America has a complicated relationship with Godzilla.
Many forget that the hulking behemoth’s original 1954 incarnation was a damning representation of nuclear weapons, a boogeyman whose penchant for destruction mirrored the United States’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Director Ishirō Honda built Godzilla like an atomic nightmare: indestructible, indiscriminate, and radioactive enough to leave survivors of his rampage sick with poisoning — there’s nothing bombastic about Honda’s Godzilla. It plays more like a horror film than a blockbuster, painting a shocking portrait of the Japanese anxieties produced by the American destruction of their homeland.
Of course, Americans didn’t see it that way — where others saw the criticism, they saw an opportunity. Quickly retooled for U.S. audiences, Honda’s Godzilla was stripped of its political themes and intercut with reshoots featuring Raymond Burr to create a leaner, more popcorn-friendly film. Titled Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, this new cut became a sizable hit in the Western world, turning its titular creature into a pop culture phenomenon. The original Japanese distributor, Toho, seemed to take notice of the popularity of this more straightforward approach and set about turning their beloved mega lizard into a franchise staple. Now Godzilla is the longest running franchise in the world, spanning 35 films in total.
The unfortunate side effect of all this is that Godzilla himself was reduced from a startling metaphor into a sideshow clown, trading in a cultural commentary for kid-friendly slapstick. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as many of the countless sequels that Honda’s Godzilla spawned (some Honda crafted himself) are classic, inspiring examples of kaiju cinema. When the concept of Godzilla stomping around became tired, Toho introduced now iconic creatures for him to duel with, creating whole new styles of monster narratives that have a positive legacy. The downside is that no sequel ever felt as intelligent or groundbreaking as Honda’s original masterpiece.
That all changed with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, a distinctly American iteration of the classic creature — injecting the series with a newfound sensibility while paying respect to the creature’s Japanese roots. After Roland Emmerich took the first American crack at the big guy with the fitfully fun but incomprehensible 1998 Godzilla, it seemed there was no way an American director could make a Hollywood Godzilla without buying into their worst impulses. Edwards proved the notion wrong with a thrilling, contemplative monster tale that took Godzilla in directions the franchise had never ventured before.
The 2014 Godzilla pulls from a dizzying number of influences, ranging from Honda’s original film to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Resisting the urge to have Godzilla on screen for every moment of the film, Edwards takes a page out of Spielberg’s book and gives the beast limited screen time. His appearances grow in scope and screentime as the film goes on, his first fight even shown to the audience only through newsreels. Unprecedented in the scope of the Godzilla canon, the choice was criticized by many at the time of release, but it’s a genius move that reestablishes Godzilla’s mythic status. Not since the 1954 Godzilla has the kaiju felt this imposing and mysterious, and the film soars as a result.
However, it’s not just Godzilla himself that makes Edwards’s take on the mythos so special. Everything that surrounds him is equally spectacular. Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey brought a striking new visual palette to the series, one that produced some of the stunning imagery the kaiju genre has ever seen. One profound sequence, in which Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Navy soldier HALO jumps through a storm into a monster-ravaged San Francisco, is shot in hypnotic contrast of darkness and primary colors. Finally, Godzilla was interacting in a world befitting of his colossal reputation.
Most importantly, Edwards made Godzilla smart again. Inspired by the 60s and 70s films that made Godzilla a hero, Edwards retooled him into a great equalizer twinged with modern nuclear and climate change anxieties. Paying homage to the spirit of Honda’s initial vision, this is a Godzilla also created as a consequence of atomic warfare. The difference here is he faces off with MUTOs, new creatures created for the film that feeds off of nuclear power. The MUTOs, frightening and ruthless, are Edwards’ way of reintroducing the series’s stance against atomic warfare. The MUTOs only grow stronger through the consequences of our own nuclear mistakes, and pitting Godzilla against these symbols of the ills of war re-contextualizes the creature into a god protecting us from ourselves.
Underrated and smarter than it lets on, the 2014 Godzilla is a brilliant subversion of blockbuster filmmaking with an impact that’s no accident. In Japan, Toho took note of the film’s more sophisticated approach and made a smarter Godzilla of its own, the thrilling and heady 2016 film Shin Godzilla. This week, Edwards’ version of Godzilla will have a sequel — the cheekily titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which sees Godzilla facing off with some of his classic foes once again. There’s little chance it will be as intelligent as its predecessor, but with trailers that suggest Godzilla’s latest battle is a byproduct of the effects of climate change, it seems that Edwards has made a lasting impression on the world’s longest running franchise. America and Godzilla may have a testy relationship, but Edwards has proved that milking that tension has done nothing but change the iconic character for the better.
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