Godzilla might be the most famous movie that most people who have heard of it have never seen. This is because the character of Godzilla has become ubiquitous, and is undoubtedly one of the most successful movie creatures in history. There have been countless sequels and relaunches of the franchise both in Japan and here, while Godzilla itself ranks alongside icons like Dracula and King Kong as characters that transcend their medium and have long ago seeped into the culture. In fact, another Godzilla film is going into production in Hollywood as I write this, and Godzilla will continue to be remade and sequelized as long as movies are being made.
This all made the announcement that Godzilla was coming to the Criterion Collection a pretty big deal, despite the fact that the movie itself is only so so. In most regards, the film would sit very comfortably next to the films in the Monsters and Madmen boxset - though the scale of the effects here leaves that of those much lower budget films in the dust. The human-level story is typical melodrama for the era with a half-baked love story and some various professional quandaries made a bit more compelling by the presence of Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. Meanwhile, the music is pretty damn cool, and it's always a pleasure to watch effects that required a lot more ingenuity than a simple point and click.
But the real thing that sets Godzilla apart from similar monster movies is the clear and inescapable nuclear metaphor of the film. This is tightly woven into the main plot of the movie (most obviously by Godzilla's origin and the technique that destroys him) but it is most interesting in two smaller moments. The first happens in the early acts of the film, as a group of people ride into the city on a train. One woman declares that she barely survived the bombing in Nagasaki, and now there's this... The second is even more intense, and comes during the core rampage of the monster. As Godzilla stomps on buildings and sets Tokyo aflame, a woman cowers with her children and tells them they are all going where Daddy is. This latter scene is a real "holy shit, this country is only nine years on from the most significant and indescribable series of destructive attacks the world has ever seen" moment (don't forget, along with the military deaths from the war, bombings on Japanese cities were not limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki - traditional weapons were used on more than 50 other population centers). It makes the rest of the film take on a much greater significance than the typical monster or disaster movie ever could.
Godzilla, then, is more than anything a movie about loss - crippling loss that sets back humanity in both intellectual and moral ways. Perhaps the film ignores for a moment Japan's own role in its fate, but I would argue that the film is an emotional metaphor for the country that doesn't shy away from its own potential for destruction, even as it attempts to come to grips with its own victimhood. All of this feels like an intellectual exercise from the comfort of 21st century America, so it's hard to imagine what it must have felt like to see this movie in theaters in Japan in the mid 50s. Its wild success speaks to cinema's - and horror/thriller films' in particular - ability to transfer complex dark feelings into symbols of a cultural sickness and exorcise them collectively. That such a powerful representation of a global tragedy has long since been divorced from its true meaning is a reminder of both film's superhuman reach and the limitations of that reach, the moment when fact becomes legend.