There have been hundreds of monster movies over the years, but only a handful of enduringly great movie monsters. Of those, only two were created for the screen: King Kong, the giant ape atop the Empire State Building, and his Japanese heir, Godzilla, the city-flattening sea monster who's a genuinely terrific pop icon. He not only stars in movies — Hollywood is bringing out a new Godzilla on May 16 — but he's even played basketball with Charles Barkley in a commercial for Nike.
It's been six decades since Godzilla first hit the screen, and to celebrate the big guy's birthday, Rialto Pictures is releasing Ishiro Honda's 1954 original — in a restored, 60th-anniversary edition — in theaters. I've seen Godzilla many times since I was a kid, but watching it again, I was struck that it might be the best single film about the terrors of the nuclear age.
I suspect you know the plot. It begins when American H-bomb tests in the Pacific disturb the watery environment that's the home of Gojira, as the monster is called in Japanese. After sinking assorted ships, this enormous beast winds up in Tokyo, where he stomps on buildings, flosses with power lines and blasts citizens with his radioactive bad breath. When the army is unable to stop him, the only hope is a new invention called the Oxygen Destroyer. But its idealistic creator is reluctant to reveal it for fear it will become a weapon — just look at the destruction that followed from splitting the atom.
Yet even as the inventor says this, the movie itself is offering us the seductive spectacle of violent ruin. And make no mistake: Destruction is great to look at. There's an amoral pleasure to be had in watching Godzilla reduce Tokyo to fiery rubble, rather like the beauty of seeing those napalmed palm trees flare like matches in Apocalypse Now or the illicit thrill of seeing the White House get obliterated in Independence Day — before Sept. 11, of course. Quite clearly, it's this joy in destruction that helped make Godzilla influential, especially in Hollywood, which over the past half-century has fed the worldwide audience's appetite for images of spectacular violence.
That said, Godzilla's real strength lies not in its effects — impressive for the time — but in its underlying emotional and cultural seriousness. It's not simply that the music is often doleful rather than exciting or that we see doomed children set off Geiger counters. The movie has a gravity that comes from being created in a Japan that knew what it was to have children die from radiation poisoning and to see its capital city in flames. Both drawn to and terrified of the monster's power, the movie is steeped in Japan's traumatic historical experience. It has weight. It means something.
Godzilla's resonance is also inseparable from something else that once defined the best monster movies — a sense of compassion for the monster. Boris Karloff's Frankenstein may have been scary, but we also felt his frailty and fear at being hunted. King Kong was dangerous, sure, but his eyes were charged with almost human feeling when he gazed at Fay Wray. The same is true of Godzilla, who starts out wreaking havoc but, by the film's end, takes on a melancholy, sad-faced grandeur.
These days, our pop culture doesn't encourage such identification. Ever since Jaws and Alien and Predator, whose creatures are ruthless murder machines, our monsters have increasingly become soulless things to be destroyed. Consider today's favorite monster, the zombie. Although zombies could hardly seem more human — heck, they just were human — the walking dead have no individuality and run in packs. They basically exist to have their heads shot off in movies and TV shows that resemble video games.
Godzilla is not remotely like this. In Jim Shepard's wonderful short story "Gojira, King of the Monsters" — part of his collection titled You Think That's Bad — Shepard offers a fictionalized account of the making of the movie. At one point, Shepard has director Ishiro Honda explain why the vanquishing of Godzilla feels so sad, and his words sum up brilliantly what gives Godzilla its strange power. "By the time the movie ends," Honda says, "[Godzilla] is like a hero whose departure we regret. It's like part of us leaving. That's what makes it so hard. The monster the child knows best is the monster he feels himself to be."
John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com..