Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen recently joined Aaron Johnson in the cast of Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla, bringing us one step closer to the first American film since 1998 to star the King of the Monsters. This new version, the vision of the Monsters director Gareth Edwards, is said to depict the creature as “a terrifying force of nature” built around a “contemporary issue.” But is there any way to top the powerful metaphor of the original?
The iconic Kaiju is now almost 60 years old, having made its debut in the 1954 Japanese film Gojira. In that story, the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II cause an otherwise benign sea monster to rise from the depths in search for food, leaving destruction in its wake. Less than a decade after the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear weapons wreaking havoc on civilization was very real, and the film captured the interest of Japanese and American audiences alike. The U.S. release of Gojira changed the monster’s name and cut 40 minutes of the original film and added a sympathetic American character – but it remained a cautionary tale about the consequences of nuclear war.
Even in 1998, a year full of overblown disaster spectacles, the American Godzilla looked pretty ridiculous. Matthew Broderick plays a biologist who studies radioactive creatures, and a whole lot of ‘90s CGI portrayed Godzilla himself. Although the movie was the third-highest grossing release of the year, it was critically panned. In 1998, the threat of nuclear war had been supplanted by global warming, terrorism and worldwide pandemics. Godzilla’s story felt old, a relic of a postwar anxiety that made sense to the generation that had hid under desks during air raid drills, but not to their kids. How can 2014’s Godzilla tell a relevant (and scary) story when the last nuclear bombing of a city was more than 65 years ago?
Since the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, there has been a reawakening of sorts about nuclear power and its dangers to civilians. It’s possible that instead of nuclear war, the catalyst for Godzilla’s transformation could be a similar natural disaster followed by a nuclear accident. It would also be interesting if the new Godzilla diverted entirely from the nuclear storyline, and instead was the result of biological weaponry – a more palpable threat.
Today’s monster movies are intensely focused on threats from within (your boyfriend might be a vampire, your next-door neighbor could become a zombie). These creatures threaten one person, or a small group of people – not millions upon millions with a single fiery breath. Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are both known for their dramatic work (Breaking Bad and Martha Marcy May Marlene, and it’s likely this film will be a subtler, scarier Godzilla than the 1998 incarnation.