By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

Godzilla is a simple creature. A relic from the prehistoric era, brought to life by atomic testing, Godzilla has only one aim in life. He just wants to destroy everything in his path, and he doesn’t care one whit about humanity. He’s an inescapable metaphor for the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something that Japan was desperately trying to exorcise after the war, and is still dealing with today. In all of history, Japan remains, for the moment, the only country to have actually suffered not one, but two atomic attacks, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives either from outright destruction or the effects of lingering radiation, and the psychic wounds have yet to heal.

In Ishirō Honda’s 1954 original film, Gojira, shot just nine years after the 1945 bombings, Gojira climbed out of the sea, destroyed Tokyo with a combination of radioactive breath and brute force – to say nothing of his gargantuan size – before being destroyed in turn by equally exotic scientific gadgetry while slumbering in Tokyo bay, apparently resting after his decimation of the city. The film was recut and partially reshot by editor/director Terry Morse with Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin for the 1956 US release, and the character of Gojira was rechristened Godzilla, which also became the Americanized title of the film.

MCDGODZ EC052Contrary to general belief, Gojira was not a “B” picture from Toho Studios, the Japanese production company that created the film; with a budget of roughly $1,500,000, it was clearly an “A” project all the way through. Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects were entirely satisfactory for the era, and Honda’s direction (Honda also handled many of the action sequences for Akira Kurosawa’s films in an uncredited capacity) is suitably somber and casually brutal. Though the special effects were at times rudimentary (a man in a rubber suit for much of the film, photographed in slow motion as he knocked down miniature buildings with sound effects added after the fact), the film took itself entirely seriously, and was a significant box-office success.

Ishirō Honda on the set of Mothra vs.Godzilla 1964.
Ishirō Honda on the set of Mothra vs.Godzilla 1964.

In Gojira, as in Motoyoshi Oda’s 1955 follow-up, Godzilla Raids Again (released as Gigantis, The Fire Monster in the US in 1959), the titular monster is nothing more or less than an agent of blind devastation, wreaking unreasoning havoc, incapable of compassion, impervious to all military efforts to defeat it, and impossible to escape. In these films, Gojira has no real motivation at all other than a desire to destroy as much property and kill as many people as possible simply because he can, and in contrast to King Kong, for example, possesses not even a shred of humanity, and is indifferent to the suffering he causes – he’s just there, killing and destroying because that’s his job, the sole reason his existence. He’s also entirely unsympathetic, and in contrast to King Kong’s tragic death in the 1933 original, inspires not the slightest vestige of audience empathy when he’s killed; just as the original Godzilla lives to destroy, he also lives to be destroyed – that’s his ultimate endgame.

What’s also peculiar here is that in making the first film, Toho had created what was arguably the last great monster of the classic horror and science fiction era stretching from the 1930s to the late 1950s, and also the first monster of the atomic era. Toho christened Godzilla “King of the Monsters,” and in these early films, he lived up to his reputation. It’s also odd that Japan and the United States, mortal enemies less than a decade earlier, would suddenly find themselves in commercial accord in the creation of a monster that clearly personified the aftermath of World War II, as if the two countries were doomed to fight the conflict over and over again metaphorically. Indeed, for many years, Toho had a standing set of a miniature Tokyo designed specifically for repeated ritual destruction by Godzilla, in no less than 28 films in all.

But with 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, with Honda returning to the director’s chair, Godzilla’s character took on a sudden character shift. Produced by Toho, the film pitted Kong and Godzilla together in a rather comic battle to the death – this time in color, making the settings look all the more artificial compared to the moody black and white cinematography of the film two previous films – and spawned a series of subsequent, equally uninspired franchise films in which Godzilla engaged in hand-to-hand combat with such monsters as Mothra (a giant moth), Ghidra, a three-headed monster looking somewhat like the Hydra of Greek mythology, and Hedorah, the smog monster, who spends much of the film getting high by inhaling the fumes of factory smokestacks, until Godzilla puts an end to him in an unintentionally comic fight sequence.

Inevitably, the series began to repeat itself, running out of both ambition and originality, until Godzilla became more of a clown than anything else, a companion to children in the plots of the films, as the productions themselves became more an more juvenile. Where the first film, and arguably the second entry in the series, had been squarely aimed at adults, and remained utterly serious in design and intent, the later Godzilla films – which began looking shabbier and shabbier with the advent of digital effects, as Toho stuck firmly with the “man in the monster suit” approach – were made for the pre-school set. The last film in the Toho series, Godzilla: Final Wars (2004) continued this trend, even as it gathered together all of the monsters that Godzilla had battled in the previous installments, together with many actors who had been associated with the series during its fifty year run.

But at the same time, Toho was worried. Godzilla had more or less collapsed as a franchise, reduced to such a parodic shadow of his former self so as to be almost beyond repair. Toho longed to crack the American market as decisively as they had in 1956, with the Americanized hybrid of the 1954 film, and realized that only an American-made, big budget studio reboot would suffice to rescue the character from oblivion. Thus, in 1998, while still cranking out the comedic Godzilla films for their home audience, Toho agreed to let director Roland Emmerich take a serious shot at rejuvenating Godzilla, in the first wholly American film based on the original character, with Matthew Broderick in the leading role. The results, however, were disastrous.

