Steve.” Never fear, though, she is only a graduate student and thus no competition for a world-renowned scientist like Deemer, for whom she works as a lowly lab assistant. Moreover, she is pretty much putty in Hastings’s hands, even remaining perfectly sweet tempered when he complains (jokingly, but a bit insecurely) that the advent of women scientists is a logical, but unhealthy, consequence of “our” ill-considered decision to give women the vote. “Steve” behaves in a suitably feminine manner in other ways as well. When Deemer notices that she keeps taking time off from her lab work to go to the beauty parlor, she good-naturedly explains that “science is science, but a girl must get her hair done.” She is also suitably feminine when the tarantula finally attacks, falling limply into the arms of the virile Hastings, who comes to the rescue in the nick of time, saving her just as the air force will soon save the town.

Science fiction films of the 1950s often featured monsters or monstrous forces retrieved from Africa or the other dark places of the earth. Further, they tended to equate Africa and other Third World settings with other planets, the inhabitants of both locales being similarly alien to human civilization. For example, in Nathan Juran’s 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), the stop-action monster created by Ray Harryhausen is fetched back from Venus in a film that is quite transparently based on King Kong (1933), who was similarly fetched back from a Pacific island.

Harryhausen’s monster lacks Kong’s personality, but it is technically one of the best in 1950s film, and 20 Million Miles to Earth features excellent special effects, producing a number of spectacular scenes of the monster in action. The plot of the film, however, is pretty pedestrian. Soon after arriving on earth (crashing into the sea near Sicily), the creature, referred to by Harryhausen as an “Ymir” (after a giant in Norse mythology), hatches, emerging from its gel-like “egg” looking a lot like a cross between Kong and a dinosaur. It has a long, reptilian tail, but, as a zoologist observes in the film, “the torso is that of a human being.” The Ymir thus functions as a sort of missing link between primates and dinosaurs, its humanlike characteristics helping to make it a relatively sympathetic figure.

At first, the creature is quite small and cute as a button, despite its rather alien appearance. It is also harmless and nonaggressive: it eats only sulfur, and will attack only if provoked. Unfortunately, conditions in earth’s atmosphere cause the creature to grow rapidly. It escapes from captivity and wanders about the Sicilian countryside looking for sulfur. Predictably, the creature is assaulted several times, causing it to resort to violence, despite its nonviolent nature. As a result, the Italian authorities decide that the creature must be killed, though the virtuous Americans, led by the commander of the original Venus mission, Colonel Robert Calder (William Hopper), insist on trying to capture it instead. They succeed, then take it to Rome for scientific study. Unfortunately, it again escapes. By now, it is big and strong enough to win a wrestling match with an elephant before going on a rampage through Rome. Finally, it is shot from atop the Colosseum (in lieu of the Empire State Building) by tanks and artillery, sending it plunging to its death.

Harryhausen’s ability to make such an alien-looking creature seem vaguely cuddly and sympathetic (despite its lack of any real personality) helps the film, however clumsily, to make its point about the human tendency to reject—or, for that matter, kill—anyone or anything that seems different. As Arkansas Senator William Fulbright once complained about American attitudes, reversing the famous declaration of Terence, “Nothing alien is human to us.” Many science fiction films of the 1950s address this same topic through the depiction of misunderstood monsters, who mean no harm, but are assaulted by paranoid humans. 20 Million Miles to Earth moderates the point a bit, however, by making the truly murderous humans Italian, while the American characters are much more compassionate. Indeed, the only truly compassionate Italian is the female lead (i.e., Calder’s love interest), medical student Marisa Leonardo (Joan Taylor), who is, incidentally, the only Italian character who does not speak with a really bad Italian accent. She sounds, in fact, entirely American, signaling both her high level of education and her sympathetic nature.

The Godzilla Phenomenon

Despite the typically pro-American tone of the American giant monster films of the 1950s, the giant monster film phenomenon of the period that ultimately exerted the greatest cultural influence was neither American nor pro-American. The huge, fire-breathing prehistoric reptile Godzilla (aka Gojira) first appeared in Ishirō Honda’s low-budget monster movie of the same title in 1954. The monster, seemingly part dinosaur and part dragon, is driven from its undersea lair by American hydrogen bomb tests—and may even be the result of genetic mutations caused by radiation from nuclear weapons, thus placing it very much at the center of concerns about nuclear weaponry in the 1950s. Though heavily influenced by previous movie monsters, especially the title figure of King Kong (1933), Godzilla has had a unique attraction for international movie audiences ever since.

