November 3, 2013 marks the 59th anniversary of the original Japanese release of Toho Company's classic film Gojira, which came to English-language theaters two years later in re-edited form as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Next year will witness the release of an updated US-produced version of the irradiated mutant dinosaur that launched the kaiju eiga industry in Japan, and of course fan circles are abuzz with debate. But how hard could it be to make a successful Godzilla movie? Just plop a giant reptile in the middle of a major city, have the military impotently hurl some hardware at the monster and that's pretty much that, right? Well not exactly, as witnessed by the 1998 TriStar Pictures Godzilla movie, which was a general disappointment and still holds a place of infamy in the minds of many Godzilla fans. Godzilla may not be a subtle or delicate character, but there are several ways that the upcoming Godzilla film must approach its subject matter with calculated delicacy.
1. Establishing Godzilla's links to nuclear testing and Japan's unique role in the history of the atom bomb.
When the screenplay for the original Gojira was written in 1954, only nine years had passed since World War II had ended in the Pacific with the atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The postwar US occupation of Japan officially ended in 1952 and by 1954 both Hiroshima and Nagasaki had returned to their pre-bombing population levels and large amounts of reconstruction had been completed. However, the specter of nuclear contamination had been thrust into public awareness in March of 1954 as a result of the unintentional exposure of a Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon number 5) and its crew to radioactive fallout following a thermonuclear bomb test conducted by the US at the Bikini Atoll near the Marshall Islands. When Gojira was released in Japan in November of that same year, the monster was an easily recognizable symbol for the horrors of nuclear weaponry in a film produced during a time when Japan was still healing from the atomic bombing and facing the dim prospect of future effects from continued nuclear testing.
Sixty years later, what ties will the new Legendary Pictures Godzilla film have to these events? TriStar's Godzilla made the mistake of shifting the blame to the French for detonating the nuclear test devices that created the mutated marine iguana that briefly attacks a Japanese fishing boat before heading towards New York City. The 2014 film is apparently going to have a much stronger link to Japan as evidenced by certain production sets that appear to be simulating Japanese locations. All the Japanese iterations of Godzilla have used the storyline of the 1954 film as a starting point. Will this new Godzilla also have its origin set sixty years earlier, closer to the heart of Japan's atomic history?
2. Presenting Godzilla's traditional powers and invulnerability in a manner that is believable, yet not striving too hard for "realism".
A creature such as Godzilla can only be very loosely explained in the most vague, movie-world scientific terms, since its very existence is patently impossible according to existing laws of physics, not to mention well-established properties of atomic radiation. Attempts to turn Godzilla into a somewhat "realistic" huge animal instead of a fantastical daikaiju are doomed to failure and only dilute the essence of the character (see again, the TriStar Godzilla's wholly un-Godzilla-like behavior in fleeing military fire, establishing a hidden burrow and laying eggs). With Godzilla, traditional rules of the natural world go out the window, and you're never really supposed to know exactly what you're dealing with.
But despite Godzilla defiantly spitting atomic rays in the face of the square-cube law and myriad other scientific facts, a film set in current times with a huge special-effects budget to render Godzilla's exploits in hyper-detail does face some responsibilities in establishing a suspension of disbelief that the fun, lovable Godzilla movies of the 1960s did not. Miniature model tanks launching sparking missiles that bounce harmlessly off Godzilla's rubber hide were wonderful in the classic Godzilla films, but this new Godzilla is facing off against the full technological might of 2014's military and all the CGI-ed destructive power that comes with it. To truly capture Godzilla's almost godlike invulnerability and massive destructive power in the face of a believably-depicted full modern military assault is no mean feat. Even in a world where a mysteriously-preserved dinosaur mutated by atomic explosions can exist, the viewers need to feel the real weight and presence of Godzilla's incredible durability.
