Over sixty years and approximately 30 movies, Godzilla has ruled as King of the Monsters. There are now four films that have carried the title Godzilla (two Japanese and two American).
Not ten years after the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and just five months after the horrifying story of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 fishing boat, Godzilla was released in Japan on November 3, 1954. Beginning with the disappearance of a fishing boat in a scenario with clear echoes of the fate that befell the Lucky Dragon No. 5, the film proceeds with a frightening and somber tone. A second boat is sent to investigate and also goes missing. The sole survivor of this second boat washes ashore on Odo Island at a poor fishing village where an old man grumbles a legend about a sea monster called “Godzilla.” This survivor perishes when some thing attacks the village. A team is sent from Tokyo to investigate, including archeologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura), and while there they witness first-hand the emergence of a giant reptilian creature. Back in the capital, debate rages about whether to inform the public and how best to deal with the threat posed by the beast. When Godzilla finally makes landfall, he cuts a swath of destruction in which he demolishes the National Diet Building and sets the city ablaze. The resulting devastation is reminiscent of both the firebombing that Tokyo had experience during the war and the destruction at Nagasaki and Hiroshima (when director Ishiro Honda was repatriated after being a prisoner of war, he passed through the wreckage of Hiroshima and never forgot it). Upon Godzilla’s return to the sea, Dr. Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi) and her boyfriend Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) must convince her father’s colleague (and her arranged fiancee; there’s a love triangle here) Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) to use his secret invention, the Oxygen Destroyer, as a weapon against Godzilla. Serizawa fears that revealing his discovery will spark a destructive arms race to rival the nuclear age, and his decision will determine the fate of Japan.
A narrative has emerged, as the original Japanese version of the film finally became available to American audiences in 2004, that the film is something of a lost classic of Japanese cinema that can finally be reclaimed from beneath the camp trappings of the colorful and crazy films that followed it. And this is basically true. This is a sober and serious film that reveals traces of Honda’s background in documentary and even offers a rather nuanced ethical debate about nuclear technology in the form of Serizawa’s angst in discovering the Oxygen Destroyer. The film regularly grounds the spectacle inherent in seeing a giant monster running havok with little moments that connect it to the real horror its original audience had just lived through: a woman on the subway complaining about having survived Nagasaki only to have to evacuate again; a woman trying to console her terrified child in the midst of Godzilla’s rampage that they’ll “be with daddy soon”; a child, seemingly uninjured after Godzilla’s attack, is scanned with a geiger counter that clicks wildly. In addition to taking it’s subject surprisingly seriously (Godzilla himself is portrayed not as the much-derided “guy in goofy rubber suit” but as a stately force of destruction), the film is also rich with meaning. The parallels with the atomic attacks that ended World War II are obvious, but I’ve also seen interesting readings of the film that posit Godzilla as an embodiment of the aggressive imperialism that Japan exhibited in World War II, come home to rain down destruction on the country in the same way the Allies did, with Serizawa and his Oxygen Destroyer being a way for Japan to claim an imagined symbolic role in ridding their country of that “war madness.” So, even though I think it’s possible to get a little over-defensive in claiming that Godzilla isn’t all just craziness and gonzo imagination, it’s just as important to remember that one reason he has endured so long is because he first appeared in such a powerful and potent film.
After fifteen films and a seven year hiatus, Godzilla returned to Japanese screens in a direct sequel to the original film. Ignoring the previous fourteen entries in the series, as this film begins, evidence of Godzilla’s return after thirty years draws Japan into the middle of Cold War tension between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. After Godzilla destroys a Soviet submarine and the Americans are suspected, the Japanese are forced to announce the return of Godzilla. Both the Americans and the Russians insist on being able to deploy nuclear weapons to destroy him, and while they agree to abide by Japan’s declaration that nuclear weapons will not be used against him in Japan, when Godzilla does attack Tokyo, a Russian ship in Tokyo Bay is damaged and the dying crew is unable to prevent an accidental launch. While Godzilla battles a new Japanese flying ship equipped with cadmium missiles meant to quell his nuclear furnace and kill him, the Americans scramble to shoot down the Russian nuke. The resulting airburst revives the ailing Godzilla, and with no weaponry left capable of defeating him, a desperate plan is enacted in the hopes of luring Godzilla to a volcano and trapping him inside.