Godzilla and its monster, though, had a particular relevance for Japanese audiences, for whom the memory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, respectively, of 1945 was still relatively fresh. Approximately 200,000 were killed in these bombings and many others suffered and died in the following years from complications related to the radiation from the bombings. To provide an extra reminder, the United States ignited a massive experimental hydrogen bomb at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 1, 1954, producing a blast that was approximately 1,000 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was also much more powerful than scientists had anticipated, leading to widespread nuclear contamination of the surrounding area, including the contamination of 23 crew members of a Japanese fishing boat, one of whom died about six months later.

This test provided a reminder of the existence of weapons that could wreak untold destruction without a moment’s warning, suggesting the precariousness of modern existence. It also no doubt provided much of the inspiration for the opening scenes of Godzilla, in which several Japanese ships, including a fishing boat, are suddenly destroyed at sea by an unknown force. That force, of course, is Godzilla, whose undersea habitat has been destroyed by the American hydrogen bomb tests and who is now headed for Japan to wreak revenge on human beings, apparently not understanding the concept of nationalities and thus placing the Japanese in the unfortunate position of having been the victims of nuclear weapons and now becoming the victims of Godzilla’s crusade against nuclear weapons.

Godzilla is a low-budget movie with crude special effects and overall low production values. It is, however, a poignant and powerful movie filled with an almost overwhelming sense of weariness, sadness, and trauma. It is impossible to watch the scenes of Godzilla stomping his way through Tokyo, blasting entire buildings to smithereens with his atomic-powered breath, without thinking of the incredible destruction that had been wrought upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, much of the film is an ongoing meditation on the ethics of nuclear weapons. Godzilla turns out to be virtually impervious to any sort of existing human weapons: nuclear blasts might even make him stronger. It turns out, though, that a Japanese scientist, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), as part of his research into the properties of oxygen, has accidentally developed a new superweapon, known as an oxygen destroyer, that is guaranteed to destroy any life form that breathes oxygen, as Godzilla clearly does. Serizawa, however, has kept his weapon a secret from the world for fear that it would be turned into a new superweapon. Eventually, he agrees to use the weapon to destroy Godzilla, but first he destroys all his notes, and then he makes sure that he himself is killed in the blast that takes down Godzilla, so that no one can ever coerce him into building another such weapon. As the film ends, another scientist, Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) warns that, if the American hydrogen bomb tests continue, another Godzilla might someday be released.

Godzilla Is A Metaphor | Godzilla (1954) | Bright Wall/Dark Room
The original Godzilla.

That ending, of course, is a perfect setup for a sequel, of which there would be many. Mostly, though, it provides a stern warning of the possible horrific consequences of nuclear testing and nuclear weapons development in general. The real point is not that such weapons might release a giant lizard upon the world, of course. The real point is that the continued development of nuclear weapons might someday unleash massive destructive forces upon the world, forces in the face of which human civilization might not this time survive. Serizawa in this sense functions as a crucial character by showing that dedicated scientists need not necessarily allow their work to be conscripted in the interest of weapons of mass destruction, as had happened to the scientists of the Manhattan Project, whose leader, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, upon witnessing the first test explosion, famously thought of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita spoken by the Hindu god Vishnu: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

One of the reasons why Godzilla is such an effective film, despite the fact that its monster (literally played by a guy in a rubber suit[4]) looks so unrealistic, is the fact that Godzilla carries such strong allegorical meanings that it is almost better if he doesn’t look realistic, thus preventing audiences from being taken in and getting caught up in his actual story, something that has seemed to happen more and more in subsequent Godzilla films. And the allegorical resonances of Godzilla are multiple. No doubt Godzilla figures most importantly as a figure of the danger to human civilization of continued nuclear weapons development and testing. We should remember, after all, that, however unrealistic his destruction of Tokyo might be, the people of Japan had actually experienced something even more destructive in real life. Meanwhile, Godzilla also functions in a more general way as a warning against meddling with forces of nature that might better be left alone, lest something monstrous be released. In this sense, he looks back to the story of Frankenstein and his monster, another tale of unfettered scientific inquiry. On the other hand, if Godzilla is seen as an allegorical stand-in for nature itself, he also looks forward to the environmental crisis of our own day, when unfettered capitalist development threatens to make the earth an inhospitable, if not downright uninhabitable, home for the human race.

