I was a huge Godzilla kid. Between my dad’s love of B-Movies and my own love of monsters, it just felt like fate. I only owned a couple on VHS, most of my viewing came from the Sci-Fi Channel or TNT, maybe Joe Bob’s MonsterVision or other movie hosts of the era. The good chunk of Godzilla flicks I gorged on as a kid hailed from the Showa era, mostly flicks of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. And that’s exactly what a kid would want, Godzilla as the hero going up against an endlessly varied assortment of monsters. Yet my favorite childhood Godzilla film, and maybe my favorite even now, was absolutely Godzilla 1985. Along with Godzilla vs. Megalon, that was one of the only ones I actually owned on tape, and I practically wore it out. It wasn’t until years later that I even saw it in its original Japanese version, 1984’s The Return of Godzilla. But even though it’s not among the most celebrated, rewatching it in its original form as an adult, I think it’s still pretty strong. Everything I remember loving about it is there, but I also found it to be a pretty smart update of the 1954 original, which I think is definitely what it set out to be.
There are natural similarities between the two, especially in that both received an Americanized version starring Raymond Burr. But I think the similarities run deeper and are, by and large, more meaningful than that. First, you have to consider the time in which Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985 came out. This was the same era that produced remakes of The Thing, The Fly, Invaders from Mars, The Blob and so many more, not to mention homages to the 1950s like Night of the Creeps and Night of the Comet. 1954’s Gojira is, perhaps, the reigning king of ’50s monster movies. It’s the gold standard, so it only makes sense that it got a reboot as well. The Return of Godzilla, however, is not a straightforward remake. Instead, it beat the new Halloween to the punch by ignoring everything that had come since, serving only as a direct sequel to the original film.
Not only does that allow it to stand apart from the likes of The Thing, The Blob, etc., it’s also a smart move in general to parallel the original movie and its themes. First and foremost, though, let’s look at why these movies were being revisited. After all, nostalgia’s always been a part of entertainment and genre movies especially have always been fairly cyclical. Right now we’re absolutely in the middle of a wave of nostalgia for the 1980s, and just as we had in that decade, we’re seeing a mix of homages and outright remakes and/or re-adaptations of fondly remembered properties of the era. But in the ‘80s—and to an extent, now—there was also something else going on because that decade wasn’t just experiencing a glut of nostalgia.
Perhaps even more than nostalgia, we started returning to so many of the same themes because we were experiencing so many of the same global fears. There was a cold war resurgence, international relations were at best proving to have serious friction and at worst dissolving. They were boiling over and people started to have the same fears they’d had in the ‘50s, all over again. Communism, countries turning on each other and, above all, the looming threat of nuclear war.
The 1950s were, naturally, the decade of the atomic age monster movie. That decade featured countless films about larger-than-life creatures created by the atomic bomb, leaving nothing but devastation in their wake. Gojira was the film that understood that most. Out of every creature feature of that decade, it’s without a doubt the most powerful parable about nuclear war, from the country most qualified to tell that story. The movie is almost documentary-like in its stark approach. It lingers on the destruction, it shows buildings being demolished at ground level and the footage looks very pointedly like the effects of a nuclear blast. There are families huddled together, moments before they die, mothers telling their children that they’ll be with their dead loved ones soon. With the lighthearted antics of the movies that followed it, I think it’s easy for people to forget just how bleak the original film actually is.
Return of Godzilla could easily have been a remake, considering that it wiped out all of the sequels to start with a clean slate. But it’s actually a smarter choice to keep it in continuity with the original, as it allows for a comparison and a new examination of the same basic fears. This county has survived Godzilla’s attack once before and no one has forgotten the monster or the destruction that followed in his wake. One of the main characters lost his parents in Godzilla’s original attack. And many of the beats are the same, Godzilla is spotted and gradually makes his way toward the mainland, with homages to particular moments like the original’s train sequence. But there’s a difference in the approach to the monster, how he is both dealt with and talked about. Return of Godzilla is much more politically-driven. This is one of the things that people tend to criticize it for, as it definitely takes much of the screen time from Godzilla himself.
There’s even a cover-up at the center of the first act, in that one of the witnesses of Godzilla’s attack is being kept at the hospital in secret because the government does not want the truth to get out, that Godzilla was responsible for the attack, and thus fails to share information that could have helped people prepare for when the creature inevitably reached shore. Its appropriate, then, to have a human cast of characters that include a journalist and a witness wrapped up in the center of the government’s attempt to cover up Godzilla sightings so as not to cause panic—as well as not to have to admit to the reality of the monster’s return.
