Ishiro Honda’s 1954 movie Gojira, stands the test of time as a classic of film. Godzilla, the skyscraper-crushing, train-eating, King of the Monsters, is a fairly obvious and stunning metaphor for the nuclear fears that still gripped Japan only 9 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the devastation in cities like Tokyo from the nightly fire bombings of US and Allied planes during the closing stages of World War II. As the movie progresses we are gripped by heart-wrenching scenes as a mother comforts her children shortly before the building they are in is bulldozed by our radioactive protagonist, as well as countless scenes of citizens on stretchers and injured people being monitored by doctors and scientists with equipment monitoring radioactivity. These scenes are not just dark and tragic but were reality for a whole country that had laid eyes on this kind of devastation less than a decade previous.
When the Japanese military successfully defeat Godzilla at the conclusion of the movie using the deadly Oxygen Destroyer super-weapon, Dr. Serizawa, the inventor of the super-weapon, burns the research for his weapon and then takes his own life so the knowledge of the weapon dies with him. The Japanese not only feared the bomb that had desolated their cities, but Honda placed a stark commentary on what they would do with knowledge of such a weapon.
The movie made waves around the world, but was all in Japanese. This movie was A-list quality, but it needed a different cut in order to keep its A-list billing in the United States and cater to American audiences who had not yet developed a full sense of hipster snobbery about foreign films. The American re-cut of the movie, “Godzilla: King of the Mosters!”, keeps the story of Godzilla, but waters down the narrative with the unfortunate addition of Raymond Burr as Steve Martin, an American reporter who delivers commentary on the disaster as well as added scenes to help explain the film to an American audience. It is not Bur’s performance that ruins the movie, but Burr’s commentary and dialogue is a horrible addition that breaks up the tension and suspense of the film and extinguishes a lot of the narrative momentum that made Honda’s film so good. Thus started a long history of Japanese products being lost in translation to the American audience (“All your base are belong to us”).
Like a determined grandparent set on getting their kid Frozen for Christmas but being duped into buying the cheap knock-off Snow Queen, America would persevere to churn out the regurgitated version of Godzilla 1985: The Legend is Reborn. Once again, as if paying homage to the fact they messed up the first one, Raymond Burr reprises his role in the American version of this film. This movie is not up to the Japanese quality of the first Godzilla, so you can imagine how bad it was as an American version.
Probably the most notoriously bad of the Godzilla movies is America’s first attempt at making their own Godzilla movie. Forget the 40 year history of Godzilla and all the other Kaiju that had been built up around the “King of the Monsters” mythos. Remember that movie Jursassic Park? Yeah, how about a Godzilla that looks more like a T-Rex! And those Velociraptors? Those were so awesome! How about Godzilla babies that are velociraptor-like? Ka-ching!
Unfortunately, or maybe not, the American public saw right through that and the movie famously flopped. Although I have heard a good case made that the Roland Emmerich 1998 Godzilla performed just as well as the new Edwards’ Godzilla movie currently is, the movie was hyped with expectations that ultimately failed to deliver for fans or for critics.
The Japanese had their own take on the new, re-designed Godzilla. In the movie Godzilla: Final Wars, the 1998 re-design was lampooned as a kaiju named “Zilla” that is onscreen for about 10 seconds before he is radioactively toasted and booted out of the movie by Gojira himself. The makers of that film have been quoted as saying that the 1998 movie had taken “God” out of “Godzilla” and therefore deserved the shortened moniker, as well as the atomic halitosis and quick exit. There had now been three famous instances of Godzilla flaming out when Americans got their hands on remaking the radioactive, fire-breathing king, and it was getting hostile out there.
The dream would not die, however. In 2010, Legendary pictures hired Gareth Edwards to remake Godzilla. Edwards was fresh off making his indie-debut, Monsters, a film about an alien-invasion in Central America that is one part suspense, one part drama, and one part social commentary. Edwards seemed like an ideal fit due to his careful design of the alien “monsters”, as well as the suspenseful drama he had managed to build around the few actual glimpses we get of the aliens in his movie.
When Edwards was asked what he planned on doing with the Japanese kaiju king, he said;
“You have to ask yourself, “What does Godzilla represent?” The thing we kept coming up with is that he’s a force of nature, and if nature had a mascot, it would be Godzilla. So what do the other creatures represent? They represent man’s abuse of nature, and the idea is that Godzilla is coming to restore balance to something mankind has disrupted.”
The mascot of nature, Godzilla himself, was coming to a theater near you with great hope and trepidation, from fans and critics alike, to restore not just the balance of nature in Edwards’ film but restore the balance of Godzilla movies. American remakes had been a collective cannon ball weighing down Godzilla movie-dom and Edwards was tasked with righting the ship of one of movie’s most beloved monsters.
Four years later the vision of Godzilla came to fruition in a to-date box office of $177 million domestically and a worldwide gross of over $376 million. The story of this movie has not been fully written, and although it is not an eye-popping, runaway smash that most expected, Godzilla delivers on Edwards’ vision and, I feel, done a serviceable job of making more American Godzilla movies viable and watchable. There is hope for the future, America. Godzilla in 2016!