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Godzilla vs. Destoroyah: The Death of Godzilla

Godzilla vs. Destoroyah was meant to be the end of an era—specifically, Godzilla’s Heisei era, which started in 1984. They decided to send the era out in a big way: with the death of Godzilla. 

Fans of the series know that Godzillas have died before: In the original 1954 film, he is killed by a device called the Oxygen Destroyer. This time, the temperature of Godzilla’s heart, essentially a nuclear reactor, is rising to the point of meltdown. Once the heart reaches 1,200 degrees Celsius, it will cause damage “more than all nuclear weapons put together, a burst of energy unseen since time began,” melting him through the Earth’s crust and taking humanity with him [1]. The meltdown, as imagined by the various scientists trying to prevent it from ending the world, is represented by delightfully over-the-top 1995 CGI sequences—and trust me when I say that whatever you’re picturing in your head is not doing them justice. Compounding their problems is the appearance of a new kaiju, Destoroyah, that mutated from pre-Cambrian microorganisms interacting with the Oxygen Destroyer that killed the original Godzilla. Destoroyah originally appears as a set of smaller creatures that look like a cross between xenomorphs and scorpions, but they’re able to combine into much larger forms. 

The film is nonstop from the get-go. Godzilla appears barely two minutes into the film, popping up in front of a plane that’s taking off. It’s immediately clear that something is different about Godzilla—his body is glowing orange, and his familiar blue atomic breath is a similar shade of orange. He stomps around Tokyo for a few minutes behind an absolutely glorious title card complete with explosions and delightfully primitive CGI. The musical score is full-throttle for the entire opening sequence, with brass instruments unabashedly blaring, which further propels the excitement of the opening minutes. It’s hard to overstate just how awesome everything is at the start of the movie. 

Godzilla stomps through Tokyo's neon buildings, glowing bright orange due to his impending nuclear meltdown.

Although I have seen almost all of the Shōwa-era and American films, this was one of the first Heisei-era films that I’ve seen. I think that it’s fine to watch Destoroyah out of sequence, as there were only a few things—“Birth Island,” Godzilla Junior, the Godzilla-focused military unit the G-Force, among others—that I couldn’t reference from previous movies. I think that as a relative newcomer to the Heisei era, there were only two things that really surprised me: that despite years of failing to stop Godzilla and the various other kaiju from attacking their country, it’s actually the military that takes out both Destoroyah and the melting-down Godzilla; and that there are members of the G-Force that trained in ESP in America and have a psychic connection to Godzilla Junior (a fact that, while hinted at throughout the film, is only mentioned explicitly once, in an otherwise borderline throwaway scene about an hour into the movie).

Obviously, Destoroyah wasn’t meant to be—nor has it been—the final Godzilla film; in fact, the seeds had been planted for an heir two films before with the birth of a baby Godzilla. Thankfully, at this stage of his life, Godzilla Junior is formidable in his own right, instead of following the path of the much more kid-friendly Minilla or, heaven forbid, Godzooky [2]. Early in the climactic fight, Destoroyah appears to brutally kill Godzilla Junior before Godzilla can help him; however, the discharge of radiation from the dying Godzilla revives Godzilla Junior, who lives to take on the mantle. The military determines that global catastrophe can be avoided if they freeze Godzilla immediately at the point he reaches 1,200 degrees, and they’re able to do so by shooting him with tank-mounted coolants. The death of Godzilla is actually very beautiful for a little while: Godzilla is backlit by white light and engulfed in a cloud of white smoke as he is shot by the military’s coolant, a scene accompanied by ethereal, aria-like music [3].

The musical score is one of the true standout elements of the film. Composed by Akira Ifukube—scoring his final Godzilla film after working on the original 1954 film and several other Godzilla films—the score revisits many of the iconic themes from previous installments [4]. Interestingly, while Ifukube uses the beginning of Godzilla’s theme throughout the film, he reserves the more march-like second section until well into the final fight with Destoroyah. The score strikes a nice balance between the thrilling battle cues and the more touching and emotional ones, with Godzilla’s death scene and the (presumed) death of Godzilla Junior being memorable examples of the latter.

