Godzilla Through The Ages: Gojira (1954) To Godzilla (2014)

on Thursday, May 15, 2014
Words: Maxamillian John

“I know what the world needs,” said the CEO of Hollywood Studios. "I know.” A pall of silence fell over the conference room. Beyond its tinted windows aeroplanes scored the sky in white, just as silent as the trembling producers within. "The world needs another Godzilla movie!”

Larry the intern hadn't thought the silence could get any thicker, but now he felt himself sinking into it, fighting for breath. Didn't the CEO know that Godzilla was dead? Not prematurely dead either: it had lived a long and storied life, of spectacular triumphs, ignominious failures, of small comforts and brilliant surprises. The original 'Gojira' in 1954 was a black-and-white sci-fi masterpiece, a damning indictment of mankind, a tragedy of nature and technology in opposition, the reckoning of our arrogance by a world in pain.

People think of Godzilla as a villain, or a hero, but it didn't used to be like that. When he first lumbered onto the screen he had no moral valency at all, he was just a force of nature. The stupid humans set off atomic bombs which accidentally woke Godzilla, and then Godzilla went around doing what Godzilla does. And while he wasn't the villain, neither were the stupid humans - they were just doing what stupid humans do. To ascribe moral substance to either party would be to miss the point.

Later Godzilla movies didn't miss that point so much as aim in a whole different direction. If the original shot to the moon, the next twenty-eight movies fired their arrows point blank into the cold, sterile earth with abandon. The tokusatsu genre of men in rubber suits beating each other up had always been popular, but now it had a mascot, a character people loved. And lovable characters become icons, and icons become marketing.

Larry looked around the room, a room full of ambitious, cut-throat producers and PR sages. All now shuffling in their seats, downcast eyes, down-beaten shoulders.

Cody took up the theme. "Of course! There hasn't been a Godzilla movie in ten years! We can bring back the old monsters! Bigger! Better!"

Over in the corner, Poppy from marketing choked down a protest. Of course Cody would be on board, that git. A man who'd divested himself of any love for movies the day they put his name on a door. How long had it been since Cody had actually watched a film all the way through?

But then again, who was she kidding? She saw how it would play out. This room of yes-men would happily back their infallible CEO, dead to shame and dead to the memory of it. Some like her would know better, but no one would tell him he was wrong. It happened with 'Batman Begins'. The fact the Batman reboot worked out as well as it did was just dumb luck in production and serendipitous casting. Even the shit third film was pushed through on strength of marketing. All the old ideas of original intellectual properties, sharp writing or inventive visuals were just that: old. Irrelevant. These days you just needed a strong icon and a two hundred million dollar budget and the world could be yours. Maybe her boss was right and she was wrong. If that’s what the public wanted, wasn’t it their job to provide?

The middle twenty-eight Godzillas more than money and marketing though - they had heart. It sounds stupid, right? Guys in rubber suits looking like three-headed dragons or moths, flailing wildly at Godzilla across a polystyrene city? It's undignified, it's juvenile. Godzilla had been a force of nature, the fearful image of nature rebalancing the environment. Now he was the mascot of a reductive, Manichean worldview that saw everything in terms of heroes and villains. As the pictures became colour, the narrative became black-and-white. Not exactly a fair trade.

The apotheosis of its madness might have been 'Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla 2', purely because it was the sequel to an already ridiculous film. The American 'Godzilla', made by Roland Emmerich in 1998, is a close contender too. So disrespected was it that Toho studios carried on their main Godzilla series and retconned the American monster, placing it in their tokusatsu bestiary as merely Zilla, because it had taken the 'God' out of the monster. The 29th and last Godzilla movie, 'Godzilla: Final Wars', was made in Japan in 2004 by Ryuhei Kitamura, the obsessive and brilliant director of pulp masterpieces like 'Azumi' and 'Versus'. A 143 minute epic in which Godzilla fought every single monster that had appeared previously in the franchise, instead of submitting a finale, Kitamura (nutcase that he is) chose to submit a recap.

For all their insanity these monster beat-em-ups were still made out of love, and that matters. Godzilla had become domesticated and tokusatsu became a soap opera, but he wasn't mocked, and a small sliver of the original message of finding equilibrium with your environment shone from beneath the mud.

