Published on May 14th, 2014 | by Brad0
Godzilla Is Coming
2014 marks the return to cinemas after ten years of the King of the Monsters, Godzilla. Marking the 60th anniversary of his first appearance, this is the 30th original film to feature Godzilla, and the first in ten years, since 50th anniversary celebration Godzilla: Final Wars. The new film is a reboot, ignoring all previous films and taking Godzilla straight back to his roots. In that spirit, I want to take a look at the three films most important to the genesis of the new Godzilla.
In the 1950s, Japan was in a period of transition. The post-war American occupation had just come to an end, and the country was still coming to terms with the after-effects of the nuclear strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japanese cinema began a revival leading to a golden age, with 1954 as its banner year, seeing the release of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Ikiru, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and, of course, Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla.
The film opens with two separate Japanese vessels being destroyed by blasts of light from beneath the ocean. This is a clear allusion to the US H-bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, and how the fallout affected the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon 5. The attacks are revealed to be the work of an enormous, dinosaur-like creature named Godzilla. As the frequency of the attacks increase, along with the beast’s proximity to Tokyo, our heroes seek out a way to stop him.
Godzilla is a moody, effective meditation on the ills of nuclear weapons, and the retribution the planet will surely take against us for using them to scar her surface. Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo and its aftermath are devastating, as the military attack with all their might, but are utterly powerless to prevent the destruction raining down around them. The debate around whether anyone has the right to use the Oxygen Destroyer that ultimately brings the beast down is an obvious parallel to the same questions about nuclear weaponry at the time, and Akihiko Hirata’s performance as the scientist who created it is superb, the joy of invention crushed by conflict and despair at the destruction his creation might wreak in the wrong hands.
Although critically panned at the time, Godzilla was a box-office smash in Japan, and has come in time to be seen as a masterpiece. The parable it presents is timeless, and the film has aged quite well, some effects work notwithstanding. It’s not presently available on Blu-Ray in Europe, though a DVD release by Classic Media is available. There are two versions of the Blu-Ray available in America, a region-free release by Classic and a region-A locked released from the Criterion Collection. If you’re able to play it, the Criterion release is superior. It also features, as a bonus extra, 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Hollywood producer Edmund Goldman saw Godzilla in 1955. As is the way with Hollywood producers, upon seeing a thoughtful, subtitled foreign picture, he set the wheels in motion to do it again only in English with American characters. There seems to be consensus amongst Hollywood producers that their audiences simply do not like to read. The result was Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, released in 1956. A strange beast, this is a re-edit of Honda’s original Godzilla, with Canadian actor Raymond Burr edited into scenes in which he does not belong, as American reporter Steve Martin (and, like Mary Poppins, he is always referred to by his full name). Gone are the political themes and criticisms of nuclear weapons, replaced by aw-shucks heroism and reaction shots where Burr is clearly looking the wrong way in relation to the Japanese cast member he’s meant to be talking to. It’s a baffling experience, and its American declawing of Godzilla proves oddly prophetic, in hindsight.
After King of the Monsters, American attempts at making Godzilla went quiet for about 30 years, until the release of Godzilla 1985. This was essentially the same approach as King of the Monsters, editing Burr’s Steve Martin into Return of Godzilla this time. Again, the nuclear themes and political overtones are largely cut out, and again, it sucks. This was the last Godzilla film featuring Japanese footage to be released theatrically in the US for 15 years.
In the 90s, interest seemed to be revived, as Tri-Star acquired the rights to make a trilogy of Godzilla films. Hot off the success of Speed, Dutch director Jan De Bont was tapped to direct, with a view to a 1996 release. Rather than the nuclear origins normally associated with the character, Godzilla was going to have been a creation of Atlantians, and would have fought a shape-shifting alien on Ellis Island in the climax. To this day, I don’t know whether to be happy or sad that Tri-Star wouldn’t approve his $120m budget, causing De Bont to leave the project. He was replaced by Roland Emmerich, fresh from the success of Stargate and about to unleash Independence Day on the world. I have to confess to having something of a blind spot where Emmerich is concerned – I know full well that his films are garbage, but they’re usually just entertaining enough that I can’t stay mad at them.
After somewhat of a rushed shoot, Godzilla hit cinemas on 20/05/1998. The reception for the film was overwhelmingly negative, prompting the cancellation of its two planned sequels. Despite this critical panning, it was the third-highest grossing film of 1998, behind Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Its legacy has not improved with age, and its status as the black sheep of the Godzilla family will never go away. On a personal level, I was nine years old when this one came out, so maybe I didn’t know any better, but I remember loving it. Revisits as I’ve gotten older have taken the shine off it a lot, but as I recall, it’s still passable enough, albeit it’s been at least five years since I’ve watched it. So, let’s dive in, and revisit the much-reviled Godzilla. I’m going full spoilers on this one, and I might yell a bit. If for any reason you’re interested in going into it with surprises, I recommend skipping down to the logo for Monsters at this point.
