Godzilla, King of the Metaphors

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Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen recently joined Aaron Johnson in the cast of Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla, bringing us one step closer to the first American film since 1998 to star the King of the Monsters. This new version, the vision of the Monsters director Gareth Edwards, is said to depict the creature as “a terrifying force of nature” built around a “contemporary issue.” But is there any way to top the powerful metaphor of the original?

The iconic Kaiju is now almost 60 years old, having made its debut in the 1954 Japanese film Gojira. In that story, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II cause an otherwise benign sea monster to rise from the depths in search for food, leaving destruction in its wake. Less than a decade after the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear weapons wreaking havoc on civilization was very real, and the film captured the interest of Japanese and American audiences alike. The U.S. release of Gojira changed the monster’s name and cut 40 minutes of the original film and added a sympathetic American character – but it remained a cautionary tale about the consequences of nuclear war.

From 1998's "Godzilla"

From 1998′s “Godzilla”

Even in 1998, a year full of overblown disaster spectacles, the American Godzilla looked pretty ridiculous. Matthew Broderick plays a biologist who studies radioactive creatures, and a whole lot of ‘90s CGI portrayed Godzilla himself. Although the movie was the third-highest grossing release of the year, it was critically panned. In 1998, the threat of nuclear war had been supplanted by global warming, terrorism and worldwide pandemics. Godzilla’s story felt old, a relic of a postwar anxiety that made sense to the generation that had hid under desks during air raid drills, but not to their kids. How can 2014’s Godzilla tell a relevant (and scary) story when the last nuclear bombing of a city was more than 65 years ago?

Since the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, there has been a reawakening of sorts about nuclear power and its dangers to civilians. It’s possible that instead of nuclear war, the catalyst for Godzilla’s transformation could be a similar natural disaster followed by a nuclear accident. It would also be interesting if the new Godzilla diverted entirely from the nuclear storyline, and instead was the result of biological weaponry – a more palpable threat.

Today’s monster movies are intensely focused on threats from within (your boyfriend might be a vampire, your next-door neighbor could become a zombie). These creatures threaten one person, or a small group of people – not millions upon millions with a single fiery breath. Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are both known for their dramatic work (Breaking Bad and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it’s likely this film will be a subtler, scarier Godzilla than the 1998 incarnation.

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Comments

  • http://twitter.com/ToddCMatthy Todd Matthy

    Anything will be better than that 1998 debacle. I think a natural disaster would be a good way to recapture that fear. It’s something beyond our control and Godzilla is supposed to be that, a walking, fire breathing, natural disaster. Although it does remove the element of humans releasing something they cannot control, but if you want to tie it to climate change I guess it could work.   

  • Shaun

    I suspect that if the film wants to make Godzilla a “terrifying force of nature built around a contemporary issue” then climate change and human-caused environmental destruction is the most likely candidate. We are seeing the effects of climate change all over the world. in the American context (which, unfortunately, is all that matters from a Hollywood perspective) the recent Superstorm Sandy and intense droughts/wildfires have helped drive these points home. The growing opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is an example of a growing environmental movement and consciousness. There must be a way to tie Godzilla into this.

    Maybe Godzilla ends up being a supermonster who is freed from a glacier melting in the Arctic or Antarctic. How the nuclear element gets into it is more interesting. Personally, I would not mind if Godzilla is just some supermonster mutant. But I agree that the Big G as a walking hydrogen bomb is a pretty essential part of the character.

    The important thing is to get Godzilla right. He must be an unstoppable, invincible force (at least in relation to humans). One of the big failures of the last US Godzilla film was that that Big G was just a big iguana, vulnerable to the US military and its missiles/artillery. I guess the filmmakers did not want to show the US military as impotent before an enemy, but that’s a basic part of Godzilla – he is far beyond human comprehension and power.

    I’m concerned about the focus on dramatic actors. Godzilla should not be a character-driven, human-centered film, except in a very basic way (eg. how people were affected by the nuclear bombs is embedded in the first Godzilla movie). It’s got to be about a powerful force of nature smashing human civilization.

  • Dekko

    I think they’ve already got it wrong if they describe him as a force of “nature.”  Did “nature” create the H-bomb?  No, *WE* did.  Linking Godzilla to nautre is a mistake – he’s always been a metaphor for our own hubris, and human nature will never change. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/kurt.weldon Kurt Weldon

    I went in to the 1998 movie figuring it would suck.  Therefore, I was reasonably entertained.

