For film fans who’ve lived with any franchise for decades, it’s often a fascinating experiment to go back to the first movie in any series and see how little it resembles its successors. Alien is a sophisticated, melancholy horror feature that’s a far cry from the increasingly weird, gory, fast-paced action beats of Ridley Scott’s recent films in the series. The original Friday the 13th is a surprisingly beautifully shot, moody movie that has very little to do with Jason Vorhees stalking sexed-up teenagers through the woods. In the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie, Freddy is meant to be scary and unstoppable, not the goofy mean jokester he became in later installments. And beloved genre franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek have evolved visually and tonally over the decades, in big and small ways, so that even directors who are openly trying to evoke the earliest films in those series still end up with something sleek, modern, and fast-paced that doesn’t really feel like where the series started. Filmmaking tastes and styles change over decades, and longrunning franchises tend to function as maps of those evolutions. But sequels also have a way of flattening any nuance out of an original story, yanking out and repeating their most popular elements until the original intention feels a bit lost.
That’s certainly the case with 1954’s Godzilla. Anyone Godzilla fans who have only seen weekend TV matinee movies like Son of Godzilla or Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, or modern reinterpretations like the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, or the recent Japanese reboot Shin Godzilla, may be surprised to look back at the original and see both how little Godzilla there is in it, and what a bad guy he is. Over the years, Godzilla morphed into a kind of big fun stompy dinosaur figure for kids to watch, and he gradually became a hero figure, often defending human cities from worse monsters. But in the original, he’s a stand-in for humanity’s hubris, he leaves thousands of people dead or dying of radiation, and there’s no way to stop him except for Japan’s most principled and angst-stricken scientist to turn an even larger weapon on him.
Honda’s Godzilla starts with a series of ships getting destroyed at sea, and it focuses first on the doomed sailors on those ships, then on the anguished responses of the families of the missing and dead. Nuclear testing has awoken or freed Godzilla, and he responds by seeking out power sources, flattening energy plants and stomping through small villages, leaving devastation in his wake. There’s very little daring scheming or heroic adventure in the first Godzilla, which regards its giant lizard as a weighty responsibility and a sign of human overreach. The film, shot in stark black and white and lit like a classic noir, looks and feels much more like a classic drama than like a monster movie. Its characters are dealing with a giant radioactive atomic-breathed lizard, but also with a love triangle that needs to be acknowledged, and with one scientist’s deep frustration that everyone’s more concerned with destroying Godzilla than with studying him.
It’s extremely easy to see in that first Godzilla movie the way Honda and his crew were pulling a classic horror trick by giving the dominant fears and anxieties of their era a threatening physical form that could be faced, fought, and ultimately beaten. The terror here is mostly of a titanic destructive force that leaves lingering agony and ongoing death behind it — again, the metaphor of the atomic bomb. But the 1954 Godzilla also contends with the fear that in a world in crisis, there’s no time for love or personal connections, and the fear that anything we create might be turned to unwanted and uncontrollable ends. It’s a movie about lost humanity as much as unstoppable monstrosity.
And that’s one of the reasons why there’s no real triumph when Godzilla’s destruction at the end of the movie. It feels much like the end of the original King Kong, where everyone’s a little chastened at what they had to do to survive. The architect of Godzilla’s destruction destroys his life work and commits suicide to make sure the weapon he created can never be used again, but as Professor Yamane points out, as long as humanity keeps testing terrible weapons, a new Godzilla could always arise. The threat isn’t a single monster, it’s the monster within all of us, etcetera and so forth, the kind of thing speculative fiction has been doing since the beginning. Here, it’s just particularly fascinating to see how those era-specific fears, and the more general anxiety we all share about environmental contamination and escalating warfare, rapidly morphed into a series about men in funny critter suits stomping on matchstick houses — and ultimately, into audiences cheering as a digital update of Godzilla fries an entire city to get to take down a fellow beastie.