Godzilla inspired a whole generation of Japanese filmmakers, who created a large family of giant monster (or Kaiju) films, featuring a number of different monsters, in addition to Godzilla himself. In a related phenomenon, Japanese filmmakers also produced a number of films featuring giant mechanical monsters (or mechas). These films were a key part of Japanese cinema in the decades following the 1950s, while also inspiring a variety of works in other genres, including television and manga. They also helped to inspire filmmakers and cultural producers in other countries, especially as the rise of digital effects technologies made it more and more possible to create visually interesting giant monster films.

Godzilla in America

Godzilla was introduced to widespread American audiences in 1956 in an English-dubbed adaptation of the original film called Godzilla: King of the Monsters! That film contains additional scenes directed by Terry Morse, featuring American actor Raymond Burr, to give American audiences a character with whom to identify. Burr also supplied voiceover narration to some scenes to make them more intelligible to audiences in the United States, while the whole film seeks to sidestep the vaguely anti-American tone of the original. Burr plays American reporter Steve Martin, who just happens to have stopped over in Tokyo on his way to another assignment when Godzilla attacks the city.

The adapted film was a hit in the United States in theaters, and eventually became a long-term staple on American television as well as the first in a series of English-language adaptations of Japanese Godzilla movies. Among other things, the long life of the Godzilla franchise in both America and Japan suggests that the monster itself has a special appeal. Godzilla went on to become the center of a long-lived film franchise in Japan and has, to date, starred in more than thirty Japanese films, some of which feature the famous monster as a defender of humanity, battling against other monsters. Indeed, Godzilla, over the years became a more and more positive, even beloved figure, both in Japan and America. In 1996, Godzilla won an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2004 he was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, indicating the prominence he has achieved in contemporary popular culture.

A big-budget American remake of Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich, was released in 1998, with state-of-the-art special effects and with the monster now re-designed to look more like an actual giant lizard. The remake, however, lacked the charm of the original and was not a great success. Fans of the original objected to the new look of Emmerich’s monster, while almost all aspects of the film were panned by critics, who felt that the film put so much emphasis on action sequences featuring computer-generated imagery (CGI) that it neglected almost everything else. It also ignored the allegorical significance that made Godzilla such a special figure: the monster is still created by radiation, but now attacks New York City and is killed by planes after becoming entangled in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, thus openly borrowing the ending of King Kong. Some even felt that the action sequences themselves were uncreative, largely mimicking effects that had already been seen in Jurassic Park films in 1993 and 1997. Nevertheless, the film grossed $379 million worldwide, suggesting that the Godzilla brand still had a certain attraction for audiences, even in this heavily diluted form.

The next American reboot of Godzilla, helmed by British director Gareth Edwards (with participation of Toho Studios in the international distribution), was a bigger success, bringing in over $500 million in worldwide box office receipts. Edwards had directed the low-budget, but very interesting 2010 British film Monsters, in which a giant tentacled monster threatens Mexico. He moved smoothly into the big-budget world with Godzilla, a film that made Godzilla the hero, the King of the Monsters, after he saves humanity by defeating two huge MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) who threaten to destroy civilization. The heroic (if enigmatic) characterization of Godzilla, combined with the box-office success of the film, pointed toward the beginning of a new life for the franchise. Indeed, a sequel to this film, entitled Godzilla: King of the Monsters (directed by Michael Dougherty), was released in May of 2019, though it was less successful than its predecessor. Here, in a film that includes some clever references to the original 1954 Godzilla, the giant monster emerges even more clearly as the savior of humanity, defeating King Ghidora, a three-headed alien invader bent on transforming earth’s environment to resemble that of its home planet. This motif potentially introduces some interesting environmentalist themes, but this is a film (clearly operating under the influence of the huge recent commercial success of comic book films such as those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) that is more concerned with creating spectacular action sequences than with thoughtful social commentary. In addition, Legendary Entertainment has also followed in the footsteps of Marvel by creating a cinematic universe built around giant monsters (dubbed the “Monsterverse”), beginning with the 2014 and 2019 Godzilla films, as well as Kong: Skull Island (2017). The fourth Monsterverse film will combine these two classic giant monsters. Godzilla vs. Kong, directed by Adam Wingard, is currently scheduled for release in 2021, after COVID-related delays.

Download Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) | by desayur kolotrok |  Medium
The Monsterverse Godzilla.

