Godzilla's come to put things right

The latest Godzilla has been accused of being fat by some Japanese fans but director Gareth Edwards says it is just big-boned.
The latest Godzilla has been accused of being fat by some Japanese fans but director Gareth Edwards says it is just big-boned.PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, REUTERS
The latest Godzilla has been accused of being fat by some Japanese fans but director Gareth Edwards says it is just big-boned.
The latest Godzilla has been accused of being fat by some Japanese fans but director Gareth Edwards says it is just big-boned.PHOTOS: WARNER BROS, REUTERS

Director Gareth Edwards wants his Godzilla movie to have a serious message and be true to the original Japanese films

Created in 1950s Japan, Godzilla spawned many of the cinematic tropes still associated with the monster movie today: destruction writ large, crowds of fleeing people and humanity working together to save itself from the threat.

But what modern moviegoers may not know is that the creature from the original 1954 film had an anti-war message. Released from the depths of the ocean by atomic blasts, this radioactive behemoth was intended as a metaphor for the horrors of World War II and the deadly bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki - something that struck a chord in the post-war Japanese audience.

Opening in Singapore tomorrow, the latest Godzilla film is clearly being marketed as a popcorn movie, with the usual orgy of action and special effects. But its director hopes it also strikes a more serious note and lends itself to a debate about the perils of nuclear technology.

Speaking to Life! and other reporters in New York earlier this year, Gareth Edwards says that the film will also reference more recent collective traumas such as major natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Sitting next to actors Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen, he says: "Without being specific about (the 2011 nuclear disaster at) Fukushima and what happened there, there's a lot of imagery from the last decade or so, in terms of earthquakes, tsunamis, Sept 11 - all those things that are visually embedded in our subconscious now.

"It is inevitable that when you talk about a giant creature that is going to cause a path of destruction, all those things come to mind."

The 38-year-old British film-maker - who was handed the reins of this US$160-million (S$200- million) project on the strength of his 2010 independent science-fiction movie Monsters, a low-budget triumph that he wrote, directed and conjured up stunning special effects for - admits it was a bit tricky incorporating this subtext into a mainstream commercial movie such as this.

"Because to some extent, you want to do this crazy, entertaining blockbuster hit that the whole world's going to want to go and see.

"But it's all kind of pointless for me unless it's got a bit of meaning behind it," he says. "So it's important to me that we bring some of those elements to the film, and there's very much a nuclear theme at the heart of this movie, in every way and throughout the film."

He points out that the 1954 original also cloaked its anti-war message in the guise of popular entertainment. The film and its anti-nuclear theme had to get past the censorship rules imposed by the Americans in post-war Japan, and was cut by the Americans when it was released in the United States.

Today's political context is different, of course, but the director argues "that nuclear power and the use of that power is still a debate worth having… is it right, is it wrong, do we open this Pandora's box?".

"And so we tap into that a little bit with the metaphor of what the monsters in our film are about."

This explains the dark, ominous tone of the movie, which was signalled in a teaser trailer released about three years ago featuring footage of a landscape destroyed by an unknown force and evocatively overlaid with the voice of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who helped develop the first atomic bombs.

That tone is what convinced several members of the cast - which is packed with actors better known for doing character-driven, dramatic work - to sign on to a monster movie.

Olsen, the 25-year-old actress who won praise for her tour de force in the 2011 indie drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, remembers getting chills watching the trailer.

"There was this feeling of just utter terror, of the reality of what this could be", she said, contrasting this with what such movies sometimes turn into - "a stupid, really over-saturated, bright-colour, cartoon thing where it's really funny all the time while this thing is destroying things".

Cranston, the 58-year-old actor best known for playing the schoolteacher-turned-druglord on acclaimed television drama Breaking Bad (2008 to 2013), says he and his castmates had initial misgivings about appearing in a Godzilla remake.

"I think what gave us pause individually is that this subject has been mishandled in the past and treated indifferently or without respect," he says.

He was perhaps referring to the previous reboot, a 1998 film directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick, which underperformed in the US after being panned by critics, although it went on to do well internationally.

But done right, Cranston believes that a Godzilla movie "has its place. It has a place in history, it resonates with audiences and it can be an important film, an allegory".

Watanabe, the only Japanese actor in the main cast, says he agreed to do the movie - which has already attracted a lot of media coverage in his country - when he realised Edwards was taking a serious approach to the nuclear theme.

"After I heard about this project, I was so surprised because it's a really serious film, like a true story. And I was nervous because in Japan right now, nuclear power is a really serious problem," the 54-year-old says.

"When I asked Gareth about it, he totally understood that feeling and the importance of its involvement in the storytelling. That's when I said yes, I need to join this project. As a Japanese actor, it's my duty."

Of course, reinterpreting a character with such a long history is not without its challenges, not least of which is pleasing the fanboy constituency, who are all too aware this is the 60th anniversary of the franchise.

Fans in Japan, who have conferred cult status on the more than two dozen Godzilla films made there between 1954 and 2005 - many of them schlocky B-movies - have been sharpening their knives with every new glimpse of Edwards' Godzilla they have seen in the trailers for the film, which they are also measuring against other movies and comics from the kaiju, or large monster, genre.

Earlier this year, the Japan Times reported fans' horror at how rotund the creature seemed, some calling it "supersized" or just plain "fat".

Edwards has laughed this off in other interviews, joking that the creature is not overweight, "just big-boned", and perhaps suffering from a bit of middle-age spread on account of its advanced age.

But as a fan of the original films himself, he has taken pains to get the look of the monster right, promising that it will be both "traditional and realistic".

Perfecting the design took longer than he expected. "I thought, 'Godzilla? Easy, we'll just make him look like the classic Godzilla.' But then you start doing it and you go, hmm, you've got to be careful because, even though I love the original Godzillas, if you literally translate it, it wouldn't be right for a modern audience.

"And so my goal was to make it as if this creature really existed, and someone in 1954 saw it, ran to Toho Studios and tried to explain it like a witness to a crime - 'No, the head was a bit like this, and it had these fins' - and then they went and made the movies.

"But in our film, we're going to show what they saw. My background is in visual effects and I have a lot of heroes who are designers, so I literally got my favourite books off the shelf and called this and that guy and worked with them on this. All their DNA is in this movie, and Godzilla took about six months to design and get a silhouette you could rotate from every angle."

His movie also takes a leaf from some of the Japanese Godzilla films, in that Godzilla will fight at least one abnormally powerful monster and be an anti-hero of sorts.

"You have a big choice when you're in the fortunate position of making a Godzilla film, which is, 'Is he going to fight anybody?' And I think we made the right choice, even though it was a difficult one because it made the story more layered and harder to tell."

And just like some of the Godzillas of old, this one is not malevolent and came into being as a result of human misdeeds.

Saying Godzilla is good or bad "is like saying, 'Is a hurricane good or bad?' Of course there are bad consequences from it, but it's just a force of nature, really", the director says.

"And in our film, Godzilla very much represents the forces of nature. And anything else that happens represents our abuse of nature. So Godzilla's kind of come in to put things right."


Godzilla opens tomorrow.