The original Godzilla (1954), especially the original Japanese release, is more than a mutant monster movie of the atomic-scare fifties. It is a stark disaster thriller that evokes the terrors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the lingering poison of the nuclear radiation. The two destructive forces come together in a screaming atomic lizard, a dinosaur roused from dormancy by the lingering radiation and set loose for a new nuclear holocaust, and the black and white photography lends an atmosphere of dark and doom.
The sequels are a different story. The films went color. The special effects of cities stomped to rubble by a radioactive dinosaur became a kind of giddy entertainment instead of a nightmarish metaphor. And as far as the movies were concerned, Godzilla was no longer a post-nuclear plague unleashed upon Japan let alone a villain. He was a character in its own right and the stories that followed his 1954 debut mutated (so to speak) into monster smackdowns that allowed audiences to root for his victory against a new menace to civilization without any sense of irony. While not exactly a friend of mankind, he turned into a protector of Earth when it is threatened by other monsters and, later, alien invaders. This was Godzilla’s turf and no one was muscling in.
Destroy All Monsters (1968), the ninth Godzilla film and the twentieth kaiju (giant monster) movie from Toho, returned Godzilla godfather Ishiro Honda to the helm. The insanely prolific Honda was the greatest of the kaiju directors. Along with directing the original Godzilla and seven sequels, he also helmed Rodan (1957) and Mothra (1961) and War of the Gargantuas (1966) along with a number of B-team creature features. But he was also Toho’s most interesting science fiction filmmaker and he mastered a different kind of special effect miniatures—space ships and space stations and invasions from outer space—for such films as The Mysterians (1957), The H-Man (1958), Battle in Outer Space (1959), and Atragon (1963), to name just a few.
Honda had been absent from the previous couple of Godzilla entries, which followed the lead of the rival Gamera films and shifted the series to a more juvenile key to appeal to younger audiences. Honda’s return brought a gravity back to the series, at least in terms of giant monster movies. Also back is the great Akira Ifukube, who scored the original Godzilla and composed the iconic “Godzilla March” theme. But what really mattered to the fans was the talent in front of the camera. Previous films upped the ante with as many as three guest creatures joining Godzilla onscreen. Destroy All Monsters delivers a whopping eleven monsters from the Toho bestiary: Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Anguirus, Baragon, Varan, Manda, Kumonga, Gorosaurus, King Ghidorah, and little Minilla still blowing smoke rings when he tries to call forth his radioactive breath. Some are only briefly seen, getting little more than a cameo and name-check, but what a menagerie when you put them all together. And it establishes Monsterland / Monster Island, a proto-Jurassic Park that Godzilla and friends call home between films. Talk about a vision of world harmony; even these former enemies live in peaceful cohabitation, largely keeping to themselves as they enjoy this tropical Eden.
Set in the far flung future of 1999, Destroy All Monsters brings Honda’s talents together for furiously busy collision of kaiju rampage and science fiction thriller. The United Nations has a moonbase and regular rocket flights from the Earth and back. A team of scientists monitor the creatures of Monsterland and make sure the perimeter defense keep them penned into this unique wildlife preserve. When the Kilaaks, an alien race from one of the “many small planets between Mars and Jupiter,” send the monsters on a rampage through the world capitols, the spaceship SY-3 leads the Earth defense, zipping through space to chase UFOs and rocketing to hot spots to take on the brainwashing invaders and their hapless dupes.
This has the liveliest human adventure of the series, with our intrepid astronaut force getting into shoot-outs with the aliens (handgun versus ray-gun action that injects the film with a little spy-movie action). The yellow space suits and helmets give the humans a striking look and the silver lamé cowl and cape of the Kilaak queen looks like something that could have come out of a 1930s fantasy: Cecil B. DeMille‘s Madame Satan by way of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. And Honda and his special effects team fill the miniature effects with delightful details, like the dust and grit kicked up by the retro rockets during a landing. 2001 it ain’t, but the loving attention gives the effects the same kicky sci-fi blast that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were creating across the globe in their Supermarionation productions Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlett.
Past Godzilla films and other kaiju spectacles gave us sustained rampages, with the destruction of miniature cities trampled under lovingly photographed rubber-suited feet and swiping claws. Destroy All Monsters sends its creatures across the globe for brief clips of destruction by the monster squad: Rodan dive-bombs Moscow, Baragon heads for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and a full three decades before Roland Emmerich brought the Big G to Manhattan, Godzilla takes a bite out of the Big Apple. The scenes are brief, more like a highlight reel than sustained sequences, but the momentum makes up for the brevity. It’s all edited together at what is a breakneck clip for the Godzilla series and Honda delivers on the promise of the premise with a climax that brings every monster together for a what must have been the busiest set in Godzilla history: half a dozen men in suits and a collection of gorgeous marionette puppets are choreographed in an epic rumble in the jungle. And you have to love the way that Honda imagines how news crews cover the final battle, giving a play by play account right out of a sporting event. Not to make too much of the gag, but at some point in our alternate history giant monster battles became the equivalent of a kaiju Superbowl where human audiences hang on every swipe and bite and mighty primal scream of the giant creatures.
There was nothing like it in the series again. Destroy All Monsters is a pure pulp blast of adolescent kaiju fantasy with a heaping helping of pre-Star Wars space age adventure thrown in. If it doesn’t exactly offer a vision of monster harmony, it does affirm the unspoken code of the Monsterland posse: you don’t cross Godzilla’s turf.
Note that Fandor presents the original Japanese language version of the film with English subtitles rather than the American version with the dumbed-down English dubbing (originally prepared with juvenile matinee audiences in mind) available on previous home video incarnations. It doesn’t make the science of this science fiction any more plausible but the explanations have a little more conviction and the characters have more dignity as they deliver it.