Godzilla wasn’t the first big-screen leviathan. Dinosaurs appeared in the mid-1920s, the first outsized icon was King Kong, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms pipped Godzilla to the post on the huge-sea-dinosaur angle by a year: it came out in 1953. (That film, at least obliquely, influenced director Ishirō Honda when the time came to salvage a failed project on a tight turnaround, and he pitched a monster movie.) But Godzilla recontextualized, quite literally, the nature of the beast.
So many movie monsters are echos of the unfathomable, lurking in shadowy depths to be awakened by a natural disaster or humanity’s hubris. When done well, they’re resonant and chilling (the long-unseen menace of Jaws’ great white shark). Done poorly, they’re comfortingly absurd. (The Deadly Mantis tried to capitalize on Godzilla’s appeal by applying the Huge Animal theorem and forgetting to actually make it good.) More often than not, they’re the beastly Other, come to punish us for crossing the scientific line, a city-storming consequence of exploration that’s inevitable but inherently unknowable.
Not Godzilla. Though he brought trilobites with him when he first stormed ashore, Godzilla was a thoroughly modern monster: woken by atomic bombs and drawing on their power, laying waste to a city still reeling from its wartime attacks. (The cinema aftermath of the Tokyo devastation drove some Japanese viewers out of the theaters.) Godzilla was a wound still bleeding, an unstoppable weapon in an age that was becoming horrifyingly full of them. We knew exactly who he was. That’s why he scared us.
But despite his glove-across-a-contrabass cry and teeth that can bring down a broadcast tower, there’s something sympathetic about Godzilla, in which he’s as much a victim of circumstance as the citizens he tramples. During a quiet moment, a childen’s choir sings a haunting plea—“Oh Peace, Oh Light, Return”—that could be sung by Godzilla as much as to him. His solitude is striking. The Frankenstein of fossils, he’s the last of his kind, and waking him just makes him realize his loneliness. It’s probably much of the reason why, as the remakes stacked up, their storylines nudged Godzilla closer to being on our side. There were monsters everywhere, out to knock our cities down; surely the monster we loved most would fight for us if we needed him.
Some of those installments were terribly silly, of course—or just terrible. Long before you reach a sublime title like Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla 2, you hit Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, in which our giant lizard must battle an oversized lobster, Mothra, and a handful of fighter jets. But even at his worst (ignoring Roland Emmerich), Godzilla maintains the appeal with which he first appeared out of the waves. In the theater, the mention of his name’s enough to get applause. It’s a self-aware, collective fondness that stops just short of giving him a personality, while still pretending he comes back to save us because he likes us. (Godzilla: From atomic parable to the cinema world’s cranky foster cat.)
Practically since the 1956 Americanized Godzilla hit U.S. shores, the monster movie has been a well-worn genre of its own, complete with lurching silhouettes, brave soldiers whose guns do nothing, even braver scientists who risk everything to bring the reign of terror to an end, and a woman standing by to gaze upward and gasp at the oncoming horror. Without the metaphorical resonance of the 1954 original, for which ethical consequences were a constant preoccupation, they’re closer to comedy than horror. And even without the Mechagodzilla back catalog, there’s admittedly something comforting about the old guy by now—a tie-in ad currently airing features Godzilla popping a Fiat into his mouth like a cocktail shrimp.
But even after twentysomething iterations, watching the original has the same sad thrill. As he crawls ashore, a lonely beast disrupted, the music swells with a melancholy later echoed in the hymn against him. Godzilla is the saddest monster, and for that, he lives forever.