Yet it definitely makes sense for this to be a more discussion-based, politically driven film, because that’s how things changed after the atomic bomb was dropped. Everything became a discussion of when it would be right to use such a weapon again, knowing how much catastrophic damage had been done the first time. In Return of Godzilla, there are many constant reminders to what Godzilla did. And it changes the metaphor slightly in that now, characters discuss the actual possibility of using nuclear weapons in an effort to stop the creature, which only makes sense as that defined the cold war during the 1980s, the idea of having to fight fire with fire, the nuclear arms race, of stopping a devastating weapon with an equally devastating weapon. A discussion in which war can only be stopped, can potentially be halted, but probably not defeated. A discussion in which, no matter what happens, nobody really wins. Japan’s leaders take the stance that nuclear weapons will not be used on Godzilla under any circumstances, even if he reaches the mainland. And while other leaders agree to this, Russia goes against this agreement by launching their own missile at the creature anyway, which feels very appropriate to the fears of the era.
The Americanized Godzilla 1985 puts even more emphasis on describing the inevitability of Godzilla. While the original dealt with Godzilla as a threat that needed to be destroyed, this version instead bluntly portrays him as a reality that needs to be accepted, and that is a very 1980s American interpretation of the global nuclear arms race, from the country astronomically ahead of that race at the time, not to mention the one largely responsible for it to begin with.
Still, the notion of Godzilla as something that cannot necessarily be undone shines in both versions. Even with its moments of camp and humor, there’s a generally sinister tone to Return of Godzilla that attempts to recapture something of the original’s melancholy. It’s not just a retread and it does add its own things to the table, particularly the genius idea of showing a Godzilla-sized flea, which is almost its own little mini-horror movie set on an isolated boat in the feature’s first few minutes.
Godzilla himself, like the original, is drawn to nuclear energy and this highlights the intriguing paradoxical nature of the character. After all, Godzilla is a being created by atomic energy and a metaphor for the dangers of man’s unchecked power, yet is also a representation of the earth and nature’s ability to correct that power and keep mankind in check when we refuse to keep ourselves in line.
Godzilla is portrayed as a mostly instinctual creature, even being distracted from his nuclear power plant breakfast to follow a bunch of migrating birds out to sea. The explanation for this is credited to Godzilla’s loose dinosaur origins and the amount of shared genetic history between dinosaurs and birds, which is impressive for a movie predating Jurassic Park by nine years. By and large, he’s portrayed as an animal with a few knowing moments of self-awareness to elevate him beyond that. Still, he’s a destructive force and for all intents and purposes the “villain” of the feature. Yet, there’s no cheering when he’s defeated at the end. Far from it, in fact.
Return of Godzilla sees the titular monster get what might be his most melancholy sendoff of the entire franchise. The humans have crafted a plan, uniting governments—even namely the US and Russia—in a very Watchmen-esque way, to destroy Godzilla using that instinctual guiding system leftover from the dinosaurs to use sound to lure Godzilla into a volcano. You can read this ending one or two ways, given how it plays out. The first way is that they succeed in driving Godzilla, simply an animal that didn’t ask to be made, into the volcano and killing him because they have no other option. There’s no joy, no victory, because none of the (admittedly massive) destruction that Godzilla has caused is really the creature’s fault. It’s ours. There’s a sweeping orchestral score, and everyone looks on, solemn. For the most part, that’s absolutely what’s being depicted. But there’s another element I’ve started noticing on rewatches.
Even though this movie wipes all other sequels out of continuity, Godzilla’s never really been portrayed as just an animal, there’s always been a self-awareness that has helped to make the character so endearing for so long. Even if we only see glimpses of that in Return of Godzilla, I still think it’s absolutely on display in certain key moments, particularly at the end. When Godzilla has been led to the edge of the volcano, he stops and sees the machine that’s responsible for the noise he’s been tricked into following. Godzilla has already been beaten pretty bad at this point, with an almost-death scene during his raid on the city—another fairly solemn sequence in which all sound drained out of the movie save for Godzilla’s slowing heartbeat. When Godzilla sees the machines responsible for the frequency, he stops, seemingly registering what’s happening. The next step he makes seems to be of his own accord, before he falls into the volcano, landing on a ledge and—from what it looks like—taking the final plunge on his own.
It absolutely looks like Godzilla, even after seeing and making some kind of sense out of what’s happening, makes the decision to dive into the volcano at least partially on his own. And there are so many different ways that could be read. It’s possible that he knows when he’s been defeated and accepts it, though it doesn’t really come across like that. It’s also possible that Godzilla, already wounded and/or dying, simply takes the last step of his own to have his own say in his death, ending his narrative on his terms, as is a frequent theme in Japanese fiction. It’s even possible—and the movie almost seems to suggest this most of all—that Godzilla himself is recognizing that the power he holds, which has been discussed in boardrooms endlessly throughout the movie, is too great to exist, that he is too powerful and too destructive to live, somewhat cementing himself as an aforementioned guardian of earth and the natural world by removing himself, its greatest atomic threat.
Or it’s possible that, as Raymond Burr often suggests in Godzilla 1985, the creature is also aware of its own inevitability and indestructibility. That having been momentarily beaten, Godzilla is only resting, because nuclear power, once created, cannot be un-created and neither can Godzilla. He cannot be unmade. The world cannot rid itself of that power, it can only house it, store it as they attempt to do by either killing or imprisoning Godzilla in this volcano, and hope that it stays put. But, as Godzilla so often parallels real-life, it almost never does.