With dozens of Godzilla films in existence, it's hard to pick just one that stands as the worst. Picking the best, on the other hand, is finally very easy.
The "Godzilla" that opens today is a 50th-anniversary Rialto Pictures rerelease of the monster's very first appearance on film, and it's a definitive, low-tech stomping of every sci-fi clone that has sprung up in the original's wake.
Titled "Gojira" when it debuted in Japan in 1954, this "Godzilla" is definitely not the Hollywood hack job that came out in 1956 titled "Godzilla, King of the Monsters!," which preserved only about 60 minutes of Ishiro Honda's masterpiece. In a tale that lives in sci-fi infamy, "King of the Monsters!" -- starring an especially dour Raymond Burr -- was the product of an American distributor and director, Terry O. Morse, who combined to turn Honda's rich atomic allegory into a sanitized generic triumph of man over beast. Critical scenes were cut, the chronology was completely reordered, and Burr's journalist character was awkwardly added to the mix, along with some of the most atrocious dubbing ever heard.
"King of the Monsters!" was what many of us came to think of as the classic brain-dead monster romp -- a fitting mother to films such as "Son of Godzilla" and "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster." But what most of us didn't know until now was that there is a brilliant "Godzilla" buried under all that silliness.
Rialto's rerelease restores Honda's black-and-white work to its full 98 minutes. More important, it recaptures the darkly comic and cautionary tones that the director intended. Gone are Burr and bad dubbing; you now have to read along, though the revised subtitles are certainly worth the effort.
The screenplay, by Honda and Takeo Murata from Shigeru Kayama's story, turns out to be anything but one-dimensional, offering both the larger-than-life tale of a creature unleashed by nuclear testing, and a more intimate look at the human fallout of man's decisions. It all begins with credits rolling over a black screen, backed by otherworldly howls and Akira Ifukube's ominous orchestrations. Already it's scarier than any other "Godzilla" we've seen, and Honda carefully builds tension and suspense as the tale unfolds chronologically.
First the Pacific Ocean explodes in a mysterious flash of light, causing some fishing boats to sink. Superstitious islanders say it's the work of a monster, but few believe the legend until Godzilla appears -- slowly revealing itself to stand dinosaurlike at 30 stories high, capable of crushing Tokyo in an extended rampage that remains one of the genre's great hissy fits.
Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (the renowned Takashi Shimura) warns that Godzilla is here to teach the world something profound about atomic warfare, a topic that even provokes sarcasm from Japanese commuters. Meanwhile, Yamane's daughter (Momoko Kochi) is preoccupied with how to dump the enigmatic scientist to whom she's betrothed so she can marry the handsome salvage diver she loves. This secondary story line is no mere filler; in the end, the scientist (Akihiko Hirata) will make a sacrifice that packs a huge emotional wallop when seen in context.
The restored "Godzilla" isn't the high-tech Lazy Susan of special effects and camp that was the hallmark of 1998's "Godzilla," which starred Matthew Broderick. Even when you polish up Honda's version, Eiji Tsuburaya's suitmation monster still looks like a half-melted chocolate Easter bunny, and his model sets and miniatures -- albeit impressively detailed -- are an unintended riot.
Still, Godzilla has never looked as good as in Honda's original conception, and few sci-fi creatures have equaled the size or impact of its first footsteps.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.