  • Capaware

    “the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II cause an otherwise benign sea monster to rise from the depths in search for food”

    When was Godzilla ever referred to as “otherwise benign” (unless you’re referring to his heroic role in later films)?  And since when was he “in search for food”?  I have both the U.S. and Japanese versions of the original film, and I don’t recall either of these points ever being made.  I think you may be confusing Godzilla with similar America monsters like the octopus in IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA or THE GIANT BEHEMOTH where a search for food (which had become irradiated by nuclear tests) motivated their attacks on the surface world.  Godzilla’s motivation was mostly due to nuclear tests awakening him and ticking him off.  Godzilla has never even been depicted as eating anything in the films…except for nuclear energy.

  • Matt. S

    Elizabeth Olsen is so much better than this. :(

  • beane2099

    Actually the 1992 Godzilla Vs Biollante used biological warfare as its central theme.  And I think it worked quite well. It was the stepping stone between Godzilla 1985 and the Hesei series.  Frankly I found it one of the more touching of the 90′s Godzilla flicks and it had a plot that involved Japan, the United States and the Middle East.  It had government corruption, spies, terrorists and it it’s heart was a misguided scientist who only wanted to remember his daughter.

    A Godzilla for this day and age would probably best be rooted in an accident of some kind involving either biological warfare or a nuclear disaster.  If you really wanted to hit home, the best theme would be a terrorist accident of some kind.  That might be deemed too insensitive for some, but leave us not forget, that Gojira first aired in 1954, 10 years after the Hiroshima bombing.  The scenes of a Japan recovering from Godzilla’s attack (with the somber song of a children’s choir) is actual footage of the victims of the Hiroshima bombing.  It can’t hit home harder than that, folks.  And that element is what separated Godzilla from all the other radiation born monstrosities of the 1950′s & 60′s.  Godzilla 1985 (Or The Return of Godzilla) used the cold war as it’s central theme 30 years later, and seeing that as kid (during the cold war) really struck a cord as to how serious these events were (supposed to be). 

    Whatever the origin, Godzilla’s should not be the creation of any knowable entity (i.e., the project of a specific group of scientists gone awry).  That would be a mistake.  Attributing Godzilla’s origin directly to someone’s actions (i.e., “we wanted to create this lizard for bizarre scientific research”) would be wrong.  And it would make him a FREAK of nature as opposed to a FORCE of nature (which is EXACTLY what the 1998 film did).  Whatever the case, I look forward to this new take on the Big G, as it has been 10 years since he has been in a proper movie.  

  • beane2099

     I like that.  And I have a feeling that’s where Frank Darabount is going to take it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/dfullam David Fullam

    American Godzilla, Ultraman, Dragon Ball, Fist of the North Star, Guyver, Speed Racer, etc. We have a lousy track record of adapting Japanese properties. Doubt this one will be different.

  • shaunn

    I agree completely that Godzilla should not be the product of human science. On the other hand, the line here is a fine one – the Godzilla we are familiar with is what he is because of nuclear-caused mutation. True, he begins as a sea monster (or a dinosaur) but he becomes a superbeing through human intervention. But I get your point – a force of nature should be rooted in nature itself, not a human laboratory. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HS5UAIK7BIOH5QI3GI3BWTXKFE Blake Davis

     The heisei series had Godzilla as a force of nature despite him having a nuclear origin.
    Its not wrong since Toho clearly had done it before.

  • beane2099

     Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was going for.  Human shenanigans created Godzilla, but the human involvement was anonymous.  I just think if there’s an actual face to go along with Godzilla’s creation it takes away from the mythos.  WE created Godzilla is more ominous than Dr. Herzberg and the folks at Lizidine Corporation made Godzilla.  But yeah, I get what you’re saying.  I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

  • http://www.theblogocube.blogspot.com/ James

    I think this time, instead of being born of a nuclear fire, Godzilla should rise up from the chemical stew when a truck full of hormone-laced milk collides with a train car full of high fructose corn syrup.  After the US military is defeated, the call goes out to whole foods across the land, and an army of hybrid cars arises to push the beast into a trap made of inexpensive, re-usable cloth grocery bags. 

  • Varan Bon Ziller

     He was a force of nature before that.

  • Peter Brothers

    Pity is radioactivity is not as “in” as it used to be; may use Climate Change as a tie-in to make the Big Guy more relevant.  Whatever they do let’s hope it is closer in spirit to Honda’s original conception than that ’98′s joke.
    -Peter H. Brothers, author of “Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men – The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda.”

  • http://twitter.com/jtrsaaiugh_john John Matheson

    The Godzilla Trailer is finally here!!!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Bf-8uc07PU