Larry had been there two months, and he'd never questioned his bosses before. He was just a film graduate, there were thousands of other kids like him. The people at that table were legendary; in that conference room in the clouds they were unassailable, the unmoved-movers of cinema. They didn't just know better than him, they dictated the facts. Who was he to speak up?

Somehow this time seemed different. The Godzilla franchise was an institution. It was an artefact of culture and a piece of the fabric of cinema. You don't just do it 'bigger' and 'better' with a wave of your hand and a flourish of the chequebook, you have to understand it, respect it, aspire to it.

Before he could apprehend himself, Larry cried out. "No!"

The CEO turned to him with a slowness that chilled the air. No one had said that word to him in thirty years. Who was this cowering boy in the corner, this filth?

He pinned his subject to the wall with black eyes. Larry had always imagined them to be vacant, but now he saw they weren't empty at all, they were destructive. They were diabolical orbs that crushed dissent and tore through the souls of grovelling inferiors. They absorbed light and hope and gave nothing back. They were obliterating, they were satanic, and they stared at Larry.

From the depths of their wisdom, Legendary Pictures decided to break the moratorium on Godzilla movies with a reboot. What could possibly go wrong - they did it with Batman, right?

And the talent they've enlisted is very impressive - director Gareth Edwards' first movie, 'Monsters', was an outstanding low-budget sci-fi, a genuinely moving and beautiful story set after an invasion of giant aliens. You can see why he got this gig. The acting pool includes international heavy hitters such as Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe, as well as relative newcomers such as Aaron Taylor-Johnson from 'Kick-Ass' in the lead role. I say 'lead role', but of course the lead role is actually Godzilla's. And he's wonderful here, roaring and primal and unknowable.

The plot is a thick soup of drama and action, with a government cover-up of a giant monster, a riff on the old Toho studios monster Rodan (but changed here for licensing reasons), which breaks loose and wreaks havoc across the world. Having failed to kill Godzilla in the fifties with nuclear missiles (the diegetic reason for all the 'nuclear tests' in the Pacific), humanity decides to let Godzilla and not-Rodan battle it out.

The build up to the climax is slow and measured, which is fairly rare in an industry where most action films begin with some sort of overwrought car-chase, but that's mostly due to the nature of a monster movie. Because the fighting isn’t between people (it’s between monsters!) most of the film is predicated on physical tension rather than conflict. Which is fine, obviously. Edwards also does a good job of making sure that the battling giants are always seen from a human perspective, from a street-level viewpoint, giving a power to the action that shooting them wide from higher up couldn’t.

A lot has been made about the efficacy and accuracy of the sound-effects, but it’s slightly undercut by the histrionic soundtrack. Composer Alexandre Desplat (great name) gets far more overexcited, and indeed weepy, than anyone on screen and this manifests in his music, which is pretty much a bubbling wreck of emotion and hysteria. There’s a similar cheapness to the writing - children are used as a shortcut to emotional resonance rather than as characters, which is as patronising to the children as it is to the viewer. You can’t just throw in a child when you want a particular scene to have emotional stakes, these things have to be built up. Writer Max Borenstein is being lazy here.

There’s other obvious things to criticise - the glorification of nature, the hero worship of the military - but the fundamental problem of this film is its existence. Godzilla was always a product of its time, whether it was railing against nuclear proliferation and human arrogance, or internalising and reducing nature to an anthropocentric binary. So what about our time is reflected in this movie? Being cynical, the fact that it’s a reboot.

If Legendary Pictures wanted to make an action movie then they’re quite welcome to that, why not? If they wanted to make an action movie with giant monsters then they’re welcome to that too. Guillermo del Toro did it last year with 'Pacific Rim' and that was resoundingly successful. But if you take an existing property like Godzilla, one with so much history and currency, that choice itself has semantic content. Reboots and remakes and, heaven have mercy, ‘re-imaginings’ are all tautological by definition. By doing nothing but updating the special effects and the narrative beats, they turn the transparent, ubiquitous cash-grab business model into a big-ass flashing sign.