The reboot, released internationally as The Return of Godzilla (and in America, with edits and new footage, as Godzilla 1985), was a success in Japan, kicking off the Heisei series and garnering six sequels. While the series would again grow more fantastical as it went on, this film hearkened back to the tone and intent of the original film. Godzilla was once again portrayed as a frightening and unstoppable force of nature, with a redesign that emphasized his malevolence with a fiercer face and proportions intended to highlight his size. The nuclear themes are foregrounded in a way they haven’t been since the original film, and the focus on real-world politics lends the story an even greater scope and urgency than the original film. It’s interesting to note here that in the American release of this film, the heroic Russian commander who dies trying to prevent the launch of a nuclear missile is repositioned as actually intentionally causing the launch with his dying act! The Cold War was being waged both in and through this movie!
After multiple attempts (including a proposed 3D movie written by Fred Dekker in the mid-80s and a Jan de Bont directed version wherein Godzilla would have fought a monster called Gryphon in the mid-90s), the first American film titled Godzilla was released on May 19, 1998. Concocted by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the team behind Independence Day, the film arrived in theaters following an ad campaign that focused on the monster’s size while simultaneously keeping the design of their new creature a secret, confined to glimpses of a tail or foot (indeed, when images leaked on the internet during the run-up to the film, Devlin claimed that they were false designs distributed as part of a “sting operation” to determine which of their licensing partners couldn’t be trusted with the real goods).
As a mid-90s blockbuster in the Emmerich/Devlin mold, the movie is merely a disappointment. The cornball comedy that worked in Independence Day mostly falls flat here, the performances fail to rise above the wan material, their conception of Godzilla limits the fun they can have with her (it runs away from the military and gets them to inflict some collateral damage and it terrorizes the heroes by chasing their taxi cab around town), and the attempt to one-up Jurassic Park‘s virtuosic velociraptor sequence results in some hijinxy chases that aren’t particularly suspenseful or thrilling. Still, there’s some spectacle to be had. Their attempts to build up suspense before the creature’s first appearance have some effective passages, including a sequence where the monster drags a fishing boat into the depths.
As a junky 90s remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla (1998) is a mediocrity, but as a Godzilla film this is a disaster. The design of the creature discards FAR too much of what makes Godzilla Godzilla, and this is compounded by the decision to commit so heavily to the notion of Godzilla as just a big animal. This monster is an iguana, mutated to giant size by nuclear tests in French Polynesia, and its motivations are entirely explicable. It wants to feed and nest. Beyond the bizarre design choices, the characterization of the monster has little in common with Godzilla. It flees from the military, is lured by a large pile of fish, is injured (and even killed) by conventional weaponry, and the first time it acts really aggressively is after its hundreds of offspring are blown up by a missile. By connecting the creature’s origins to French nuclear testing, the filmmakers take pop culture’s biggest icon of nuclear destruction (created by the only nation that has ever been attacked with nuclear weaponry) and let America (the only country that’s used them offensively) off the hook. This creature has vaguely nuclear origins, but it has absolutely no weight as metaphor. Nor do they find any other meaning to assign in its place. With so little Godzilla in the American Godzilla, it came as a relief that the film didn’t satisfy the financial expectations required of it to merit the proposed sequel (which was instead turned into an animated series that split the difference between the film’s take on the material and the Hanna-Barbera animated series from the 70s).
Now (16 years, six Japanese Godzilla films and a 10 year hiatus later), we’ve just seen the release of a second American Godzilla. This film arrived with a lot to prove. Not only did it need to avoid and make up for the failings in our treatment of the monster in 1998, but it also needed to make a case for why Godzilla is still relevant and exciting to moviegoers a decade after even Japanese audiences had seemingly tired of him. So, how’d they do?
