Why Godzilla Matters

Godzilla 1954

It's been 60 years since Godzilla first arrived in the world. Is the original King of the Monsters still relevant?

In a world full of real-life horrors -- whether it's terrorist attacks, catastrophic natural disasters, serial killers or commonplace, everyday meanness from one human to another -- can a 350-foot-tall fire-breathing reptile still inspire fear ... especially when said critter became a pop-culture icon over the years in a way that veered perilously close to camp?

The answer, by my lights, is yes. Godzilla last appeared in a movie 10 years ago, an eternity in our modern entertainment landscape. But the new American version of Godzilla arriving in theaters this week -- with its serious tone and its portrayal of the gigantic beast as neither villain nor hero, but something that transcends both -- proves again that he remains a potent cultural force.

Giant monsters had certainly been a presence at the movies before Godzilla arrived in 1954. There had been the dinosaurs of The Lost World (1925), the Rhedosaurus from Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and, of course, King Kong (1933). But Godzilla, or Gojira, as he was first known in his native Japan, was arguably the first such beast to be a direct metaphor for a manmade horror: The unleashing of atomic power. 

Godzilla Showa

Gojira, coming just nine years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a cinematic wail of anguish and fear that resonated deeply and powerfully with the Japanese people. It was no coincidence that the beast took the form of essentially a dragon, one of the oldest archetypes of Asian folklore. The combination of modern and ancient terrors was a potent one -- even for American audiences, who saw a somewhat tamer version of the film, retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters, in 1956.

"I think I was like eight or nine years old (when I saw Godzilla) and I thought it was terrifying," recalls Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull, who has produced the new Godzilla that comes out his week. "Especially because it was black and white and it was Japanese and, you know, you’re reading subtitles. I remember distinctly thinking like, 'Is this old footage of -- like does this thing exist? What is it?' I didn’t have anybody around to explain to me what it was, but it seemed -- even to my eight year old brain -- that there was something deeper going on and it was much more serious than maybe some of the films that came later. It was an extraordinary experience."

The success of Gojira/Godzilla launched an incredibly long-lasting franchise, with the new Godzilla actually the 30th film to feature the massive lizard (that's seven more films than James Bond currently has under his belt). But along the way, over the course of several different, distinct eras of Godzilla films, the meaning of the monster, himself, changed. "Even though they each stand on their own," says Tull, "once you see that original it’s really hard, maybe unfairly to the other films, but it’s really hard for me to watch ... that’s the one that I always go back to and watch as a fan."

Godzilla Heisei

As more monsters were introduced into the series -- like the popular Rodan, Mothra and Ghidorah, and later nemeses such as Biollante, Megaguirus and Destroyah -- Godzilla evolved from mankind's enemy into its protector and hero, defending human civilization and the world itself not just from other creatures, but also, frequently, from alien invasion. His opponents came to symbolize more than just big lumbering building-smashers, such as Hedorah in 1971's ecologically themed Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster). 

Godzilla himself took on, for a period stretching from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s (known as the Showa era), a more playful, friendlier aspect, as the series geared itself more toward children. That era introduced notoriously silly elements like Godzilla doing a victory dance and, of course, his famous son, Minilla. The films went from well-made (for their time) B-movies to almost unwatchable junk like Godzilla vs. Megalon.

But that characterization was set aside when the series was relaunched in 1984 (the Heisei series) with  The Return of Godzilla, followed by key films like 1989's Godzilla vs. Biollante and 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. That set of films, and the Millenium series that followed, found a middle ground that became the definitive identity of Godzilla: Not humanity's destroyer but not its champion either, this incarnation of Godzilla waged battles on such a scale -- usually to protect himself or the Earth -- that humankind barely registered on his radar. We became neither his target nor his particular concern; as we know from seeing countless buildings turned to rubble on his watch, he has never been concerned with saving human lives or property if they happen to be collateral damage. 

Godzilla Millenium

This is the reason why Godzilla is still relevant today: As the world itself has become more inexplicable, he symbolizes a pure, elemental, even godlike power that continues to humble us and let us know, in our arrogance as a species, that there are still forces in this universe beyond our control or even comprehension. "For us he’s this absolute force of nature that personifies a lot of different things," says Tull. "Certainly the 1954 version was very serious in terms of what that meant for Japan. And today, you know, there are all kinds of things that happen in our world that seem like uncontrollable acts of nature."

The more we know about monsters, the less monstrous they become. As good a show as Hannibal is, for instance, we've become so overexposed to Hannibal Lecter over the years that he's shifted from being a near-demonic presence to a weird anti-hero. But we can never really know an entity like Godzilla. His motivations and origins are ever-changing, and he is as indifferent as the universe to the troubles and triumphs of mankind. He exists beyond our understanding, sometimes there to help us but just as quickly to harm us. He is nature itself -- and he keeps us in check and makes us remember just how puny we really are.

That is why Godzilla matters.

Godzilla is in theaters Friday, May 16.

Godzilla 2014

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