Overlong, unconvincing, with poor special effects and a Godzilla that looked almost nothing like the original character, and Broderick desperately miscast, the film – despite the fact that it made a handsome profit – almost finished off Godzilla as a franchise possibility, because that’s precisely what it didn’t deliver. Both critical and audience reaction to the film was sharply negative, and it seemed that Toho would never achieve their aim of a definitive American iteration of their most valuable creation.

Godzilla 2014Now, we have Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version of Godzilla, and the results are decidedly mixed. I am a great admirer of Edwards’ 2010 film Monsters, which Edwards, an accomplished digital special effects technician, wrote, directed, photographed, produced and edited on a budget of significantly less than $500,000. Unlike most tech-heavy films of its type, Monsters betrayed real signs of intelligence and originality, imbuing the aliens, who are only glimpsed in full during a final, eerily mystic mating sequence at a desert gas station, with a genuine if other-worldly presence.

Edwards made up Monsters as he went along, shooting out of the back of a van on location, improvising most of the film with just two actors, and later described it as being “Lost in Translation meets War of the Worlds,” which really does sum the film up rather neatly. One might almost call it an alien romantic fantasy, and the bare bones, documentary style of the film, combined with the laidback performances of Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able as the two leads, created a work of genuine quality – a rarity in effects driven films. Though the film was only a modest commercial success, Hollywood took notice, and recognizing Edwards’ skill with actors as well as CGI effects, quickly snapped him up for bigger things.

Bigger, yes, but sadly not better. Made for $160 million, with extensive location shooting, and an added promotional budget of $80 million to put the film over the top, Edwards’ version of Godzilla has benefitted from a shrewd marketing campaign, with a trailer that, as with Monsters, withheld the title character from view almost entirely, while banking heavily on actor Bryan Cranston’s presence in what seems to be a leading role in the film – in the trailer, he gets nearly all of the dialogue, intercut with suitably spectacular scenes of destruction.

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Johnson in Godzilla 2014But – spoilers ahead – the trailer is one of the most remarkably deceptive ad campaigns in recent memory. Cranston (as Joe Brody, a nuclear physicist – the name is taken from a minor character in Howard Hawks’ classic film The Big Sleep [1946]) dies roughly forty minutes after the start of the film, and is unceremoniously zipped up in a body bag; while his wife, Sandra, played by Juliette Binoche, dies a mere ten minutes into the film, after only two or three scenes on camera. There go two of the best actors in the film – bang, bang, they’re dead, and with their on-screen deaths, any connection to the other characters dies as well.

godzilla-extended-look-video-02After that, Ken Watanabe, as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, takes over as the lead, and gives an utterly monotonous performance, grunting monosyllabically in response to questions posed by his assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) or Admiral William Stenz, United States Navy (David Strathairn). While Serizawa, Graham and Stenz stand around worrying about how best to deal with the apparent threat that Godzilla poses, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Joe Brody’s son, Ford Brody, an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Navy; Elizabeth Olsen as Elle Brody, his wife, a nurse; and Carson Bolde as their young son, Sam, rush from one disaster scene to the next, trying to ramp up some sadly non-existent suspense.

_KF13938.dngOf all the characters, once Cranston and Binoche are out of the picture, only Strathairn has any presence in a role that is almost entirely one-dimensional; he represents military authority, and delivers his lines with suitable gravity, and that’s it. Taylor-Johnson, quite simply, is a stiff; he’s there, but he has no screen presence. It’s a straight-ahead part, and that’s what you get; like an action hero in a Republic serial, he simply scrambles from one fight to the next. As his wife Elle, Elizabeth Olsen runs down hallways, looks worried and/or scared, makes telephone calls, and is inevitably separated from her son, Sam – the film seems quite invested in the sanctity of the family unit.

This is all the more sad because the central premise of the film has an interesting twist; the 1954 nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific weren’t tests at all; they were attempts to kill Godzilla, who is briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the film in the midst of a montage of stock footage from real atom bomb tests – it’s all been an elaborate government cover-up. In addition, Edwards introduces a new set of monsters for Godzilla to tangle with during the course of the film, the enormous, pterodactyl-like Mutos, rapacious and violent creatures who feed on nuclear energy, and spend most of the film trying frantically to reproduce in an attempt to take over the earth, though they’re not really conscious of what they’re doing; as with the original character of Godzilla, it’s simple, primitive instinct.

godzilla-ken-watanabe-david-strathairnBut that’s the core of the problem. This time out, Godzilla isn’t here to kill us all; he’s here to help. Despite assurances to the contrary, the 2014 version of Godzilla is, from first frame to last, a force of ecological balance rather than mindless destruction. He’s on our side, and it soon becomes clear why we need his assistance. In view of the fact that the two Mutos in the film feed on atomic energy, atom bombs are useless, and would only strengthen them. So what to do? It’s Godzilla to the rescue, of course. As Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa portentously tells Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz, “the arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them [Godzilla and the Mutos] fight.” Deep.