The vacuous, defeatist desire to reboot everything has been apparent for a while. Marc Webb’s 'The Amazing Spider-Man', a reboot, was released ten years after Sam Raimi’s first 'Spider-Man' film. Ten years. Is that really the turn-over? Last year’s top ten grossing movies contained only one film that wasn’t a sequel, a remake or an adaptation of an existing work. 2012 had two. 2011 had none. 2010 was a marquee year with a whole three original films making the top ten list. But these properties don’t have the iconic value of Godzilla, which really brings to the foreground the cheapness of mainstream strategy. 'Godzilla' isn’t just a reboot, it’s the climax of a plan to steal legitimacy from the past and leverage everything that ever once had value. Which isn’t to say that 'Godzilla' is actually a bad film, it’s perfectly ok and in parts even entertaining. So why doesn't it deserve a decent score out of ten?

“What did you say?”

Larry was committed now. He peeled himself from the back of the room. “I said no."

“But it’ll be fun! People want entertainment. The world is a horrible place.” The CEO relished a grin. “A horrible, horrible place. Don’t you want people to feel better?"

“No," Larry said, a tremor in his thin voice. "I don't. Movies aren't about making people feel better, they’re about making them become better. No one should take comfort in a horrible world, they should struggle to improve it. Movies can show them that, and they can show them the way."

Perhaps words failed the CEO, perhaps they had the sense to flee where Larry didn’t. He descended on the intern in a spittle-flecked rage, savaging him with bare hands. The delegation of human misery averted their eyes as Larry pooled at their CEO’s feet. With each new volley of blows, the attendant employees’ struggle to not notice took on fresh vigour and complexity. They were almost facing the opposite wall, Poppy included. With great effort and application she fixed her gaze and remembered with deliberate interest her morning’s breakfast. The other memories came unbidden.

She remembered her first day at the studio fifteen years ago, a marketing graduate from Cornell. Her friends had all got placements at indie studios (one of them had even received a personal rejection from Joss Whedon!), but she had been lucky enough to land a place at a major. Poppy was now mainstream, sleeping with the enemy, into the dragon's den. They'd gone out for too many drinks that night, her flatmates taunting her about selling out. "Don't let them grind you down!" they'd quipped. But they hadn't known how merciless, how relentless those cold gears of industry were. What would you do to not get ground down? What would they need to pay you to give up your principles? And why would you ever think they're yours to give, and not theirs to take?

Suddenly it was too much. “Enough!” Poppy screamed, the pure echo of a career of torment. “ENOUGH!"

How did it become enough for a blockbuster to simply be competent? Godzilla is getting high scores from most media outlets - what for? Because it doesn’t screw up in any major way? Surely the least we should expect is for our movies to be competent? These are the same reviewers who gave movies like 'Iron Man 3' and 'Star Trek' and the last two Bond films high scores. They’re people impressed when something merely doesn’t suck from top to bottom. They set the bar too low, they don’t demand enough. While 'Godzilla' might be a good film when compared to the field, that’s not the comparison to make: it’s a question of opportunity cost.

Compare the film with what we could have had if the filmmakers had made better decisions. If Bornstein hadn’t insisted on using children as empathetic shortcuts, 'Godzilla' would be better. If the protagonist hadn’t been such a flat character, 'Godzilla' would be better. If they’d tried anything to actually surprise us, or do anything to separate themselves from the template, it would be better. This is not an unambitious production, it’s unambitious writing and it’s fundamental.

The people you see giving 'Godzilla' anything upwards of six out of ten are setting the bar way too low, and they don’t represent your best interests, and dammit it’s their job to know and demand better. 'Godzilla' is a five. Because it’s annoying in some places, entertaining in some places, and overall a cheap and cynical action movie. It’s ok, but ok is not good enough.

He turned his rage to face her. He had abdicated his rationality now, and took his conviction to its conclusion. Grasping Poppy by the shoulders he walked her over to the window. And he kicked her through it. Larry's screams were animal, wretched.

But Poppy couldn't scream. As she tumbled, tears in her eyes, through the fishbowl sky, it opened up before her. In an eternity of a moment she realised what she'd always known: the world wasn't a horrible place. And it was so impossibly wide. And so impossibly bright. A world of limitless potential and so impossibly beautiful.

There was nothing the world needed less than another Godzilla movie.

'Godzilla' is out today in UK cinemas.

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