Other Recent Trends

Legendary’s Monsterverse is a sign, more than anything, of the way in which recent advances in digital special effects technology are ideally suited for the giant monster genre. Not surprisingly, then, a number of other giant monster films have appeared in recent years, beyond the Kong and Godzilla films of the Monsterverse. This trend, though, really goes all the way back to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), a film that moved Spielberg to the forefront of New Hollywood directors. It was also a film that changed the Hollywood business model. Coming on the hills of such megahits as The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973), Jaws was the biggest hit of them all, encouraging Hollywood studios to shift their resources into the production and marketing of mega-budget blockbusters.

We famously don’t see much of the shark in Jaws, largely because of limitations in the functioning of the practical effects for that film. Many commentators have felt, though, that keeping the shark largely off the screen was actually an effective strategy. Nevertheless, it was Spielberg himself who made the first truly major breakthrough in the use of computer-generated special effects for what might be referred to as monster films. His Jurassic Park (1993), based on a 1990 novel of the same title by Michael Crichton was a huge hit, partly because audiences flocked to theaters just to see the technological marvels that were its computer-generated dinosaurs[5]. Jurassic Park deals with a wild-animal park that is established on a remote island. The park is special because the animals in it include dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric species, specimens of which have been produced through genetic engineering, based on DNA samples extracted from the blood contained in amberized mosquitos that fed on the animals tens of millions of years earlier. The film involves an inspection tour of the park prior to its opening in which a team of independent scientists is brought in to verify that the park is safe before it is opened to the general public. These scientists include paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and chaos theorist Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum).

Predictably, the park is not safe. Things go badly wrong during the inspection tour, and many of the dinosaurs, including an especially deadly pack of small, quick velociraptors, break free of their restraints (largely because of human sabotage) and begin to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, things threaten to get even more out of control when it is discovered that the dinosaurs are breeding, even though all of them were supposed to be female. An extra dimension of suspense is added by the fact that two young children are present on the tour, but, after a number of close calls (and casualties among the secondary characters), the major characters (and the children) manage to escape the island by helicopter. Nevertheless, the film’s lessons about the dangers of tampering with nature remain clear.

Jurassic Park was a breakthrough film that employed a combination of advanced animatronics (electromechanical models) and state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery to produce creatures that were far more realistic and believable than those featured in previous dinosaur films. Indeed, the film itself was marketed largely on the basis of its astounding special effects, and to a large extent the film is not really about genetically engineered dinosaurs but about computer-generated ones. In any case, audiences paid to see these dinosaurs in droves, making Jurassic Park the highest-grossing film in history at that time, though it has been eclipsed many times since, including by two of its own sequels. It remains Spielberg’s most commercially successful film as of this writing. Spielberg also directed a sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), while a second sequel, Jurassic Park III (2001) was directed by Joe Johnston.

After Jurassic Park III (2001), plans were in place to produce a fourth Jurassic Park film in short order, but those plans were ultimately put on hold. The franchise, did, however, eventually return to production with the release of Jurassic World, directed by Colin Trevorrow, in 2015. This film is set 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park and based on the premise that a functional dinosaur-themed amusement park (named Jurassic World) has now been in operation for years—on Isla Nublar, the same island as the planned park of the original film. The park functions well. However, consumerism being what it is, the operators of the park are driven to innovate and to provide continually bigger and better attractions for their customers. Eventually, they take the dangerous step of moving beyond the mere cloning of actual dinosaurs and start to use genetic engineering to create entirely new hybrid species, including the Indominus rex, whose DNA is artificially constructed from a basic Tyrannosaurus rex matrix, but enhanced with genetic material from other species to make it bigger, more ferocious, and scarier than the original.

Predictably, in what is essentially a version of the Frankenstein story, the new creature gets out of control and starts to wreak havoc in the park. Meanwhile, the plot is complicated by the fact that International Genetics (InGen for short), the company founded by John Hammond to produce the original dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, has now grown into an evil corporate entity more interested in profits than in scientific discovery. The plot is thus significantly complicated by their desire to monetize the research behind Jurassic World, which includes efforts—spearheaded by their security chief, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio)—to weaponize the dinosaurs.

By the end of the film, the park has been essentially destroyed, but the Indominus rex has been defeated by the efforts of protagonist Owen Grady (Christ Pratt) and park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), who manage to employ a combination of a real Tyrannosaurus rex and Grady’s team of trained Velociraptors to defeat the artificially created monster. And, of course, love blooms between Grady and Dearing, because Jurassic World is a big-budget Hollywood film. It was also a big commercial success, bringing in nearly $1.7 billion in global box-office receipts, against a production budget of approximately $150 million.