And fight they do, leveling much of San Francisco in the process, until Godzilla finally dispatches one of the Mutos with a karate chop to the neck, and breathes blue-tinted radioactive breath down the last Muto’s throat. With the Mutos dispatched, Godzilla lumbers back into the sea, as cable news coverage – seen throughout the film – documents his retreat with the superimposed banner “Godzilla – Savior of the City?” as the giant lizard vanishes in the distance. Savior of the City? Indeed he is – this incarnation of Godzilla suffers and fights for “us” despite the fact that mankind really doesn’t deserve it – building dangerous nuclear power plants and polluting the environment for a start – in an almost Christ-like manner.

The real Godzilla would have teamed up with the Mutos to kill us all; the movie, seemingly divided against itself, makes it clear that we deserve nothing less. There is also a pronounced military slant, as one might gather from the synopsis above, reminiscent of the Cold War 1950s, which for all we know, we may be re-entering at warp speed. When in doubt, bring out the bombs. In addition, Edwards overuses his trademark “less is more” visual technique throughout the film, withholding Godzilla almost entirely from view, letting the more rapacious Mutos handle most of the violence, and staging much of the film’s action at night. But what worked in Monsters doesn’t work here; Godzilla should be seen, and heard.

The other troubling aspect of the film, of course, is that it bears the stitched together, Frankenstein-eque scars of a typical international co-production. Bryan Cranston is clearly thrown in for United States marquee value here, just as Raymond Burr was for the 1956 US recut of the first film. In a glorified cameo, he spends most of his time running around screaming dire predictions, as in an epic rant after a nuclear power plant his character supervises is destroyed in a mysterious accident near the start of the film: “you’re not fooling anybody when you say that what happened was a ‘natural disaster’. You’re lying! It was not an earthquake! It wasn’t a typhoon! Because what’s really happening is that you’re hiding something out there! And it is going to send us back to the Stone Age! God help us all!”

godzilla-ken-watanabe-600x399Similarly, Juliette Binoche’s appearance is so brief that one can only assume she is a sop to the European market, while Ken Watanabe, a big star in Japan, is really the center of the film, even if he has almost no dialogue, and seems to sleepwalk through the production’s entire two hour running time. Sadly, the trailer is the best part of the film in many respects, and given the fact that Monsters was so successful at being both otherworldly and firmly humanist, I went into Godzilla with high hopes. But the film is weighed down by the sheer cynicism with which it is constructed, and the packed opening night audience I saw the film with were painfully unimpressed.

After the opening title sequence, which copped its design from Zero Dark Thirty’s disappearing “blacked out” text bars, and the 1954 atom bomb test sequence, the audience soon became restless. There were laughs in the wrong places, a few walk outs, eventually giving way to a pervasive, weary acceptance that the film was going to continue to unreel without surprise or suspense, as one tired, going-through-the-motions battle after another ensued. It seemed that no one really cared what was happening on the screen, or was even remotely invested in it.

Like most of the audience, I had hoped for a return to the primal nature of Godzilla, resulting in a reboot that could be continued on through several more serious films, as Christopher Nolan accomplished with The Dark Knight, or even its more pedestrian lead-in, Batman Begins. But no such luck; Godzilla is back as the savior of mankind, or at least San Francisco, and the leaden literalness of the film robs it of any vitality or visceral impact.

But then again, this is a big studio project, and it’s clear Edwards had much less control over the film than with Monsters, where he didn’t have to answer to anyone but himself. With Toho making certain script demands, such as the fact that the film start in Japan and feature a leading Japanese actor in a starring role, and the American production company Legendary Films equally anxious to cash in on the Breaking Bad popularity of Bryan Cranston, the end result was almost bound to please no one. Godzilla will certainly recoup its investment, and may be one of the summer’s biggest films, but that’s not my concern here.

Needlessly complex, while at the same time all too predictable, Edwards’ Godzilla doesn’t deliver what the film’s publicity machine promised; a return to the original character. Godzilla is not the hope of the world. He is a figure of total, unreasoning annihilation, something to be feared – a warning of what happens when the forces of unchecked destruction are unleashed. Here, he’s just another character in an all-too-human-centered drama, neutered by the demands of commerce and the desire to create a more “likable” protagonist. Even the ending is a cheat; at first, it seems that Godzilla is dead in the wreckage of San Francisco, but then he rouses himself and wades out into the Pacific, ready for a sequel. As Bryan Cranston observed, “God help us all!”

Thus, the 1954 Gojira, which was re-released in its original Japanese version with English subtitles, and without the Raymond Burr intercuts, by Rialto Pictures in a limited-city theatrical release in 2004 remains, after more than half a century, the definitive film of the entire franchise, proving that sometimes, you really can’t repeat the past – you should simply re-release it. Really, none – not one – of the sequels lives up to the power of the first film. The uncut original version of Gojira is also now available on DVD; so instead of spending $12 or whatever to see this version, why not go to Amazon and buy the original Gojira instead? Trust me, it’s a much more satisfying experience.

Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.

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