The opening sequence is actually pretty damn good. A sepia-toned flashback to the nuclear tests in French Polynesia in the 1950s, with very ominous music playing, sets a good mood for the thing, whilst efficiently giving us an origin for the beast. The attack on the first Japanese fishing trawler is ominous, harking back to that early feeling of dread as we see the devastating impact Godzilla can have. Unfortunately, the good scenes are interspersed with the introduction to our hero, Matthew Broderick as Nick Tatopoulos, named for production designer Patrick Tatopoulos and source of a terrible running gag of people being unable to pronounce his name. Broderick was charming enough as Ferris Bueller back in the day, but you never buy him as a nuclear scientist, and his scenes just seem ridiculous. Altogether more intriguing is Jean Reno, leading a separate investigation into what is going on. The US military in the film is led by Kevin Dunn, an always reliable and enjoyable presence.
Altogether less interesting is the subplot featuring Nick’s ex-girlfriend at a TV station staffed by alumni of The Simpsons. About the only noteworthy thing to talk about with these scenes is how odd it is to see Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria and Nancy Cartwright all in the same movie. The machinations of an intern who wants to be a reporter are about as uninteresting as you can imagine, and just feel like a waste of time. Likewise, Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene, a not-even-disguised barb at Siskel and Ebert, the American movie critics who gave Independence Day a well-deserved kicking. As Siskel later pointed out, “What’s the point of having characters meant to dig at us in a monster movie if the monster doesn’t eat us at some point?”
Twenty-five minutes in, and Godzilla arrives in New York. It’s a pretty spectacular sequence, building the tension with the old guy fishing in the river, catching a bite, and then the realisation that it’s him. The boards of the fishing pier rip up, and Godzilla strides through the streets, raining down chaos in his wake. The city is evacuated, and the military move in to investigate.
So far, so solid, right? So where does it go wrong? Well, these enjoyable 20-odd minutes have featured no instances of Matthew Broderick speaking. Now, with the military investigation in full swing, the worm guy gets to talk again, and things start to get really stupid. A plan is set to lure out Godzilla by piling up fish in central park, so they can shoot at him. (Incidentally, the response it brings out of Broderick has been brought up to fine meme status by The Nostalgia Critic, so I’ll let him go for it.)
So the trap works, and we get our first big look at our massive CGI lizard. Let’s be honest, the early days of CGI were never especially kind to movies in the 90s with a monster in them. Godzilla looks terrible. Like, really, properly bad. It’s such a fake looking thing, suspension of disbelief never really stood a chance. And Patrick Tatopoulos’ design doesn’t help matters. It’s an ugly looking thing, neither the force of nature Godzilla should be, nor the utter abomination of, say, the Cloverfield monster. What we have instead can perhaps best be described as a turd with frog’s legs.
So Godzilla takes a look at Broderick with the creepy dead eyes of a Robert Zemeckis motion capture character, and decides not to kill him, so the military open fire, presumably in response to that poor decision. Rather than swatting them out of the air like the punks they are, Godzilla chooses to run away from the apache helicopters. 44 years of Japanese movies where conventional weaponry doesn’t even scratch Godzilla, but as soon as the Americans get involved, ooh-rah! That said, this does lead to one cool conceit, where their heat seekers can’t hit him, as he’s colder than the buildings around him. Which stands up until you think about the moment less than two minutes prior when, for the only time in the movie, he breathed fire. I’ll come back to that later, as there’s a part that really annoys me, but the lack of atomic breath is a major sticking point in why people do not, and should not, acknowledge this beast as Godzilla.
So the military fail utterly in their attempt to bring down Godzilla, succeeding only in Emmerich’s favourite hobby of blowing up major American landmarks, this time the Chrysler Building. Godzilla disappears again, and we must return to the Broderick and his ex-girlfriend-cum-scheming-reporter plot, as she attempts to manipulate him into giving her a scoop on current events. These two have zero chemistry, and their scenes together are just bloody tedious. This one is vaguely notable, as it reveals that Godzilla is pregnant. Shocked at this stupid development, Broderick runs off to the lab to confirm, leaving conniving reporter ex to steal the video of a Japanese man looking at Jean Reno’s lighter and saying “Gojira” from earlier on in the movie.
So Harry Shearer steals the tape from the conniving bitch and airs it on the news, causing Broderick to be sacked from the team. The timing is inopportune, as Broderick thinks Godzilla may have a nest with a dozen eggs somewhere in Manhattan. He gets the chance to tell boring conniving bitch that she’s a conniving bitch, before getting kidnapped and recruited by Jean Reno, the film’s only competent and likable human being, when he gets to do anything other than moan about the poor quality of American coffee. He reveals that he works for the French intelligence services, and has been tasked with stopping Godzilla, in order to cover up French involvement in his creation. They sneak into the city, whilst simultaneously Hank Azaria and conniving bitch make their own plan to follow him. The military decide to try the same fish plan, only bigger, and lure Godzilla out, clearing the tunnels for the two bands of heroes to look for the nest.