The short answer is that the movie is excellent and you should go see it. You may hear stuff about Godzilla not being in it very much, but I can assure you that you’ll get some quality Godzilla time before it’s over (and I’d say we’re looking at a pretty average screen time as far as Godzilla movies go). Warner Bros. marketing department did an excellent job with an ad campaign that sells the movie well while holding back lots of great stuff they barely even hint at, including just how fun the movie ultimately is (like, “opening night applause and cheers” fun). Meanwhile, Gareth Edwards and company made a movie that has a series of really masterful set-pieces, an intriguing story with a clever structure, and a Godzilla that is truly worthy of the name. Really, go see it.
An Anecdote To Illustrate How Much I Loved Godzilla (2014):
We saw the 8:30pm show on Friday night. I awoke on Saturday morning with the expectation that I would catch up with one of the other movies I was interested in seeing that day. Instead, I went to a 9:45am showing of Godzilla.
BELOW THIS POINT, WE’RE GOING TO BE TALKING SPECIFICS. COME BACK WHEN YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE.
Yep, that’s right. MonsterS. This is the first film titled Godzilla that is not a solo feature for the big guy. He’s joined in the film by two creatures referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and they are a pretty nasty team. I really dug their designs, and I thought their EMP attack (while obviously flouting science) was a great idea that generated a series of wonderful images and visual motifs. They were definitely scary and cool, but I also like that they are reminiscent of the “many-limbed monstrosity” Neville Page aesthetic of the Cloverfield or Super 8 monsters (though I guess I like them both okay). Godzilla returns to kill the current trend in monster design!
As for Godzilla himself, I thought he looked fantastic! As I expected (and is generally par for the course with a new film), it took me a while to get used to the design. His toes are still a bit stubby for my taste and, while I think it works well in the movie, his muzzle shape isn’t my favorite. I also think that, while the jagged and petrified look of his dorsal plates is super cool (and I adored the shots of him swimming with the plates cutting through the water), it also makes the plates look a little sparser on his back than is my preference. But the pros FAR outweigh the niggling cons. I loved how truly gigantic he was, and I loved that they gave him a real character and personality. He was visibly angry and frustrated with the MUTOs, then visibly weary as he returned to the sea. In poking around the internet after seeing the movie, I found Gareth Edwards describing him as “an old samurai,” and that really comes through in the design and performance.
The Story and Characters:
Here’s another place that I think they pulled off something exceptional. Now, I gather that this has proved to be the most controversial area of the movie (maybe we can get some dissent going in the comments), but I admired the way this story was constructed AND I liked the characters. One of the hardest tricks for a giant monster movie like this is finding a natural way to include your human-scale characters in the climax of your film. This is often accomplished by having a human-scale antagonist for them to deal with as well (maybe gangsters or aliens), giving them a super weapon (a Mechagodzilla or the like) to join in the combat, or by simply having them stand by and watch the big fight. Here, the filmmakers basically avoid all three of these options (note, we don’t see Serizawa or David Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz during the climactic battle, since they would be doing option three). While there is certainly a major element of coincidence that Aaron Taylor-Johnson basically follows the path of the MUTOs on their collision course with Godzilla, the filmmakers took care to motivate each step of that journey. And in giving us a human-scale avatar to follow, they gave themselves an intrinsic motivation to keep the view of these massive creatures to a ground level point of view (at least until near the end, but we’ll get to that in the next section). Ford has a fairly unusual role in the finale of the film. He doesn’t just sit on a hill and watch the fight, but he also can’t hope to impact the actual result of it. He instead spends his time destroying the MUTO nest and scrambling to clean up the Army’s mess and prevent a nuclear bomb from going off in the city (and trying to avoid being squished by the rampaging gods above him). He’s active throughout, but his brave actions are still dwarfed by the scale of what’s going on around him.
