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What’s Scary Is to See ‘Godzilla’ Go Hollywood

Japan’s most endearing legacy in the last half of this century is not electronics or autos that run forever. It’s the green, horny-plated, lumbering, 40-story-high, radioactive, fire-breathing star of all of those elaborately cheesy “Godzilla” movies that have made the rounds on television.

You know, the giant reptile with an insatiable desire to trample.

Sifting through the goofiness, you can find in Godzilla--who became the scourge of Tokyo after being unthawed by unwise atom testing--a cautionary message about the arms race that should be mandatory viewing by the governments of India and Pakistan. Yet more than anything, Godzilla is ever synonymous with exquisitely inane plots, toy box special effects, bad dubbing and cataclysmic campiness--qualities you can’t get enough of in pursuit of laughter’s big bang.

What a supreme kick these movies are, the most rewarding of which, says your humble servant, is “Godzilla vs. Mothra,” a 1964 epic featuring a clash between a rampaging Godzilla and a noble, giant furry moth and its progeny, a pair of worm-like caterpillars who spray some weird substance from their nasal areas, appearing to snot Godzilla into submission.

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What sublime nonsense; what a tribute to unslick production relying on men in monster suits knocking over and squashing miniature electrical towers and buildings that could fit on a Monopoly board.

And how different from TriStar’s just-released theatrical feature “Godzilla,” which buckles under its own ornateness in creating a human-chomping monster that is truly scary as it savages and terrorizes Manhattan. Making Godzilla scary instead of a lovable big joke ruins him.

Although bilingual for years, moviedom seems now to be speaking the language of TV more than ever, whether the superimposed realities of “The Truman Show” or Sandra Bullock in “Hope Floats,” as someone on a tear after being victimized by one of those daytime talk shows that springs humiliation on guests with the cameras rolling.

About to arrive, moreover, is a theatrical version of the Fox hit “The X-Files,” and coming this summer is “The Avengers,” a big-screen remake of the charmingly mod old British series that, one hopes, does not discard the cheeky humor and minimalist approach to irony that made the earlier rendering that ran in the U.S. so ideal for the small screen.

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Even though the spate of earlier “Godzilla” films were first released theatrically, American TV anointed them on a mass scale, giving them a level of fame that ultimately made possible this latest big-budget “Godzilla” release, whose tone and sheer size are the antithesis of what made its predecessors so much fun.

Hollywood is into heart-pumping thrills--the bigger the fright, in some cases, the bigger the box office. Taking itself very seriously as a monster film, the new “Godzilla” trips over its own gigantic footprints. It has a faint sense of humor--Godzilla initially thumping into town, for example, as purple Barney plays on a TV screen--but little of the self-mockery that epitomizes the earlier Godzilla movies that have run on TV.

The latter’s farcical ambience was captured perfectly in an “SCTV” sketch from the early 1980s that found the monstrous Grogan--a 30-foot-tall, hideously spike-headed behemoth with glowing yellow eyes, a mouth full of fangs and steel-like claws--promoting his new autobiography in an interview in Japan on something called “The Tim Ishimuni Show.”

Inside the Grogan costume, and electronically inserted into the talk show set so that he appeared to be about 10 times larger than the host, was that master farceur John Candy.

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Asked what bugged him the most, Grogan replied, “Power lines.”

The serene, soft-spoken Grogan wanted to do a straight interview, but Tim (played by Dave Thomas) would have nothing of it, insisting in a thick Japanese accent that Grogan stay in character. Grogan explained that radiation was no longer a problem for him. “As the result of an unauthorized nuclear test, I was awakened from a 2,000-year sleep, and it’s really worn off now.”

Tim pressed on. “What about your unquenchable lust to destroy and stomp on us?” Grogan insisted he wasn’t as violent as advertised. “But Grogan,” Tim argued, “what about your irrational need to crush everything small?” Not true, said Grogan.

Tim (in terror): “Don’t crush me! No!”

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Grogan (calmly): “I’m not crushing you, Tim!”

Tim: “If you were going to crush me, how would you do it?”

Before Grogan could respond, three Japanese soldiers rushed out and started shooting upward at him. Grogan: “Get ‘em outta here, or I’ll crush the lot of you!”

Tim persuaded Grogan to allow a pilot friend of his to buzz Grogan in his jet. It turned out to be a toy plane, of course, which Grogan promptly crushed in mid-air and threw to the ground.

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The things you’re subjected to on a book tour.

If you’ve a yen for authentic Godzilla, meanwhile, the original films are available on video. Be sure to check out Godzilla and his arch foe, Rodan, uniting to battle the hideous three-headed Ghidrah. Worth the price alone are the sight of Godzilla using judo, and later gloating over Hydra and leaping into the air triumphantly.

Another day, another yen.

But first try retitled-for-TV “Godzilla vs. Mothra” (originally named “Godzilla vs. the Thing”). A real stunner are its singing, 6-inch-high twin girls who live on an island that was altered by atomic experiments, washing Mothra’s egg out to sea and, in effect, into the arms of an unscrupulous businessman who wants to turn the larva into a tourist attraction. This intriguing human plot line is subservient to the action.

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Suddenly, the earth bulges and Godzilla surfaces, breathing fire, screeching like a thousand sea gulls, plodding forward fully erect on his hind legs, swinging his powerful tail like a club, and flattening buildings under his feet as all of Japan panics. A loudspeaker: “Emergency! Emergency! Godzilla is approaching!”

On comes the inevitable military assault, on come the soldiers, on comes the air force, on come wave after wave of tiny tanks, none of this massive firepower having an effect on Godzilla, who appears to have no agenda other than to crush.

By singing to Mothra, the twins persuade him to leave the island and come to the aid of the Japanese. The ensuing titanic battle between the two giants is truly earth-shuddering, the highlight being Mothra pulling Godzilla by his tail into a ditch.

Ultimately, though, it’s the sons of Mothra that save Japan, and perhaps even the universe, after a few tunes from the twins convince them to hatch from their egg and take up the fight. Not to ruin the ending, but suffice it to say that Godzilla ends up having a very bad day, and sons of Mothra are last seen swimming back to the island to reunite with the twins.

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Now that’s a movie.


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