Friday, March 17, 2023

50 Years Ago Today: Godzilla vs Megalon

Released on this day in 1973, Godzilla vs. Megalon, was not released in the United States until 1976, the very year of King Kong’s return to the silver screen under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis.

Accordingly, this Japanese monster mash was a huge success in an America primed for a new monster movie.  

Godzilla vs. Megalon’s American success may have been due in part to the evocative and colorful poster art of the film which dramatically aped King Kong’s and showed Godzilla and Megalon standing astride the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Needless to say, in the actual film, Godzilla and Megalon never got close to Manhattan, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter. Still, that poster is gorgeous.

After an incredibly successful run at the American box office, Godzilla vs. Megalon took another victory lap, airing on prime-time NBC in 1977 -- in an hour-long slot -- and it drew impressive ratings. John Belushi hosted the presentation.

In the early 1990s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) gang riffed on Godzilla vs. Megalon to great comedic effect, and for years the series’ opening credits showed a clip of Godzilla’s impressive -- and bizarrely humorous -- jump kick in the movie.

Despite all the pop culture success and sense of nostalgia that surrounds this election year entry of the Godzilla saga, Godzilla vs. Megalon has never struck me as a particularly good movie, or a particularly strong entry in the Godzilla canon.

The reason why is simple: the movie needs more Godzilla and less Jet Jaguar.

The underwater kingdom of Seatopia sends a giant creature called Megalon, to destroy the surface world, which has been conducting dangerous nuclear tests for years, and therefore is threatening all life on the Earth. 

Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist, Goro and his young nephew, Rokuro test an amazing new robot called Jet Jaguar that becomes of great importance to the Seatopians and Megalon.  

Realizing that their robot can help save the world, Goro and Rokuro summon Jaguar to call on the help of Godzilla, who is now living on Monster Island.

But the Seatopians also call for reinforcements, and tag the monstrous Gigan to help Megalon destroy Godzilla.

With the survival of Tokyo and the world hanging in the balance, Jet Jaguar grows to enormous size to team up with Godzilla.

Simply put,Godzilla vs. Megalon is not one of my favorite Godzilla movies. In part, Godzilla vs. Megalon fails because Godzilla does not even appear until late in the action, and seems to be an after-thought in the narrative. Instead, the film functions largely as origin story for the unknown and new hero: Jet Jaguar, a robot with the baffling ability to grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and then shrink back.

How on Earth (or Seatopia for that matter) is his metal so flexible that it can stretch to giant size and then retract to human size?   

Alas, even putting aside such question of logic, Jet Jaguar -- a kind of poor man’s Ultraman -- just can’t carry the story on his silver shoulders, or make-up for Godzilla’s frequent absence.  Imagine a James Bond film in which 007 didn’t appear until sometime late in the second act, and you get the idea.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is not entirely bereft of good ideas, to be certain. Though barely enunciated, there’s absolutely a critique here about nuclear arms that fits in with the franchise’s noble tradition of questioning atomic power and man’s usage of it.  

Here, the Seatopians send Megalon to the surface because of the nuclear testing performed by the nations of the world.  

The Seatopians’ final solution to a world risking destruction…is to destroy that world.  Thus, they attempt to wring peace out of war, a metaphor very clear to audiences in the Vietnam Era of “You have to destroy the village to save it.”  

Still, this message does not transmit nearly as powerfully as the anti-pollution message of the superior Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

I would be a curmudgeon if I didn’t note that the movie features some really fun battles.  

That aforementioned Godzilla jump kick, for instance, is just so bizarre, gravity-defying and over-the-top.  I don’t know how it could elicit anything but laughs, but it is a clear indicator that the films of this era have moved definitively into fantasy territory.  

In the final analysis, however, this film looks like a TV pilot for a Jet Jaguar series, with Godzilla coming in for a cameo tag team, and that fact doesn’t do the big green dragon any favors. 

People go to see Godzilla movies for Godzilla, and in some critical sense, Godzilla vs. Megalon breaks (or at least severely stretches…) that contract with the audience with its bait-and-switch strategy.

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