The characters themselves are definitely established with a shorthand, but I found the choices there to be effective enough, and the performances strong enough, to keep me invested. (I’m happy to acknowledge here that my perspective may be colored by usually getting the dialogue in these movies via dubbing or subtitles, so I don’t demand wit. I found the stuff in this movie enjoyable at best and functional at worst.) Bryan Cranston is the most prominent in the ads for the film, and his role is certainly pivotal in the story’s early stages, but his performance is also important in informing Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s. While Cranston’s Joe Brody bargains and rages (expertly, of course), Taylor-Johnson is able to let Cranston’s energy propel the scene while he conveys disappointment and worry and frustration with little dialogue. There are moments where they probably use a little more shorthand than they ought to have (I personally still connected to Taylor-Johnson’s Ford and Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle through early moments like the two of them laughing about something that’d happened during his deployment, but we’d all probably connect even more if we got to watch him tell that funny story instead of coming in at the end). But both actors make use of the brief moments they’re given to communicate decency and affection and worry and a bunch of stuff that makes them instantly human and identifiable. (The same goes for Juliette Binoche in the film’s opening.)
Of the more standard characters in a Godzilla film, Watanabe, Strathairn, and Sally Hawkins (as Serizawa’s associate Vivienne Graham) acquit themselves well. Watanabe and Hawkin have to provide most of the exposition as well as cueing us just how dire things are getting, while Strathairn’s military man is refreshingly reasonable and willing to listen to different viewpoints before making a decision. There’s also a nicely understated moment between Watanabe and Strathairn that roots the story and those two characters with respect to the series’ origins in World War II.
What Godzilla Means:
The filmmakers made another canny decision in reorienting the metaphorical meaning of Godzilla and th MUTOs in this film. They still honor his origins in the atomic age, but they also shift the emphasis to a more general response to the way humanity is impacted the environment. I’m sure my reaction was informed by the alarming climate change reports in the last week before I saw the film, but it definitely feels like it can be interpreted with that in mind. Indeed, the story is all about the unintentional effects of mankind’s exploitation of natural resources. The MUTOs are freed/activated by a uranium mining operation and drawn to a nuclear plant. The forces unleashed as a result of this are sadly familiar sights in recent history, with Godzilla’s mere approach causing a tsunami in Hawaii and the first MUTO’s actions causing a nuclear disaster in Japan. That disaster itself results in one of the film’s many striking images, and a thematically potent one in this case, with Janjira to be reclaimed by nature. Mankind is almost comically (if it weren’t so terrifying) dwarfed by Godzilla and the MUTOs, and the only heroic actions they can take during the climactic showdown is the correct their own mistake and try to keep from bombing their own city.
Here is also where I think a natural and satisfying filmmaking choice also pays extra dividends. The film keeps the perspective in the various monster scenes studiously confined to the human scale throughout the first three-quarters of the film, usually anchored to a specific POV character. This is rigorous to the point of comedy, as we cut away from a monster battle to see a child watching it on television, or have it obscured from our view by a closing door. But during the final battle in the film, the camera is finally free to join the monsters on their level. Thanks to the masterful teasing, we’ve grown desperate to see the fight, but because we’ve had our perspective so forcefully defined, the shift communicates a subtle meaning. Now that we’ve seen the enormity of the forces at work here, the movie itself acknowledges that Godzilla is the hero, nature is at stake, and in the end the most we can hope for as humans is to mitigate the damage we’ve done and embrace our families. In the final shots, Godzilla takes center stage and wanders back to the sea. The film leaves us with that perspective, and that final beautiful shot of Godzilla slipping into the water, without even noticing the miniscule people watching from the pier.
A Few Quick Notes:
Ken Watanabe’s character, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, seems to be named in double tribute to director Ishiro Honda and character in the original film Dr. Daisuke Serizawa. Similarly, we assume that the Brodys are named as an homage to Jaws, right? I mean the wife is even named Elle Brody!
I was delighted that Godzilla has actually been dubbed the “King of the Monsters” by the media in the world of the film.
Both uses of Godzilla’s atomic breath are applause worthy. As is the classic Godzilla tail slam that dispatches the first MUTO.
Did you see the movie this weekend? Tell us what you thought!