Destoroyah fights Godzilla in a cloud of smoke.

Very few of the miniatures are truly convincing, but practical effects are part of the charm of non-CGI Godzilla films. Despite this, I often found myself drawn into many of the visuals, partly because of the design and effectiveness of the monster suits. Destoroyah’s design has helped to make him a surprisingly enduring character, despite having only a single film appearance so far, but the melting-down Godzilla costume is one of the best and most iconic of the series.

As in most Godzilla films, the human characters are generally uninteresting. I can’t really say that their sole point is to move the plot forward, because they spend the majority of the film on the sidelines observing Godzilla and explaining the stakes to the audience while Godzilla and the military do things. Of course, the most interesting characters are the ones that studied ESP in America and have a psychic connection to Godzilla Junior (sorry, I really can’t get over that). 

The characters are a little more effective when they are weighing the ethics of their decisions to stop Godzilla’s meltdown. As in the original film (to which there are several flashback scenes), characters frequently debate the use of Oxygen Destroyer to fight Godzilla, as well as the dangers it poses as a weapon. The world and Japan of Destoroyah are very different than in the original film: what was then a country reeling from its defeat in World War II is now a global power and a member of the UN, and its increased standing raises the consequences of Japan’s decisions for the rest of the world. In the end, the original film is much more effective with its presentation of this debate, largely because the appearance of Destoroyah takes the choice out of the human characters’ hands—instead of having to decide to use it themselves, Destoroyah uses it for them.

A resurrected Godzilla Junior triumphantly roars while standing in a cloud of smoke

There are a few attempts to provide the film with an environmental message. After Godzilla dies, one of the characters looks on and reflects on the now apparently uninhabitable Tokyo and remarks, “I guess we paid for all that stupid use of nuclear energy” [5]. While these instances are somewhat halfhearted and borderline throwaway lines, environmentalism, the use of nuclear power, and the development of weapons capable of destroying humanity tie into the larger themes of Godzilla, which help make the franchise mean something more than dope monster fights (although that’s definitely a big factor). Godzilla is at his most meaningful when he represents something bigger than himself: the scars of the nuclear bombings of Japan and subsequent Pacific nuclear tests in his debut film, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the 9/11 attacks in the 2014 American film. There are even two scenes in Destoroyah that are eerily prescient of the Fukushima disaster (as well as predating the presentation of similar scenes in the 2014 American film): one where Godzilla attacks a nuclear power plant, and another where Destoroyah—at this point still a microorganism—attacks a tunnel, sparking an emergency and panicked reactions from workers.

While it’s not the deepest film in the Godzilla canon, Destoroyah provides just enough substance to balance its exemplary kaiju fights and enjoyable camp. It’s a fitting and exciting conclusion to the Heisei era.

 

[1] The “burst of energy” part of the line only appears in the English dub, but it was too good to leave out.

[2] A quick aside: I watched reruns of the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon when I was around 8 years old. A few years ago, I watched the intro for the first time in about 15 years, and I was pumped because I always remembered the theme song being really awesome. I went in knowing that I knew all the words. And then Godzooky showed up. I actually think that even as an 8-year-old, my brain recognized that Godzooky was terrible and suppressed ever knowing about his existence.

[3] His scales and organs proceed to melt off his skeleton, so I can’t say that it was beautiful for long.

[4] Ifukube is also credited with creating Godzilla’s iconic roar, which in my opinion is the greatest non-Star Wars sound effect of all time.

[5] The subtitles of the Japanese audio are even more striking: “Is this our atonement? For what? The misuse of science, nuclear energy.”

Nick Luciano

Written by Nick Luciano

Nick Luciano received a Master’s in Music Theory from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. An avid film fan, Nick loves Tarkovsky, Tartakovsky, Tchaikovsky, and everything in between (stylistically that is, not alphabetically).

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