Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Criterion) Review

Despite being little more than a passive observer, Raymond Burr’s insertion into the Japanese Godzilla resonates better than it should. Writer Al C. Ward crafts some genuine tension, fears, and sincerity as he tries to translate this distinctly Japanese piece for a Western audience, even if any rumblings of American involvement are excised.

Compared to what would come, say the hack job of King Kong vs. Godzilla or a Dr. Pepper fueled Godzilla 1985, King of the Monsters might be the sharpest, cleanest Americanization of the entire series. There’s some respect for the source material, even if it’s turned into giant monster exploitation. In 1956, the mutant monster cycle was beginning a downswing, but not enough that producers couldn’t squeeze a few more dollars out of it.

Burr’s character, United World News reporter Steve Martin, is swept up in a love triangle, Dr. Serizawa’s internal conflict regarding the Godzilla-killing oxygen destroyer, and of course the rampage of the monster. He’s a lucky guy to be that centered. With a little ingenuity, Burr carries on conversations with Emiko, chats over the phone with Serizawa, and goes face-to-face with Japanese legend Takashi Shimura… except he doesn’t do any of that. Stand-ins prove suitable when shot from the back. Aside from questionable edits and dubious camera angles, King of the Monsters is more ingenious than most give it credit for.

Is it acceptable? Well, therein lies the debate, director/editor Terry O. Morse cutting the movie down to a barren 80-minutes, a whole 20-minutes shorter than the Japanese version. Including the scenes with Burr, little of the original film is left, sans monster smashing. Lost in the dub is the emotion and horror, Godzilla played up for its visual effects and “dynamic violence,” or so the trailer says. Curiously, or maybe even respectfully, extensive footage goes untranslated, neither dubbed or subtitled. That leaves some blanks in film’s shell, for decades leaving questions amongst overseas viewers.

The long-standing rumor that Burr was required to shoot his scenes in a single day has since been debunked, although since they were filmed in less than a week, that’s not to say they were any more careful about it. What’s left is an oddity, a time capsule from when Hollywood clearly saw value in a foreign market’s product, but didn’t want to spend the money to actually do it themselves. Instead, you get bastardized projects like this, a sort of amalgamation of non-matching American and Japanese ideas coming together with enough flair and generated curiosity to get a pass.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

Criterion includes King of the Monsters as a supplement, the attention (and bitrate) clearly given to the Japanese version of the film as it is the selling point. Struck from a master comprised of 35 and 16mm elements, the struggle here is pushing beyond the jumpy grain structure. Certain scenes carry elements that under duress from the compression, breaking down and thus lacking the precision of their Japanese counterparts.

Watching both versions back-to-back reveals the American source to be brighter, black levels during those nighttime Godzilla raids lacking the punchy depth they have in the original footage. US audiences are clearly more about the spectacle than appreciating moody lighting. The slight boost doesn’t reveal any negatives, compression still lost to the darkness and the images maintains a grim, foreboding look.

Print damage comes and goes with regards to the footage captured specifically for the American edition, some scenes awash with scratches and dirt that made it through the restoration process. Others have made it unscathed. As Burr first begins to make his recording, prior to Godzilla’s second mainland attack, the sequence goes by without so much as a speck. Some elements have clearly made their way through the decades better than others.

Source materials remain sharp whether damaged or not, the lines or stitching on suits presented without flicker or shimmering. Close-ups of Burr as Tokyo is slowly roasting are exceptional, beads of sweat resolved along with facial definition. Most of the inserted footage is rather boring in its visual execution, I.e., set design doesn’t provide anything of merit to discuss, leaving the mounds of medium shots and zooms for this one to handle. It’s miles ahead of where the film has been prior, even with the stronger level of compression applied.

Video ★★★★☆ 

If you find yourself struggling to appreciate the intricacy of the Japanese version’s audio, listen to the original dialogue here and you’ll learn how thankful you should be. What remains is beyond repair, multi-generational and barely audible behind a wall of haze. It’s never integral to the way King of the Monsters is telling its narrative (or it would have been translated), but the constant jump in fidelity is jarring.

The PCM mono effort salvages the dub and Burr’s narration though, even if it’s a hair scratchier than what is heard within the original cut. Only one line comes through as faded, “Neither man nor his machines,” a minute or so before Burr is crushed from the falling building, fades into the mix. The first part of, “neither” is almost lost. Akira Ifukube’s score is, like the dialogue, removed from the source print and takes a fidelity his as well. The choir over the rarely seen end credits is wildly distorted, the worst example of damage on the disc. At the very least, the rest is intact and still richer than it has been prior.

Audio ★★★☆☆ 

Since King of the Monsters itself is a supplement, bonuses refer to the Japanese cut almost entirely. However, author David Kalat does give this version its own commentary, and Criterion provides the movie’s grand trailer.

Extras ★★☆☆☆ 

Note: These screen shots are merely meant to show US footage and a handful of Japanese-filmed shots for comparison. If you want screens of Godzilla, check DoBlu’s Gojira review. There are plenty of them in that set.