The beast is back – and it’s looking good. When the reptilian, nuclearbreathed Godzilla debuted in 1954 in Toho’s Gojira, he was played by a man in a latex suit. This effective, and somewhat charming, way of representing the King of the Monsters continued for more than 20 years, and the actor who customarily played Godzilla, Haruo Nakijima, become a cult figure himself.
But for the new, high-gloss Hollywood version, British filmmaker Gareth Edwards felt that a more upto- date rendering of the ancient sea creature was necessary. “I love the original Godzilla as much as anyone – but if we just did it straight, it wouldn’t fly with today’s cinema audiences,” he says. “My goal was to make it look as if this creature really exists; that it’s a real thing, and it’s really out there.
“We imagined that back in 1953 [when the first Godzilla film was being made], someone saw the real Godzilla, ran to Toho’s studios, and described it to them. They made their monster from that witness’ description of it. Then you see our version, and it’s the real thing,” says Edwards.
Godzilla may be well-known for its huge feet, radioactive breath, and chilling roar. “It’s the roar I remember most from the original,” says Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, who plays scientist Ichiro Serizawa in the reboot. But the creature is much more than a typical movie monster.
Over the years, it has mutated into a bona fide cultural phenomenon. That’s because unlike most movie monsters it has a specific relationship with realworld modern history.
The original film was produced in the decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the creature, which feeds on radiation, was an obvious symbol of the destructive power of nuclear weapons.
The film’s bleak monochromatic scenes of devastation, and its strident anti-nuclear message, struck a chord with Japanese viewers, and it became a big hit in the country.
Then in 1956, American producer Joseph E. Levine noticed its popularity and added scenes featuring television actor Raymond Burr as a visiting journalist to make a passable American version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters! Toho went on to make 28 movies featuring Godzilla, and it gradually became the true King of the Monsters, rivalled only by America’s King Kong (whom it fought in 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla) for the title. Even Roland Emmerich’s appalling 1998 US remake, Godzilla, couldn’t tarnish its iconic image. “If you went around the world with a silhouette of a giant dinosaur looming over a city, everyone would know exactly who it is,” says Edwards.
Although Toho’s series became more childish as it progressed, for most fans, Godzilla will be forever tethered to nuclear catastrophe. So how, then, could it be made relevant to today’s world, 69 years after the atomic bombings?
That question bothered 38-year-old Edwards when he unexpectedly got the call from the producers asking him if he wanted to direct the film. The filmmaker, who began his career as a visual effects artist, was already a fan, having read Godzilla comics as a child, but coming off his well-regarded 2010 debut Monsters, he wanted to make something more than just a genre film.
Edwards wanted to update the Godzilla story – but how? That question was finally answered by the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan in 2011.
When he realised that safety concerns about nuclear power, an energy resource that had once faced popular resistance in the West in the 1960s and ‘70s, were suddenly back in the limelight, he had his story.
“Our film is very much about the nuclear power issue,” Edwards says.
“Humanity has opened a Pandora’s box with it, and that act has its consequences.
We can’t just ignore what it can do, we have to think it through. Our film is part of that process.
“We wanted to make an entertaining blockbuster movie that the world would want to see, but we wanted there to be a bit of meaning in it, too,” he says. “As with the original, a nuclear theme became the heart of our movie.
Although our focus is on the monsters, we tap into that all the time.”
Watanabe, whose scientist character has been studying the great beast for a secret military organisation, shares that it was he who brought the idea to Edwards.
The 54-year-old actor, who is contemporary Hollywood’s go-to man to play Japanese characters, feels that nuclear power was a pertinent theme after the Fukushima disaster.
“We can’t separate nuclear themes from Godzilla, as they are an important part of its story,” Watanabe says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about how we could include a nuclear theme in this film. Nuclear power is such a new topic in Japan today, and everybody is talking about it; it seemed to fit very well. We have to look to the future and decide what kind of a world we want to have.”
Godzilla starts with a big nuclear meltdown in Japan, which is clearly based on the Fukushima incident. The human strand of the story is established when nuclear scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the blast; Brody goes out of his mind trying to figure out what caused the tremors that made the reactors blow up.
Fifteen years later, his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is working as a naval bomb disposal expert when a giant flying monster becomes energised by radiation and flies off to mate with another one of its kind in San Francisco Bay. He becomes involved in an operation tracking the murderous beasts down – and then Godzilla rises from the depths to fight with them.
In the original, the creature was neither good nor evil – it was a force of nature, like an earthquake or typhoon.
“The interesting thing about Godzilla is that he doesn’t want anything: he appears, he destroys, he’s defeated and then he goes back to the sea,” says Watanabe. “He is mysterious. Nobody knows his feelings, or what he thinks about the world.”
That concept disappeared in the later instalments of the Toho series, in which the beast would sometimes be a villain bent on human destruction, and sometimes a hero who saved the world from other monsters such as Mothra.
Edwards has gone with the latter, bestowing a heroic, eco-warrior status on the reptile. “Everything that happens in the movie represents an abuse of nature, and Godzilla has come to put things right,” he says.
Most viewers probably won’t care too much about the finer details of the plot, however, as they’ll be coming to see the monsters – specifically the duel between Godzilla and the two nasties that dominate the last 30 minutes of the film. So do they live up to expectations?
Godzilla does. Fans of the films won’t be disappointed, as the creature looks very similar to the original – although many Japanese viewers have tweeted that they think he is too fat.
One called it an “American fatty”, another said it had got fat on “cola and pizza”. (Edwards counters by saying that his Godzilla is not fat, just “big boned”.) The computer-generated effects make it lumber along in a suitably dinosaur-like fashion, and the computerised face is more expressive than the latex version. Edwards says although he wanted to keep the look traditional, the team added some minor details such as “gills, so he could believably survive underwater for so long”.
Differences include a new colour for his famed atomic breath and the beast’s size. This Godzilla is the biggest yet.
And it had to be that way, says producer Thomas Tull. “Buildings have got a lot taller since the original film,” he says.
“We made him the same size as Toho’s, and he wasn’t looming over the skyscrapers – they were taller than him.
So we had to make him bigger.”
Edwards says he relished the chance to draft the best visual effects people to work on Godzilla. “I have a lot of heroes who are designers. And this meant that I could take my favourite effects books off the shelf and call this guy and call that guy. The creature took about six months, and about 100 people worked on it,” he says.
The litmus test for their efforts will be how the film is received in Japan (where it will be released by Toho on July 25). Toho gave the US studios a free hand with the design and are said to be happy with the results. Watanabe, who says he took the role partially “so that Japan was represented in the film”, thinks that the fans back home will accept the new version.
“Godzilla is something that comes out of the Japanese imagination,” he says. “We have a lot of gods in Japan, and many of them are animals, and that has given us the inspiration to invent many different kinds of creatures and many different worlds. Godzilla is a monster who lives at the bottom of the sea, and we like that idea in Japan, as we are surrounded by water. I think we will always like Godzilla.”
Godzilla opens on May 15