The monster known as Gojira first stomped his way on-screen in 1954, nine years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan, the first country affected by nuclear warfare, embraced and identified with the lumbering creature born of similarly nuclear origins. A new monster was born for an uncertain modern era.
In the sixty years since the film’s release, the titular monster, dubbed Godzilla in the West, has appeared in no less than twenty-nine feature films and countless spinoffs and tie-in media. Over the course of his cinematic career, Godzilla has fought a variety of daikaiju (Japanese for giant strange creature) and robotic nemeses. His characterization has also undergone a variety of significant changes over the years: from the horrific manifestation of Japan’s collective trauma, to a sympathetic antihero and eventually even a superhero, before reverting back to an allegory for the consequences of playing with science beyond our control.
With the release of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, which marked the 50th anniversary of the franchise, Toho, Co., the Japanese film distributor that created and owns the rights to Godzilla, stated that they would not produce another film in the series for ten years. Now in 2014, we see the fulfilment of this promise with the release of a new film. But rather than being another instalment in the ongoing Japanese series, Toho has licensed the character to American production companies Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures to reboot the character for an international audience.
“The challenge faced by a new American film is that it not only has to reintroduce Godzilla to a Western audience, but argue for its own relevancy.”
After the disaster of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla (which Toho cleverly retconned away in Final Wars) the challenge faced by a new American film is that it not only has to reintroduce Godzilla to a Western audience, but argue for its own relevancy. To helm their new Godzilla, Legendary and Warner Bros. smartly hired Gareth Edwards, a hotshot British indie director whose sole previous film, Monsters, examined the sociopolitical and psychological impacts of a large monster attack through a pair of humans stuck on the ground in the aftermath.
With the film’s arrival in theatres, Edwards’ Godzilla is being highly scrutinized by critics, fans, and filmgoers alike. Not only does the film have to deliver the classic monster action and destruction that typifies the genre, which is arguably the aspect of the film that will drive ticket sales, but it also needs to make us as an audience care about the subject matter. While 1954’s Godzilla is built on a less-than-subtle allegory, it does not lack sophistication in its approach. The success of this latest instalment relies heavily on Edwards’ ability to recapture the horror and significance of the original.
Luckily, Edwards’ Godzilla is as good of a movie as we could have hoped for. He deftly balances the themes of scientific and natural destruction with the human element reacting and coping to forces beyond their control. The predominantly grey colour palette evokes the original film’s dark appearance, while also setting the tone for the messy, contemporary environmental and sociopolitical concerns. He presents much of the destructive action through the lenses of windows, which puts the audience inside of the experience and provides points of identification, but also through news reporting after the fact, which mirrors how we collectively engage with large scale disasters nowadays. The focus is primarily on servicemen and women, those that fulfill their duty in a time of crisis, much like our real-world understanding of heroes after such events.
The film follows a US Navy officer, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass fame and soon to be of Avengers: Age of Ultron fame) who stands witness to the monsters’ eventual war and humanity’s countermeasures. Throughout the film, Ford’s family is broken up by the monsters; to bring it back together and make it whole once more, he has to follow them until the threat they present is extinguished. As a child he loses his mother in a strange and unexplainable nuclear disaster at a power plant in Japan. Years later, his father, emotionally wrecked and traumatized by the experience, drags Ford away from his own wife (Elizabeth Olsen, also soon to be of Avengers: Age of Ultron fame) and son in San Francisco and back to Japan, into the path of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO, that is responsible for his mother’s death.
This MUTO’s awakening is the catalyst for the film’s action and also succeeds in finally destroying Ford’s original family by taking the life of his father. On the other side of the world from the only remaining members of his family, he must both follow and stop the monster as it heads towards California. Thus the nuclear monster threatens the nuclear family.
The MUTOs themselves mirror Ford’s journey. Awakened and nurtured by man’s own foolish misuse of atomic technology, their primary goal becomes to hatch and provide for their offspring, to reunite and start a family of their own. They are not malevolent towards humanity, but their presence threatens to destroy the Earth’s balance. Godzilla arrives to restore that balance.
“Godzilla serves as a reminder of the responsibility we have towards maintaining this planet, a responsibility that we more often than not ignore in favour of our own selfish motives.”
In 2014, Godzilla is no longer the dangerous creation of man’s folly, as in the ’54 film, but as his Anglicized name suggests, a God risen from the depths. Edwards’ Godzilla is a stabilizing force; he brings balance back to the world as Ken Wantanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (named after the doctor in the original film) so eloquently predicts. Like the men and women at the centre of the film, Godzilla is fulfilling his duty.
While he is ultimately a hero in the film, he is also a symbol of the horror and uncertainty in the world; the humans on the ground and us as an audience are invited to look at him with awe. He serves as a reminder of the responsibility we have towards maintaining this planet, a responsibility that we more often than not ignore in favour of our own selfish motives.
Godzilla is a primal being who could just as easily destroy as he protects, all in the service of a higher balance that humans threaten to upset. His awakening is also a warning. As he returns to the sea he arrived from, the news aptly questions whether or not he is the saviour of the city. He has defeated the MUTOs, but he doesn’t care for San Francisco or man as he leaves a path of destruction in his wake.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla maintains the integrity of the original film while adapting the story and the themes to our contemporary situation and concerns. The film is powerful because it invites the audience to identify with the action, while also delivering a haunting message that reinforces our own terrifying insignificance and hubris: as Dr. Serizawa says, “The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in their control and not the other way around.”