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Cheesy Godzilla is back

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Guy in a lizard suit stomps on a building. Ahh, the memories.

Godzilla's back, the original, blue-blood Godzilla of almost two dozen cheesy Japanese movies, not the pumped-up, digitized dinosaur created for the monster-budgeted Hollywood version in 1998.

"Godzilla 2000," which opened today, is the first of the Japanese reptile flicks to play American theaters in 15 years. Distributor Sony is launching the new movie in about 2,000 theaters, hoping nostalgia for one of moviedom's favorite behemoths and interest in Japanese creations such as "Pokémon" will help fill seats.

Sony has acquired recent "Godzilla" movies for video release in the United States. The idea to return the low-tech lizard to cinemas came when Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake visited Japan last year and saw huge lines for the movie at theaters.

"Clearly, the Godzilla myth is downright beloved in Japan," Blake said. "People here certainly have a lot of recognition for Godzilla. There's some affection for him among baby boomers, and kids may take to it because things like 'Pokémon' have them interested in Japanese product."

The monster's first screen appearance came in 1954, an amalgam of "King Kong" and "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms." Godzilla's name in his home country, "Gojira," combines the Japanese words for gorilla and whale.

The U.S. release of the first "Godzilla" was re-edited and added Raymond Burr as a news reporter to give it American flavor.

A string of sequels followed, including "Godzilla vs. the Thing," "Godzilla's Revenge" and "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla."

Since Godzilla supposedly evolved because of radiation created by humans, some have intellectualized the monster as a cautionary tale about nuclear power and weapons. Others simply found the movies goofy fun.

Toho Studios, current producer of the movies, had killed off the monster in 1995's "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" in anticipation of the coming Hollywood version. Though "Godzilla," starring Matthew Broderick, grossed a healthy $380 million worldwide, many fans felt it failed to capture the spirit of the giant reptile, who generally tries to protect humanity despite his destructiveness.

For "Godzilla 2000," Toho simply picked up the story as if the monster had never died. This time, Godzilla battles a 60 million-year-old meteorite that transforms into a UFO and later another gigantic creature.

"This was kind of a rebirth movie," said Michael Schlesinger, a Sony executive who supervised the U.S. version of "Godzilla 2000." "It was such a spectacular success in Japan, we decided it was worth taking a shot — maybe the time was right for Godzilla to come back to theaters."

The theatrical release of "Godzilla 2000" is not a huge risk for Sony. The studio acquired the U.S. rights, re-edited the movie and dubbed it into English for less than $1 million. Film prints and advertising run an estimated $10 million to $12 million, modest by Hollywood standards.

Like previous Japanese takes on "Godzilla," the title character is played by a stuntman (Tsutomu Kitagawa) inside an elaborate costume. Instead of the computer-animated effects when Godzilla took Manhattan in the Hollywood version, the creature in "Godzilla 2000" runs amok on miniature sets.

The effects are a notch above previous "Godzilla" movies but still primitive. The movie also features the wretched dialogue audiences love to giggle over, part of the campy charm of a "Godzilla" picture.

"I can't imagine a life form that could survive 60 million years," utters one character. "Good lord, let's just hope it's friendly."

Godzilla himself is played more seriously. In past films, there was the time a monster buried Godzilla alive and did a Highland fling in triumph. Or the scene where Godzilla and another monster played catch with a rock. Or the moment in "Son of Godzilla" where papa reptile tries to teach his boy to breathe fire, but the tyke coughs up only a smoke ring.

"Almost everyone has seen at least one Godzilla movie," said Bill Warren, who writes books about science-fiction movies. "They tend to be pretty childlike and childish, like Roy Rogers movies. They're pictures made for kids, but made by sophisticated people, so the movies start getting weird in interesting ways."

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