This success spurred the relatively quick development of a sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), in which Pratt and Howard reprised their roles from Jurassic World. This film had an even bigger budget (at around $180 million) and was another major box-office success, though the total worldwide box-office receipts fell to a little over $1.3 billion. Here, a volcanic eruption threatens to destroy the remaining dinosaurs roaming on the island, and Grady and Dearing struggle to save them. Not surprisingly, a third Jurassic World film is currently in development, with much of the original cast still attached, including Pratt and Howard in their original roles.

Among other notable recent giant monster films, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) is one of the most impressive. Here, giant monsters invade the earth from another dimension, entering our world through an interdimensional rift with highly destructive intentions. In turn, humans respond by constructing giant robotic warriors (known as “Jaegers”) that are, at least for a while, able to defeat the monsters in hand-to-hand combat (though often with a little help from advanced weaponry). More and more monsters come through the rift, however, and it is eventually learned that they are being sent by advanced aliens (the “Precursors”) bent on taking the earth away from humans in order to exploit its resources for their own purposes. Luckily, the humans are able to close the rift, apparently making the worldsafe from future interdimensional invasions.

Made by a director known for his unique visual flair, Pacific Rim is a film whose $200 million budget allowed del Toro (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film) to let his outlandish imagination run wild. It is, indeed, a visually impressive film, filled with large-scale (and extremely violent) battles. The monsters, clearly based on those traditionally seen in Japanese Kaijufilms, are particularly grotesque and baroque, while the Jaegers, clearly based on Japanese mechas, are visually impressive pieces of hardware—even if neither the monsters nor the Jaegers seem particularly believable. Believability, of course, is not a major criterion in this film, which is more concerned with creating visual spectacles than with producing believable science fiction.

Pacific Rim is clearly a film designed purely for entertainment, as can be seen not only in its spectacular visual style, but also in its rather clichéd characters, such as the courageous Jaeger pilots with traumatic pasts—including not only the lead pilots, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), but also their commander, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The film also adds a number of sentimental elements, such as the story of how Pentecost, himself once a Jaeger pilot, saved Mori from a Kaiju when she was a young girl, and then raised her as his own child. And, of course, Mori and Becket, co-pilots of the crucial Jaeger that seals the rift, also fall in love. Meanwhile, the violence of the film is leavened by numerous comic elements, provided by an array of colorful and outrageous characters, of whom Hannibal Chou (Ron Perlman), a black marketeer who deals in products made from various Kaiju organs, is perhaps the most amusing.

Pacific Rim's Kaiju Ranked In Order Of Awesomeness - GameSpot
The giant monsters of “Pacific Rim” show a clear kaiju influence.

Pacific Rim was a particularly big hit in China, where it made more than $114 million in box-office receipts, possibly because much of the action concerns Kaiju attacks on Hong Kong. It was not an especially big box-office success in the U.S., with receipts of just over $100 million, though its worldwide total box-office receipts of just over $411 was good enough to justify a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising, based on similar premises, in 2018. Directed and co-written by Steven S. DeKnight (and co-produced by del Toro), this film did even more poorly at the U.S. box office ($59 million), though it did take in $231 million outside the U.S., against a production budget of roughly $150 million. Pacific Rim: Uprising includes significantly more information about the Precursors and ends with a suggestion that humans might soon be ready to go on the offensive and take the battle into the Precursor dimension. This ending appears designed to lead to still another sequel, but no such sequel has yet been announced at the time of this writing.

WORKS CITED

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.

Clarens, Carlos. An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films: The Classic Era, 1895–1967. 1967. De Capo Press, 1997.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties: Vol. 1, 1950–1957. McFarland, 1982.

NOTES

[1] This section was adapted from my 2001 book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War.

[2] The beast thus resembles the better-known Godzilla, another prehistoric monster who was awakened by nuclear testing.

[3] Beginning of the End threatens to introduce an interesting female character, in the person of journalist Audrey Aimes (Peggie Castle), who defies the local authorities in her quest to get the story of the giant locusts. Never fear, though: as soon as she meets the brilliant-but-manly Wainwright, Aimes grows submissive and recedes passively into the background.

[4] Haruo Nakajima, the actor who played Godzilla in this and eleven subsequent films, died in 2017.

[5] There’s even a 2012 Canadian film called Jurassic Shark, which parodies both Jaws and Jurassic Park.