Godzilla. The word conjures up images of guys in flabby rubber monster suits slugging it out for supremacy over model cities as badly-dubbed civilians flee in mock-terror. And while certainly many of the latter entries in the series (particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s) lived up to this stereotype, by the 1990s the Godzilla franchise was fighting for legitimacy and indeed, seriousness.
In 1998, the very concept of kaiju eiga was dealt a serious blow with the release of TriStar’s GODZILLA, directed (if such a word is not too strong to use in reference to a film of this caliber) by Roland Emmerich and written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin, starring Matthew Broderick and a CGI iguana with Jay Leno’s chin. The film was atrocious by any measure – thoroughly unlikable human characters, CGI so half-assed they have to cloak the monster in a constant torrential downpour to try and disguise it, a monster whose size varies wildly from frame to frame, and most damning, a writer and director with not only no respect, but an active disdain, for the material they were adapting. Even without the blatant attack on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel encoded in the film, it didn’t have a chance to earn a thumb, or a claw, up.
Following this debacle, Toho, Godzilla’s parent studio, reclaimed the King of the Monsters and came out with the Millennium series – a set of films unrelated to past Godzilla films other than the very first, and replete with jabs at how terrible the TriStar film was; GODZILLA 2000 featured a big-chinned monster that attempted to become Godzilla and failed, GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTER ALL OUT ATTACK referenced in dialogue a monster that attacked New York and was mistaken for Godzilla, and finally, in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS in 2004, the TriStar monster, dubbed “Zilla,” faces off against Godzilla in a 43-second fight in the ruins of Sydney, Australia before being destroyed.
Now, more then fifteen years after TriStar’s failure, another American attempt at recreating the Big G is on its way — actually hitting theaters on my birthday, which is nice. Directed by Gareth “MONSTERS” Edwards and starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” fame, it seems like this time around we’re finally going to get a worthwhile American Godzilla film.
Why? Let’s take a look at the trailer:
Gareth Edwards is a fan of Godzilla. He loves Godzilla, unlike Emmerich and Devlin, and understands what makes the Big G work. He presents a Godzilla that returns to the monster’s roots – a creature spawned of nuclear chaos, a creature of wrath and pain and destruction, born of man’s hubris and surviving to bedevil humanity to the end of its days. Godzilla is the destructive power of nuclear war given an enraged, snarling face. That’s who he was in 1954, and from the looks of the trailer, that’s who he is in 2014.
I mean, I’m not imagining it, right? The trailer explicitly describes the atomic “testing” in the Pacific as attempts to murder Godzilla in his sleep before he woke up, right? That’s fucking awesome.
This is not the Godzilla who does the Safety Dance after landing a punch on another monster. This is not the Godzilla who uses his atomic breath to fly. This is the Godzilla whose footprints are permeated with enough Strontium-90 to make your hair fall out, and whose very presence is a death sentence to anyone within five city blocks — those who survive the immediate destruction living long enough to envy those killed in the initial onslaught as their bodies rot away, consumed by radiation.
Edwards being British, (and the current geopolitical climate and Hollywood’s attitude towards American intervention overseas being what it is) I think we’re going to finally see an American Kaiju film where the military-industrial complex isn’t the key to destroying the monster. Look at American monster movies from the 1950s – though they may suffer an initial defeat, ultimately it’s the U.S. Military that destroys the monster. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is a perfect example (and has the added bonus of being a parent to the Godzilla franchise) where it’s an Army sniper (played by an uncredited Lee Van Cleef) takes down the atomic dinosaur with a radium bullet prepared by scientists in support of the American military.
A major point in 1954’s GOJIRA is that military force is not the answer to dealing with the monster; Godzilla was born of military action, and attempting to fight him with the same sort of military forces is like pouring gasoline onto a burning building and then being suprised when it doesn’t put the fire out. This has been a major issue with translating Godzilla for American audiences; to American producers at the time of GOJIRA’s release, the idea of a threat that American G.I.s couldn’t face down was alien. I think we’re at the point now where American audiences are disillusioned enough with the idea of American military exceptionalism and that producers are cognizant enough of that fact that a film in which the monster goes through the armed forces like crap through a goose is a distinct possibility.
Personally, my fingers are crossed for this possibility; I want to see a Godzilla that is as much an allegory as he is an animal, as much a message as he is a monster. I really believe Gareth Edwards is the man to give us that film, and I’m hoping Legendary Pictures is helping him make that happen. For now, Godzilla – that strangely innocent and tragic monster – is waiting to take his place once more at the box office. Whether, after this film, he returns or not, or is never seen again, hopefully what he’s taught us will remain.