The military’s plan forces Godzilla into the Hudson River, where he gets attacked by two submarines, eventually incapacitating him. Meanwhile, Broderick, Reno and their gang of Frenchies arrive at Madison Square Garden, with Azaria and conniving bitch in tow. Sure enough, they discover the eggs, but there are rather more than a dozen. About 200 are knocking around the arena, way more than the French have explosives to deal with. Not that it matters, as the eggs start hatching almost immediately, with the infants being about the size of the velociraptors from Jurassic Park. After a quick game of “How many Jurassic Park moments can we rip off?”, our heroes are reunited to broadcast a distress call, prompting the annihilation of Madison Square Garden via hellfire missile.
Naturally, this enrages Godzilla, who of course is still alive. A chase ensues, as our heroes outpace the superfast mutant lizard, which can outrun apache helicopters remember, in a New York taxi. Eventually, they’re cornered in the Park Avenue tunnel, which Godzilla can’t fit in despite it being larger than the subway tunnels he’s been hiding in throughout the film, and rather than using the fire breath we know he has to charbroil them right there, he instead just yells at them a bit. Eventually, the chase leads to his getting entangled in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, allowing the military to pelt him with missiles, until he eventually succumbs, the one and only version of Godzilla to ever be defeated by conventional weaponry. In the aftermath, it is revealed that one unhatched egg survived, which hatches just in time for the creature inside to go “boo” at the audience, before the credits mercifully roll.
I must have been something of a forgiving soul in my youth, because good lord, this movie is awful. The human characters are terrible, the CGI is embarrassing, and it has no clue of what Godzilla actually is, beyond the giant lizard aesthetic. Godzilla is a force of nature, utterly unstoppable by any means we have at our disposal. It’s due to this lack of awesome force that, when inducted into the Godzilla canon proper, this Godzilla was redubbed Zilla, as the beast had literally taken the God out of Godzilla. If for any reason you want to check it out for yourself, this version is broadly available, on DVD, Blu-Ray, Video On Demand services and, I believe, YouTube. I can only assume your reasoning to be morbid curiosity.
After that debacle, six further Japanese Godzilla films followed, culminating in the 50th anniversary special Godzilla: Final Wars. This featured battles with various creatures from Godzilla’s 50-year canon, including, amusingly, a brief battle with Zilla. This brief, in fact;
Tri-Star allowed their rights to Godzilla expire in 2003, and after Final Wars, Toho, the Japanese studio who own the character, announced it would be at least 10 years until they made another film. In 2010, Legendary Pictures, the production company behind Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, announced that they had acquired the rights to make a new American Godzilla. Welsh director Gareth Edwards was announced to direct the film in 2011, on the strength of his debut feature, Monsters.
Shot on a shoestring, with all the CGI done by the director himself on his laptop, Monsters is a superb piece of guerrilla filmmaking. We follow photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and his boss’s daughter Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) as Kaulder, at Sam’s father’s behest, tries to get her from Mexico back into the USA. The catch? For the last six years, the USA-Mexico borderlands have played host to alien creatures left there by a crashed NASA probe. When their passports and ferry tickets are stolen, they must brave the Infected Zone to get back to the States.
For a film called Monsters, the beasties themselves are pretty thin on the ground. A brief glimpse in the opening scene aside, the bulk of the film features suggestion, mood and suspense to get its kicks. This is a road movie and a love story, with the improvised dialogue between real-life couple McNairy and Able, as well as extra roles for pretty much anyone who happened to be standing around when they were filming, create an encompassing sense of realism, which heightens the feeling of impending danger throughout. McNairy and Able are fantastic in the leads, and they carry the film fantastically.
When the monsters finally do show up, they are beautiful. It’s something that’s hinted at earlier on in the film, in documentary footage on a motel TV, and it’s a majestic moment, one of the most striking you’ll see in a film in a long while. The serenity in this moment only sharpens the quiet tragedy to follow.
Monsters is an astonishing debut, made all the more remarkable for the circumstances under which it was made. Gareth Edwards shows a sure directorial hand, and a fantastic command of CGI, something which will surely serve his Godzilla well. At heart, it’s a character-driven drama, and the absence of any monsters for the bulk of the running time never feels remotely like an issue, the sense that they could strike at any moment creating a palpable tension. Godzilla’s future seems safe in Gareth Edwards’ hands.
The marketing for Godzilla has been steadily building since last year’s San Diego Comic Con. The Godzilla experience was probably the best bit of marketing anyone did at the Con, taking people through an office block as the King of the Monsters attacks. The trailers have been spectacular, creating an ominous mood whilst initially showing very little of the star of the show, focussing mostly on Bryan Cranston as the lead of the human cast. Godzilla hits cinemas across the world tomorrow. The world has been waiting. Bring it on.