Wael Watches: Godzilla
Nuclear disaster and climate change meet with monstrosities of leviathan proportions as Wael returns to us with why Godzilla is the epic disaster story of the 21st century.
“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” Dr. Ichiro Serizawa
Besides stomping all over the arrogance of man, the king of all monsters also managed to crush box office competition with a towering worldwide gross of over $200 million in less than five days. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a beast of a film, and while it does brush its thick tail close to greatness, it is not without its flaws. However, the shortcomings, which I will mention later in my review, are minor and do not reflect the silly complaints I’ve been hearing from a lot of fellow viewers and film critics.
Many argue that Godzilla takes itself way too seriously, but I believe this to be the film’s strongest aspect. The campy feel of the horrible 1998 remake and the countless Toho sequels to the original are not good references to what a Godzilla film is supposed to look and feel like. In fact, this 60th anniversary remake is not nearly as serious, brutal and bleak as the original 1954 classic. Godzilla was never supposed to be a film about a giant Kaiju (strange creature) unleashing his fury on a defenseless city. The giant reptile actually stood for something real and meaningful when it was initially released in 1954.
In 1954, Japan banned making films about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb incidents. It was forbidden to directly refer to the incident on film. Then came a filmmaker by the name of Ishiro Honda and changed all that. Like all great filmmakers when faced with censorship, he used creativity to work his way around it. Godzilla is a product of nuclear bombs both literally and figuratively speaking. In the original, Godzilla is awakened by nuclear tests in the Pacific. The giant atomic-heat-breathing reptile blasts his way through metropolitan areas leaving behind traces of nuclear radiation. Much like a nuclear bomb, the horror does not end with the destruction of a city; the aftermath is just as deadly. We see children suffer and die in the wake of Godzilla’s leave.
Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear threat to mankind. Godzilla was the destroyer of cities, a destructive monster righteously punishing humanity for its mistakes. This is why Godzilla has stood the test of time in Japan as a culturally significant film. This is why Japan has produced more Godzilla films than the US has produced Bond films; Godzilla is always in the Japanese collective conscious, reminding them of that horrible incident. Godzilla was a cathartic movie-going experience for an entire nation.
So you see, Godzilla was always meant to be a serious film. When Japan saw that the 1998 US remake completely ignored the nuclear angle to this story, they disowned it, by releasing another film. It featured scenes of scientists declaring the 1998 attacks on New York to belong to another monster called Zilla mistaken to be Godzilla. Later in that film, the real Godzilla kills Zilla, the creature from the 1998 Godzilla film. So when I heard, that another Godzilla film was in the works, the one thing I hoped for was for it to take its subject matter more seriously staying true to its roots.
As for the claims that Godzilla should have received more screen-time, and that the film takes itself way too seriously. I must admit, every single time Godzilla came on screen, I felt like a nine-year old all over again, but his minimal screen-time never really bothered me. In fact, I applaud Edwards for creating the first ‘anti-blockbuster’ blockbuster. Edwards almost avoids showing us the beast. The camera shies away from big battles, and destructive city rampages; we only see glimpses of what is happening, and the viewer is often left with nothing but a horrific aftermath sequence. Leaving it up to our imagination is far more horrifying that being spoon-fed the action.
Besides, one aspect Godzilla shares with the greatest monster films of all time is the carefully chosen limited appearances of the “mon-star.” We may not see a lot of Bruce, the Xenomorph and T-Rex in Jaws, Alien and Jurassic Park, but their menacing next-door presence is felt hovering throughout the films at all times. Like Jaws, Alien, Jurassic Park, and any good monster film really, Godzilla only makes an appearance an hour into the film. The prolonged reveal makes his entrance all the more epic and terrifying.
Gareth Edwards is an indie filmmaker who only has one small film in his resume, the impressive 2010 indie, Monsters, a film where he singlehandedly took up the duties of director, writer, cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects wizard. As you can see, the hard work paid off, and the indie filmmaker made a name for himself in Hollywood overnight. This is only his second film, and it feels like the work of a mature filmmaker in complete control of every element in his film. Edwards was the man for the job. He knew his monsters and his debut film was inspired by the original Godzilla.
The reason I mention the backstory and symbolic metaphor of the original Godzilla is to point out what Edwards did with the 2014 retelling. Edwards could’ve remade Godzilla with the same symbolism, and that would’ve been enough for me, but he went a step further. Gareth Edwards made Godzilla relevant to contemporary times. You see, back in 1954, humanity’s biggest threat was the emergence of nuclear power. Today, the biggest threat to our world is climate change. Man has abused this planet for far too long. Countless nuclear tests have polluted the water, air, and natural habitat we live in, but man is no match for nature, and once again we are paying the price for our mistakes.
The film begins in a nuclear power plant. Something hits the nuclear power plant and everyone is forced to abandon their post. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is forced to shut the doors on his own wife to avoid radiation leakage. The meltdown scenes are gut wrenching, because they seem all too familiar. Edwards starts his film by making Godzilla stand for something relevant to the times we live in. The scenes are reminiscent of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011. A tsunami hit the Fukushima power plant that day. In the film, Muto, a creature that feeds on nuclear energy, hits the power plant. Both the tsunami and Muto are forces of nature uncontrollable by man. In both cases, the films seemed to suggest a wake up call, reminding us of how trivial and vulnerable mankind is when pitted against nature, something our communal ego tends to forget.
The genius of Edwards’ storytelling is in making the human story fade away as the film progresses to the final showdown between Muto and Godzilla. Godzilla starts as a very personal family story and ends on a much bigger scale. The human story becomes of less importance. In other words, the insignificance of man unravels through the progress of the film’s plot and it is utterly brilliant. I applaud Edwards for managing to encapsulate the film’s message within what can only be referred to as a rare cinematic storytelling technique.
Bryan Cranston, who pretty much dominates his scenes with sheer presence that rivals that of Godzilla himself, is not a main character. Aaron Taylor-Johnson who plays his son, Ford Brody, is reduced to nothing but a Macguffin (a cinematic term originally coined by Hitchock that refers to an irrelevant object or plot device used solely to move the chain of events forward).
It comes as no surprise that Edwards verbally delivers this message through a Japanese character played by the great Ken Watanabe. “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” His character’s first name, Dr. Ishiro, is a clever nod to the original 1954 classic, directed by Ishiro Honda. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa is also the first character to utter the word Godzilla; only he does it in its original Japanese pronunciation, Gojira.
True to its message, the human beings are as insignificant to the Kaiju as ants are to man. Powerless against Muto and Godzilla, they come to the realisation that only nature can restore balance, in this case it’s Godzilla, who is just as capable of restoring balance as he is of destroying it.
This leads me to the film's only flaw; the stupidity of the military commanders, whose believe that creating a much more powerful explosive device is the key to destroying Godzilla and Muto is simply absurd. Did they miss the briefing session? Godzilla grew more powerful when they tried to bomb him in 1954 (another nod to the original). Muto, who is below Godzilla in the food chain, feeds on nuclear energy for heaven’s sake. It’s like assuming the way to kill a fat chicken-loving kid is by throwing a nice delicious turkey his way. Nonetheless, the film is a must-see summer film.
The original remains the quintessential Godzilla film, but don’t let that steer you away. The realistic battle scenes are quick and short just like most animal-on-animal fights, and the blockbuster action sequences are actually governed by physics for a change. Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla deserves every bit of success coming its way. Godzilla is not only a wake up call to our fragility as a species, but the film in itself is a reminder to what summer blockbusters ought to be like.
Find out where Godzilla is showing using our cinema guide.