Godzilla: King of the Previews

KingGhidorah92In a look ahead to his most anticipated film of 2014, Failed Critics’ in-house Kaiju aficionado Matt Lambourne talks through the Godzilla mythology and why you should be getting excited about one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters!

Back at the Failed Critics end of year podcast, we all made our case for the film we were all most looking forward to in 2014. My fellow critics chose shrewdly, perhaps projecting their my refined cinematic tastes to better educate our listenership. I however prefer to stick with dead-certs. I take comfort in knowing precisely what gets my blood-pumping, what really unleashes my inner-child as only a good movie experience can stimulate (see my 2012 film of the year review for Dredd, as an example).

Since I first heard Hollywood was taking another stab at Godzilla, I’ve been apprehensive. It’s not a source material particularly known for its calibre of strong acting, emotive storytelling or character building. Our editor-in-chief at Failed Critics, Mr James Diamond made an excellent point during our most recent podcast, that Hollywood has not always treated comic book material with the respect it deserves, however the Superhero movies of the last 10 years have been made by people who grew up reading and idolising the source material and the results really show.

Godzilla I truly hope will be the same. When Roland Emmerich completed work on the 1998 Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla, I met it with optimism initially. As I cast my mind back as an excited teenager at the time, it featured a fairly mouth-watering sneak-preview a good 12 months before it was even released (click here). Unfortunately the movie was everything wrong with American remakes and the Godzilla mythology was utterly disregarded by Emmerich, save for retaining the original Godzilla roar being the only homage paid to the Toho original.

It’s fair to the say, the world hasn’t been crying out for a sequel to the 1998 abomination. Toho, the owners of the Godzilla trademark were so intent on removing the US version from the record books that they reinvented the US monster as a different character entirely, known as Zilla in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. The pain lasts long in the memory for fans of the Japanese work and so we can be forgiven for being tentative about committing to the new American vision for Godzilla.

That said, much like the recent return of great comic-book movies, 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, a man who respects and cherishes the mythology. The film is getting a Godzilla geek but with a Hollywood budget to hopefully create something very special and I for one am very excited.

So who is Gareth Edwards?

You’re forgiven for not knowing much about him, this is his 1st major film. His most prominent work is 2010’s ‘Monster‘, which did not exactly set any box office records alight, yet he achieved a very interesting premise with almost no budget and certainly caught the attention of some of Hollywood’s moneymen. Edwards is a self-confessed Godzilla nerd, who much like myself got his first experience of Godzilla watching Channel 4 late night specials, akin to the sort of thing we’d get on Film4 today.

It’s fair to say that Edwards understands what the the central motivation for Godzilla really is… not the silly WWE style tag-team wrestling matches against other monsters as the series slowly dilapidated into, but more the fear of nature at its most savage and how catastrophe will ensue when men dabble in powers they cannot possibly hope to control.

This should mean that Edwards’ Godzilla is more akin to the 1954 original.. a murky and pessimistic view of a society still reeling from the affects of the Atomic Bomb and ever paranoid that it may happen again. My hopes were substantially raised when I saw the initial (supposedly leaked) preview trailer, featuring Robert Oppenheimer quoting an exert from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. That was all the reassurance I needed to know this film will deliver on a massive scale!

So why get excited?

You should get excited because this will not be like the 1st American effort, or even the majority of the cheesey Japanese ones. This is the spiritual successor to the 1954 original. If you’re not familiar with that movie it is a fine exercise of praying on the insecurities of its viewership, much like the original Alien perhaps was, however you’re substituting Nuclear Holocaust for Phallic shaped violation, but whatevs.

This isn’t a monster versus monster movie, it’s not going to be kidnapping any good looking women and holding them hostage and certainly isn’t going to get Jamiroquai another gig. This film will be a dark disaster movie, kind of like if Armageddon was directed by Game of Thrones’ George.R.R Martin. There will be few lights at the end of even fewer tunnels, people will experience pain and suffering and it will be all in the name of humbling the human-race into its rightful place of being a slave to mother-nature and that we should not fuck with it.

