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Jason Notte

Jason Notte

Posted February 23, 2009 | 12:22 PM (EST)

How Godzilla Helped Slumdog Sweep the Oscars


There are a lot of individuals to thank for Slumdog Millionaire's eight Academy Awards and its best picture win, but the biggest is a stories-high radioactive reptile with an extreme distaste for Tokyo.

Yes, Godzilla. Without him, most foreign films wouldn't make it past customs. Few could have imagined the impact Godzilla: King of the Monsters would have had when it was released here in 1956, but a half-century later it's the most important foreign film in American history.

Crude as it was, Godzilla unlocked foreign film for even the most slackjawed of American filmgoers. Sure, they had to chop it up, re-dub the whole thing, and add Raymond Burr long after the film was wrapped, but Godzilla took its nuclear breath to the cultural obstacles (lingering racism and resentment following World War II, a long and storied national history of xenophobia, etc.) preventing meat-and-potatoes, movie-watchin' Midwesterners from enjoying Metropolis, La Strada, Grand Illusion and nearly every other subtitled foreign standard.

It all begins with a simple, transcendent idea: A big monster crushing a big city. Godzilla was the post-World War II, post-nuclear Japanese culture's coming out party, with its ravenous monster, terrified populace, and emotional center: the upstaged, eyepatch-wearing Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. Godzilla may get all the glory, but Serizawa did all the emotional heavy lifting. See, the one-eyed scientist invented an "oxygen destroyer" that could stop the monster, but won't use it for fear of going down as Japan's version of Robert Oppenheimer.

The film doesn't come together during Godzilla's big attack on Tokyo, but when a children's choir sings for Tokyo's dead. Hearing this, Serizawa resolves to give his own life to save Japan from further suffering and Godzilla ceases to be a silly monster movie. It's not about the damn monster at all, but about the pathos and suffering of an entire people.

Like many foreign films, Godzilla was initially misunderstood -- American critics couldn't look past the cheap theatrics. (The New York Times panned the film, saying, "As though there are not enough monsters coming from Hollywood, an organization that calls itself Jewell Enterprises has had to import one from Japan.")

Like tin-foil planes on strings, the insults bounced off Godzilla, as Jewell Enterprises' $100,000 lease of the film from Toho Pictures turned into a $2 million run at the box office. A monster was born -- along with the business model that still drives foreign films today. (In 2008 dollars, Jewell's initial investment was $790,000 against a gross of $15.8 million, proving that decidedly cult films could make big bucks, even if they didn't make the mainstream.)

While Godzilla entered the American consciousness one Saturday afternoon TV matinee at a time, it literally bankrolled the Japanese film industry. The film was an immediate hit in Japan and Toho moved to capitalize, licensing Godzilla and his monster buddies for comic books, cartoons, video games, and apparel. Flush with cash, Toho used the money to not only fund the films of Akira Kurosawa, but also all of Miyazaki's anime work and the Pokemon movies, too.

In the decades to come, foreign films became a staple side dish at the American box office. From couples watching the romantic French-fantasy Amelie in the suburbs to stoned-out college students passing out to Godzilla's thematic anime cousin Akira in their dorms, there are few foreign film fans who don't fall within the big lizard's footprint. That includes Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle, who has followed the Godzilla blueprint better than anyone in decades.

Boyle started with a simple, transcendent idea: Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? By making the Regis-deprived game and its contestant the main focus, he tied in elements of Indian culture (including sectarian violence, caste discrimination, crippling poverty and a booming Mumbai) before the audience is able to give its final answer. The game and the events surrounding each question nearly destroy the man playing it, but he fights on and keeps living to play another day.

No, Slumdog doesn't have a giant monster. There aren't cheesy toy planes and radioactive breath. It won't lead to decades of appalling sequels and billions of dollars worth of merchandising. It did, however, benefit from the seemingly simple fare that came before and offered many Americans their first look at a culture other than their own.

And all this time you thought Godzilla was just another guy in a rubber suit.