3. Setting an appropriate stage to showcase Godzilla's devastating rampage.
As previously mentioned, at least some of the action in the new film seems to take place in Japan. Regardless of the mainstream Amercian audience's expectations to see US cities destroyed, Tokyo should really be the first urban center hit by Godzilla, particularly if this film is intended to reboot Godzilla's origin in the modern world. Godzilla has attacked cities outside Japan in several entries of the Toho series, including New York City in Destroy All Monsters (1968), Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995) and various cities around the globe in the off-the-wall Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). Since this is a US-made film, it wouldn't be surprising to see Godzilla end up trashing an American city at some point, although it could be argued that New York has been done to death and that Los Angeles or San Francisco make more sense as targets if the big G has his origins in the Pacific. However, this year's Pacific Rim was not afraid to set the bulk of its monster versus robot action outside the USA, so perhaps Godzilla will follow suit.
Also, the advance teaser trailer leaked from last year's San Diego Comic Con shows that the new film doesn't appear to be shying away from depictions of human casualties. Most of the classic Godzilla films after the original 1954 Gojira often sidestepped depicting the human deaths resulting from the monsters laying waste to cities, with a few notable exceptions such as Return of Godzilla (1984) and GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). It would appear that some of the current criticisms about certain recent movies featuring wholesale city destruction with little or no accountability of human losses, such as Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel will not be the case with the 2014 Godzilla.
4. Portraying human characters that compliment the monster action instead of distracting from it.
This is a tricky balancing act that even the Toho Godzilla films have not always gotten right. The 1990s Japanese Godzilla movies relied too heavily on the formula of "crack military team piloting a super-weapon while dealing with a simple interpersonal melodrama", which carried over into several of the post-millennial films as well. The much-maligned 50th anniversary outing, Godzilla: Final Wars, has been lambasted for its over-reliance on wearying Matrix-inspired martial arts fights between its human actors while short-changing the actual monster battles expected by fans. The ham-handed attempts at comedy relief in the 1998 TriStar Godzilla featuring Siskel and Ebert clones in the Mayor's office and TV cameraman Victor "Animal" Palotti's banter with his shrill girlfriend also serve as examples of how not to fill the down time between monster attacks.
The 1954 Gojira featured a simple yet poignant love triangle between Navy diver Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada, rumored to appear in the 2014 film as well), Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi) and the man to whom Emiko was originally betrothed, scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata). The fact that Dr. Serizawa, who bore the scars from a WWII injury and a deep mistrust toward humankind in general, was the only man who carried the secret of the weapon that could stop Godzilla, made the tragic result of this relationship inevitable. The 2014 movie features superb actor Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) in an apparent military role along with several other main characters in the film who are not military. Hopefully the parallel human interest storyline will dovetail with the monster activity in a manner similar to the classic Godzilla.
5. Delivering a storyline that satisfyingly invokes the various incarnations of Godzilla.
The main hurdle that exists whenever updating a much-beloved, decades-old character for a film adaptation is choosing which version of the character to represent. The most serious, respected incarnation of Godzilla is of course the somber, allegorical monster from the original 1954 film. This seems to be the main inspiration for the 2014 version, but there is also the promise of titantic monster battles echoing the fun spectacle of the monster-versus-monster Godzilla movies that so many of us grew up on. Obviously the more humorous antics in some of the Toho Godzilla films, such as boulder-tossing, victory dances and flying drop-kicks have no place in the new film, but the thrill of a kaiju throwdown has become an intrinsic part of the Godzilla experience.
It is this dual role that Godzilla holds in the hearts of millions of fans worldwide - both a horrific, destructive force of nature taking revenge on humankind, and also an awesomely unbeatable brawler who takes on other giant monsters, often in unwitting defense of the very humans who brought him into tortured existence with their technological hubris in the first place. The trick is maintaining the serious tone of the destuctive Godzilla while also providing the wonder and enthusiastic energy of a giant monster battle.
At this point, we haven't seen much of the upcoming Godzilla film, but based on the little bit we have seen, it appears that director Gareth Edwards has gotten things much more right than the last attempt at a Hollywood-made Godzilla ever did. The prospect of new promotional material, perhaps even a complete trailer, maybe timed to coincide with the 59th anniversary of the classic Toho masterpiece will hopefully make it even more apparent that grasping the deceptively simple concept of Godzilla is in good hands.