The good news is, that to depict the human element, Edwards has recruited some top talent that are actually worth watching (no Ferris Bueller). The casting of Ken Watanabe (The Last Samuari / Inception) straight of out the Japanese Premier League of casting is a massive seal of approval for that market. Along with the ever lovely Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) and Kick-Ass‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson we can hope that the dialogue will be snappy and engaging. Then comes the leading male role, as served by the ever popular Bryan Cranston, whom Edwards has gone on record as stating he never saw him in Breaking Bad before casting him! If that is true then respect must go to Edwards for not surfing on the proverbial public wave of love currently being shown for one of TV’s greatest ever series, and signing him up purely on artistic merit.

Hopefully, that has you chomping at the bit as much as I am. Living on a cinematic void like the Isle of Man, I am flying to Liverpool on release weekend to enjoy my not-so guilty pleasure in the glory of IMAX. If you need to research or simply get warmed up, I have a top 5 Godzilla movies for you to enjoy in anticipation of the May release, just over 6 weeks away!

5. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

One of the highlights of the Heisei resurrection of Godzilla movies, G v KG is one of my favourite of the Monster battle royale type movies and is packed full of great action. It’s unique in that it was distributed by Manga Entertainment for its home release, who are better known for their Anime work and thus introduced Godzilla to a new generation in the 90’s. The film also has one of the more sophisticated science fiction plots of any Godzilla movie, featuring a genesis story that stays true to the original 50’s Gojira, whilst binding it to a complex but sensical time-travel story.

The time travelling, meant to rid the world of the birth of Godzilla (via Nuclear testing), actually duplicates him and also births King Ghidorah, arguably Godzilla’s greatest rival in all of the mythology. It also produces one of my all time favourite ‘bad quotes’ from a scene featuring non-other than Steven Spielberg’s dad!

4. Destroy All Monsters (1968)

A member of the original Toho series of movies, Destroy All Monsters should be appropriated renamed ‘Kaiju  All-stars’ as it’s a wonderful coming together of all the monsters in the Godzilla mythology up until that point and was originally intended as the final ever Godzilla movie.

The film predominantly takes place on Monster Island (Jurassic Park for Kaiju, basically). It features undertones of intelligent thinking, friendships and allegiances between the Monsters and a prevalent good versus evil plot that makes this a great gateway movie into the Godzilla universe, especially for children who will appreciate the variety of Kaiju on show.

The film’s highest is a massive 7 Monster tag-team (who side with Godzilla) attacking the massive 3-headed Space Kaiji, Ghidorah in what is a series highlight reel, with the various monsters showing off their individual abilities to defeat their adversary. Definitely one of the geek’s favourite fight scenes in any Godzilla film.

3. Return of Godzilla (aka Godzilla 85) (1984)

Following a decade-long hiatus, this is the first Godzilla movie of the Heisei rebirth (also known as the Versus series). It’s a retelling of the original mythology as this is a direct sequel to the original Gojira that conveniently forgets the other 15 or so or movies that took place during the original Toho series.

It’s one of my favourites as it features my preferred incarnation of the Monster itself (also seen in Godzilla vs King Ghidorah), as after many years of being portrayed as a human-friendly super hero of sorts, Godzilla returns to being the villain. Yes, he pretty much turns up, destroys shit and threatens world peace. This provides an interesting sub-plot, as Japan unleashes a new flying weapon known as the Super-X to disperse the monster, whilst the Russians panic into launching a nuclear missile him! Interestingly enough in the US re-edit the Missile appears to be deliberately aimed at Tokyo instead! Nice bit of Cold-War politics playing havoc with the edit there.

This film features the most aggressive and perhaps most scary version of the monster in all of the films to date and whilst not as charmingly campy as some of the older movies, it has some satisfying action sequences and improved effects over its predecessors make it a real landmark film in the mythology.

2. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)

The last of the Heisei series and being that it was Toho’s 40th anniversary special, they just decided to knock it on the head. Yep, Godzilla… the indestructible force of nature, dies in the movie. Obviously, we know he returns in Godzilla 2000 so don’t get too upset, although I will admit to shedding a tear or two in the climatic sequence to the film *sob!*.

The film is the most sentimental of any of the series that come before it, featuring Godzilla and Godzilla Jr fighting a monster that was spawned from the man-made Oxygen Destroyer that took down the original Monster in Gojira. To make it easy for the kids of today to understand, the Monster Destroyah is a little ‘OP’… basically kicking the ass of Godzilla and son for the duration of the movie, whilst Godzilla Sr’s body is in meltdown due to his atomic heart giving out on him.

We basically witness the slow dismemberment of Godzilla prior to the army, who by the way have had zero ability to harm any Monster in about 30 films, manage to take out the Monster that’s just killed Godzilla. *say what?!?*. Anyways, the action in this film is quite brutal and witnessing the death of Godzilla will be a very hard image for any fan to take. That said, the film ends beautifully with the death of Godzilla and his energy transferring over to the dying little Godzilla Jr, who then becomes empowered and sets things up convenient for the Millennium Series, starting with Godzilla 2000.

1. Gojira (1954)

Put yourself into your most comfortable chair, darken the lights, get some snacks as we’re going to be here for a while. Gojira comes less than 10 years after the original Atomic Bomb attack on Hiroshima and really prays on the insecurities of a paranoid and fearful nation. If you put yourself back a few years and remember the reaction to films about the 9/11 attacks and the reaction they drew (even if they were terrible), then imagine how it must have felt to have lived in the generation that survived two nuclear attacks and then see Gojira? I can only imagine it was pretty terrifying.

Gojira, unlike its successors, isn’t a B-Movie, it’s a real catastrophe movie. There are no other monsters involved and the film takes a very serious tone, unlike anything that came after it. Gojira itself is a symbol of Atomic annihilation, created by minds who experienced the real-deal in the 40’s. Being a 2nd World War buff, I have a lot of respect for this movie and understand why it’s held in such high regard as a cinematic classic. Really it should be reviewed entirely separately from all other Godzilla movies as its intended purpose is much different.

So, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, Gojira is the Japanese name for Godzilla, loosely translated as Gorilla-Whale, although fans of the series would almost universally agree his closest comparative species are that of a T-Rex and Stegosaurus. The monster is of course a man in a rubber suit, which sounds like a barrel of laughs but it was no such thing for Katsumi Tezuka & Haruo Nakajima (Seven Samurai) who shared responsibilities for portraying the Monster. The suit was notoriously uncomfortable for its incumbent through its weight, thickness and lack of agile movement, not to mention the operator couldn’t see!

The suit operator regularly fell ill to heat exhaustion and they would often lose tremendous amounts of weight during the filming of the initial Toho series, talk about suffering for your art! But back to the film, the atmosphere really makes it a convincing plight for the residents of Tokyo, it’s grim and foreboding and only enhanced by its lack of colour… even the Monster is scary! Overall, the movie is very tense and for such an old film it puts together a remarkable Science-Fiction plot and ties together the genesis of Godzilla very well, something I fully expect Gareth Edwards’ film to pick up and run with.

The film’s climatic scenes are full of inner-turmoil, whereby a professor creates a weapon powerful enough to kill Godzilla. However the weapon threatens the existence of life on Earth at the same time creating a perfect analogy to the nuclear disaster that Japan had only recently experienced. Initially the professor is reluctant to release the Oxygen Destroyer but, as with Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb, he is forced to relinquish it for ‘the greater good’. An uncomfortable premise for anyone’s disposition.

I’d recommend picking up the subtitled Japanese version as the US re-edit is very much tampered for US audiences, featuring actor Raymond Burr (yes, Perry Mason) narrating over almost the entire movie, an early attempt at audio description if you will. Gojira is the most standout film of all the series and if you have to watch only one Godzilla film before Godzilla 2014, I recommend you enjoy this. It’s an important piece of cinematic culture and will even sit unashamedly in your World Cinema collection.

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