Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ $160 million reboot of the classic monster, hasn’t even opened yet and already the movie is under attack.
According to The Japan Times, diehard fans of the creature have taken to the Internet to complain the United States has done a “Super Size Me” number on the giant fire-breathing lizard. “He got fat in America on Cola and pizza!” is a typical complaint. “Couch potato Godzilla” is another.
But Edwards is taking the criticism in stride.
“I don’t know which pictures they’ve seen, but I don’t think he’s fat,” the filmmaker says, chuckling. “He’s just big-boned. Plus he’s middle-aged. You tend to get a little bulky.”
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This is not meant to suggest that Godzilla, which opens May 16, is in any way campy or humorous. Unlike the last time Hollywood tried to revive the popular monster (Roland Emmerich’s 1998 jokey, reviled misfire), the new film is dead serious in tone and mood, treating its central character and the theme of man vs. nature with the same gravity and seriousness director Ishiro Honda brought to the 1954 Japanese original.
“In the mid-1950s, Hollywood started a trend of films that addressed Cold War fears with science fiction allegories, but Japan had a special edge when it came to doing the same thing,” says David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series. “When the first Godzilla film was made, Japan had endured wartime firebombings of Tokyo, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the H-bomb tests in the Bikini Islands that killed Japanese citizens in peacetime and irradiated a significant amount of the food supply. They must have felt like the world was coming to an end. But because the country was still coming out of post-war censorship imposed by the American occupation forces, there was no way to talk about the massive cultural trauma openly.
“ Godzilla was a way for Japan to address some of these traumas, safely disguised as a monster movie so no censors would get upset.”
Although he was originally intended as a metaphor for apocalyptic terror, Godzilla grew tamer and sillier in subsequent sequels and spinoffs over the decades, becoming a cartoonish, kid-friendly version of himself. Even Hanna-Barbera, the animation studio that spawned The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, created a cartoon show in the 1970s built around the monster.
“There is no one Godzilla,” says Max Borenstein, who wrote the screenplay for the new movie. “The first film is an allegory for nuclear warfare, and Godzilla is explicitly a walking manifestation of the atomic bomb. That evolved into so many reiterations over time that every movie has a different take on the monster and what he represents. The common denominator is that Godzilla has always represented a force beyond our control. In the 1960s, it got a little campier, but he represented the fear of alien invasion. In the 1970s, he became a symbol for environmental fears, fighting smog monsters. We had to look back and find the common denominator in all of his incarnations and ask ‘What feels resonant now? What are the visceral fears of today?’ The answer we settled on is that Godzilla is a vessel for the fears of all humanity — a force of nature that is so beyond our control, he reminds us we are mere insects on this planet.”
Godzilla centers on Navy officer Ford Brody ( Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has just returned home from a tour of duty to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco when he’s asked to fly for an emergency to Japan, where his parents (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) worked at a nuclear power plant alongside a scientist (Ken Watanabe). The reason for the distress call — and what Ford finds when he gets there — is one of the film’s many surprises, few of which have thus far, miraculously, been spoiled by trailers.
Unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise, which features giant robots duking it out in fights so frantically edited they’re often incomprehensible, Edwards uses a refreshingly different approach to Godzilla, holding on the monster for long shots so you can process the larger-than-life action that’s taking place on screen (the film works even better on a 3D IMAX screen; this sucker is huge).
But Edwards also makes you wait, teasing you with glimpses before you get to have a good look at his main attraction, the way Steven Spielberg teased the audience with the shark in Jaws.
“I speak with an English accent, because I grew up in England,” Edwards says. “I also grew up watching certain films, and the effect is the same: They rub off on you. Close Encounters of the Third Kind really broods and builds incrementally. The movie takes its time, but when they finally show you the spaceship at the end, they really hold on it, so you can take it all in. That was the only way I could think of doing Godzilla. I watch modern movies and can appreciate the contemporary style, but the movies we talked about the most while on the set were things like Jaws and Alien and Apocalypse Now.”
“Today there’s a sense that audiences have less tolerance for development and a shorter attention span,” Borenstein says. “If you see everything right from the beginning, what do you have to look forward to? You get tired and bored. So we really tried to build suspense into every set piece. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know how or when. We studied things like Jurassic Park, in which you see aspects of the creature and you feel its presence, but you don’t really get to see it until halfway through the film.
Godzilla is so well directed and assured — one highlight is a sequence depicting a train crossing a trestle bridge at night in which a monster is hiding in plain view of the characters and the audience — that you assume Edwards has been making films for a long time. But at 38, he has only one previous movie to his credit: 2010’s Monsters, a sci-fi thriller about two Americans trying to escape a region of Mexico invaded by giant extra-terrestrials. Shot at a cost of $500,000, with Edwards doing all the special effects work on his laptop, the film grossed a measly $237,301 in the United States — hardly a calling card for a giant tentpole studio picture.
“The truth is there was no direct connection between Monsters and this movie,” says Thomas Tull, founder and CEO of Legendary Pictures — which produced Godzilla. “We were looking for someone who would have a fresh perspective on the genre but would also emphasize the human connection to the characters, which is the most important thing of all. When I found out Gareth had made Monsters for such little money, we had a meeting and then I invited him to my house to watch the original film and told him to go off and come back with some ideas. When I saw the pre-visualizations and sketches he made, I knew we had found our guy.”
Edwards’ sudden leap from unknown, low-budget filmmaker to big-league player may have set a record — has any other director ever risen so quickly in Hollywood? — one that caught even him by surprise.
“I never expected this in a million years,” Edwards says. “When we were filming Monsters, we were driving around Mexico in a van wondering if the movie was even going to work. If someone had said at that point the next movie you’re going to make is Godzilla, I would have had a heart attack. But when I got the offer, I had to take it. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. What’s the point of life if you don’t take any risks? The hard part was just blocking out all the pressure and public opinion and concentrating on the movie we wanted to make.”
Although Godzilla plays everything straight, the picture is peppered with playful Easter eggs for hardcore fans (keep an eye out for what’s written on a piece of masking tape on an aquarium in the abandoned apartment Cranston and Taylor-Johnson visit early in the film).
“One of the challenges of having a monster this size is that it’s really hard to create suspense, because you can’t miss it,” Borenstein says. “How does Godzilla hide? He’s too big! You have to be really clever. It’s also difficult to create a human story that is impactful when your monster is, by definition, impossible to defeat. What’s the plotline? How do you create a story in which you feel the hero has an impact on the ending? He can’t just swoop in with a penknife and stab Godzilla in the eye.”
Regardless of how it fares domestically, Godzilla is practically guaranteed to be a huge hit overseas when it opens there in July. And although Edwards is proud of the end result, he admits the amount of work that goes into a production of this size was greater than he imagined.
“It’s like running a marathon,” he says. “My dad came to visit when we were filming in Canada. He stayed for three weeks and I saw him for a total of three hours. It’s nonstop work the moment they pull the trigger on the movie. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
“I really enjoyed conceiving this movie, and I hope audiences have the same reaction to the film that I did while we were making it. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. But I will never be able to see the movie the way you do. I can only see the places where we put the backlight or which take we used in any particular scene. I’m just too close to it to sit back and enjoy it.”