Rodan has all the trappings of early sci-fi classics: nuclear tests, giant creatures coming out of mineshafts, a ‘UFO’ destroying planes and ships, puzzled officials and scientists wondering what’s happening, the shell-shocked guy (the protagonist Shigeru) wandering about with repressed memories, and, of course, plenty of scenes of destruction.
Unlike most American sci-fi movies of the era, in which there’s often a sort of ad hoc romantic subplot, Shigeru and Kiyo’s relationship works because their characters are integrated with the main plot. One memorable scene points out this link: while he cradles the bird’s nest at Kiyo’s house, he has a sudden flashback to his discovery of the giant egg in the mineshaft. The pacing deftly builds crisis after crisis; there’s no wasted scenes or slow points.
As a monster, Rodan has a sort of mythic, abstract quality. Although he’s fairly realistically portrayed as a type of enormous Pterodactyl, his destructive power is incidental; it’s the result of shock waves from his wings, not radioactivity or fiery breath. He seems to represents an uncontrollable, superhuman power, like nuclear weapons, or simply fear.
The actual scenes of destruction are amazingly well done; it’s really hard to tell if and when it’s models being wiped out. Also, there’s many types of destruction: people, buildings, vehicles, bridges, aircraft, not to mention the many bits of man-made (from the atomic blasts to the military counterattack) and natural destruction (the earthquake and volcanic eruption).
Another nice touch is the tragic tone; as both the Rodans die in the volcanic flames, “it’s as though something human were dying” the narrator tells us. As the plot develops, the monster takes center stage, becoming, in effect, the main character(s). Modern sci-fi movies are usually too egocentric, showcasing the actors and their subplots instead of focusing on the monster.
Rodan is so entertaining that I wonder why there haven’t been any sequels. I guess Godzilla had more ‘personality’, so he got the attention. Rodan isn’t necessarily a better monster than Godzilla, but I’m intrigued by his (and her) rather austere presence.
It’s too bad that Japanese sci-fi got a reputation as silly, cartoonish movies for kids, thanks to the dumbed-down versions of the ’60s and ’70s, because Rodan is thoughtful, serious, and very well-made. 8/10.