You may not have seen the new Godzilla, the biggest summer blockbuster yet, but you must have seen the trailers. My review is meant to enhance your experience if you do finally go to your local 3-D IMAX vendor and see what the fuss is about.
The Japanese film, Gojira, literally a mash-up of “Gorila-Whale,” came out in Japan in 1954. Gojira was awakened by atom bomb tests, and the film warns that further testing will bring more monsters. Shot in black & white by the top director and literal inventor of the giant rubber monster genre known as “kaiju,” Ishiro Honda also helped write the film. Night scenes of a flaming Japanese cityscape–with a pretty convincing, shadowy Gojira as the manifestation of post-atomic horror–made a instant monster icon that clearly survives with enormous intensity to this day. His cry, said to be a mix of a braying donkey and a lion’s roar, is known throughout the world, a weird train whistle that erupts into anger incarnate.
Released in the West and rebranded as Godzilla (wouldn’t you want to have been in THAT pitch meeting?), extra scenes were shot with Raymond Burr, and the dark mood of unrequited love and heroic suicide, to say nothing of Hiroshima’s titular id incarnate, was diluted. To see the original without Burr is to enter a serious noir horror film.
Our modern 2014 Godzilla lives in a world where slow apocalypse has arrived. Nowadays, the public wants to escape weird weather, financial collapse, endless wars, leaking Japanese nuclear reactors and suspiciously engineered food, in the same way living through the Depression made people flock to Busby Berkeley dance movies.
To remove any man-made cause or error from the mythos is quite an odd spin at the height of our global warming crisis and pursuit of a faulty nuclear power source. Yet, the images remain – tsunamis, earthquakes, cracked reactors – for they can’t be ignored, but in the context of this film, they can at least not be our fault, and better yet, in what will surely be a franchise, we have a savior, a strange Shinto-like nature god, who will not allow apocalypse even in the midst of the images of apocalypse. In one trailer, as a member of the Greek chorus scientists who know too much, Ken Watanabe says our giant reptile is not a monster, but “a god.” This has since been made covert, for Watanabe’s line was deleted from the final cut. Instead, Godzilla can be, if not a god, an instrument of Divine Intervention, deified Nature, Monstro Ex Machina. The Avengers has a similar last line, indicating that they will be back because they have to come back. It is the Order of things, even if there seems to be no sign of Order. The Judeo-Christian God is useless, we have new tangible gods. We wish. Even I believe a variation of this – that in the long run, enlightened mind will triumph.
So this reboot goes further than even the later versions of Japanese Godzilla, who, although he is Earth’s champion, it’s by default, because the end of Earth meant the end of him, Godzilla, too. Movies like Honda’s Destroy All Monsters continued the mythos without interruption. Our American Godzilla is the Ultimate Soldier – if necessary, he will die for the planet. It’s what he does. His human doppleganger and overt point of view in the film, Anthony Taylor-Johnson’s character, is much the same: rather than make war, he diffuses bombs. But our human hero has a family. Poor ole Godzilla has no one, like a decent stray dog who just needs a hiding spot. Director Gareth Edwards is a good choice for the film. His previous outing, Monsters, had the same pacing as this movie, but with significantly more depth (and about 0.02% of the budget). Edwards photographs the monsters in both films the same way, with an actual human point of view that can barely take them in, and there are many startlingly beautiful compositions, as the trailers have capitalized on. Oh yes, there is more than one monster, and I won’t give details, except that these new “strange creatures” (the literal translation of “kaiju”) are of a decidedly post-Giger look, even as H.R. Giger passed this very month. The contrast between Old School & New School Monster is a bizarre one. One wishes Edwards had been left alone to make a more focused and emotionally present film. Instead, humans have nothing to do but watch, which is how the general public apparently feels about our current End Times anyway. We were arrogant to believe we were ever in control. Watanabe says as much.
Then there are those strange loose ends that suggest more has been cut than the missing speeches we’ve seen in the various trailers. What is the point of showing close-ups of the watch Watanabe owns, both at the introduction of his character and towards the end of the film, when he explains that it was his father’s, and stopped when the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima? Why bring up Hiroshima? This is the territory of the 1954 Gojira, where the monster was the living manifestation of that horror. And why make 1954 part of the current film’s plot? Is the watch simply another weird, disembodied image to prove that we’re not ignoring what happened, we simply don’t want to take blame for it? Or did Watanabe address this when he named Godzilla a god, and the scene was cut because the franchise doesn’t have room for guilt or offending philosophy, the negative trigger words of consumerism? All later H-bombs tests have already been rewritten as efforts to kill Godzilla, and Watanabe seems in on them. And why is he allowed to call our monster “Gojira” once? More acknowledgments of what we all know but prefer to forget – that Gojira is Hiroshima, and he is as natural as a shark with a laser beam, not a big reptilian God-Panda. There’s your intelligent design.
This is the cinematic world of The Dark Knight Rises, where images and speeches contradict the overt message that Occupy Wall Street is murderously bad and benevolent-billionaire-capitalist philanthropy is good. After all, revolutionaries Catwoman and Bane have all the best lines. It is also the territory of the current 24: Live Another Day. As one would expect, the show is pro-drone and pro-right wing, but why is the anarchist Goth chick Chloe the moral epicenter? Why do the images suggest revolution, as the powers-that-be persecute our black-clad tattoo’d hero Jack as a terrorist? “Who’s in charge here?,” as Martin Sheen said in Apocalypse Now. The answer is, Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain. The answer is, Business As Usual, if possible, to the very last breath.
review by Marc Olmsted