Godzilla: Blast from the past

By Michele Manelis

Hollywood's new Godzilla stomps into cinemas this week in a film aiming to go bigger and better than its many B-movie predecessors, but also pay homage to its post-war Japanese roots and 60 years on screen. Michele Manelis reports.

He's back, he's big and he's bad. Or is he?

"I think Godzilla has always been misunderstood," sighs British director Gareth Edwards. "He's an anti-hero, rather than a villain. We made a choice and I think it was a difficult one in regards to the question, 'is Godzilla good or bad?' It's like saying, 'is a hurricane good or bad?' It's a force of nature, and in our film Godzilla represents that, as well as demonstrating man's abusive nature towards it. Godzilla has come to put things right and is delivering a man-against-nature warning that man can't win. If you take nature on, you will lose. That is what's at the heart of the movie."

Japan's mythic Godzilla was created to serve as a metaphor for atomic weapons in the wake of the bombing of Japan that ended World War II. The latest one shatters a Japanese nuclear power plant a few years after the Fukushima disaster.

"The original movie was obviously an analogy for Hiroshima," says Edwards. "Although we haven't put anything onscreen that is directly related to Fukushima, hopefully we've done it justice by addressing those issues in this movie."

The film about the legendary behemoth is budgeted at a hefty US$160 million ($185 million), and is massively more ambitious than its predecessors. The mega-reptile has made more than 28 film appearances thanks to its Japanese creator, Toho Productions, since its inception. Director Roland Emmerich revived the monster in 1998 but his US$120 million remake was tepidly received, barely broke even and had audiences laughing for the wrong reasons.

Here, Godzilla has a credible human cast including Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston as a nuclear scientist who becomes obsessed after a supposed earthquake hits the powerplant where he and his wife (Juliette Binoche) work in Japan.

Their son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, grows up to be a bomb disposal expert for the US Navy and is married to Elizabeth Olsen's nurse. The cast also includes Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn, all actors who might seem unlikely contenders for blockbuster duty.

"I'm sure the actors had the same reaction to the idea of doing Godzilla as I had, says Edwards. "There's a concern that it would either be silly, or that it might take itself too seriously. I felt the best thing to do was to cast actors as if this was not a monster movie but maybe about a hurricane or a real life terrorist event in which you'd want a group of actors to bring true weight to something that horrific. The film is like any drama, but it happens to have a monster in it."

The subplot includes a very human and emotional father-son storyline that deals with loss and forgiveness. "Even if you're not a Godzilla fan or don't care about giant monsters, you'll care about these guys," says Edwards with conviction.

Godzilla is just Edwards' second feature following his 2010 indie debut, Monsters, which he made for just US$200,000 but looked 100 times that.

"I never asked the producers why they chose me because it would probably have made them nervous. I just got very lucky," he says. "I'm sure I wasn't the first choice but maybe it's because my other film was a monster movie and it had characters that were driving the story." He smiles. "There was a scene in the film that cost $900,000. That was worth a lot more money than the entire Monsters movie."

But despite his cast's arthouse credentials and his own independent background, Edwards knew you can't think small on a reboot of this kind.

"We decided it was going to be the biggest Godzilla ever seen. We wanted to get beyond what had already existed, but then it became a little like when they built the Chrysler building in Manhattan. It forced the Empire State building to put an aerial on top."

After much debate as to the exact stature of the beast, the team finally decided Godzilla should stand at 108m. Six decades on, Godzilla's image has come a long way from what was essentially a man in a rubber suit. The impressive level of detail includes the monster's atomic roots via a skin texture inspired by the keloid scars of Hiroshima bomb's victims. His face was modelled his expression on the faces of dogs and bears. For the final touches, performance capture pioneer, Andy Serkis, who created such lifelike personas as Gollum, The Planet of the Apes' Caesar, and King Kong, was brought in to bring him to life.

The big lizard isn't the only monster in the film. He battles a couple of "Mutos" ("Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms") which are new to the franchise- the film-makers didn't have rights to the old ones like Mothra.

The movie begins in the Philippines, and travels from Japan to San Francisco via Hawaii and Las Vegas. Despite the massive budget and multi-location backdrop, Edwards' Godzilla has much in common with the 1954 original.

"I'd like to say that although we're not trying to preach anything in this Godzilla, we'd like to convey that it has meaning beyond being just a throwaway popcorn movie."

What: Godzilla
When and where: Open in cinemas now
- TimeOut

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