My favorite quote from the trades last week was, "Warner Bros has avoided making Godzilla out to be a monster movie." What else are they going to make it out to be? A coming-of-age picture about the Summer that Changed Everything? A Merchant Ivory flick? Actually, the new film arrives in cinemas boasting the highest pedigree of any creature feature hitherto, with an Alexandre Desplat score, and roles for David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, thus making it the first and surely only time “Juliette Binoche” and “300-foot lizard” will ever be uttered in the same sentence. It’s a good movie – maybe too good, with its visual sophistication leaving its B-movie roots poking through. Was Godzilla ever meant to have $200m spent on him? Wasn’t the original a warning against American technological know-how?
We are a long way from the man-in-a-rubber-suit who wobbled through a model Tokyo in the 1954 original. Newly scaled up to keep pace with the latest skyscrapers, Godzilla is glimpsed teasingly, through Cloverfield POV shots for the first hour, before finally taking centre stage to defend mankind from MUTOs – giant nuclear mutants that look like the queen alien in Aliens and snack on nuclear missiles like Twinkie bars. The scenes of cataclysm, most of them at night, have a sulphurous power, as if director Gareth Edwards had prepared by boning up on Gustave Doré's engravings for Paradise Lost. At one point we see a mountain – or a silhouette our eye had taken to be a mountain – move, in one of the best such sleights of hand since Spielberg’s headlights-in-the-rearview-mirror gag in Close Encounters. If only Edwards had held it longer.
Needless to say, all human scale is obliterated. Cranston, as the nuclear engineer reduced to conspiratorial babbling, may be the smartest casting choice of the summer: when even Walter White throws a hissy fit, you know things are bad. He and Binoche hold the screen for as long as they are allowed, but soon have to make way for the demographically-approved chosen ones, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taylor-Johnson is a physical actor who likes to storm into a room and pace its four corners like a lion, but when faced with the sight of two giant nuclear mutants treating masonry like meringue, he wears an expression of mild consternation, as if remembering he’d left the oven on. He spends most of the movie trying to catch a train to get back to Olsen, but we couldn’t care less. Unlike King Kong, this was never a story scaled with a human adversary in mind. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Navy Commander David Straithairn. “Sit back and watch?”
Well, actually yes. What makes Godzilla such a curious summer blockbuster is it rootedness in failure – specifically the feeling of stunned national impotence that gripped Japan in the aftermath of the second world war. Cultural studies professors like to peel back the keloid-scarred skin of the series to reveal the lurking atomic bomb subtext lurking underneath, but there’s no “subtext” about it. That’s what Godzilla was about. It’s the text.
“The theme of the film from the beginning was the terror of the bomb,” said producer and Godzilla creator Tanaka Tomoyuki. Passing through the ruins of Hiroshima upon his repatriation to Japan, the 1954 film’s director Honda Ishuro noted “a fear the earth was already coming to an end”. He filled his movie with visions that directly summoned the spectres of Nagasaki and Hiroshima: families pulling cart-loads of possessions, children being relocated in army trucks, hordes of injured refugees, churches of widows and orphans, hospitals overflown with the dead and the dying, the camera lingering on a little girl her eyes glazed in shock whose irradiated body sends the geiger counter off the scale.
“Godzilla functioned not simply as a figure of war incarnate or a metaphorical admonition of nuclear annihilation, but also became a reproachful symbol embodying the spirit of Japan’s war dead,” writes William Tsutsui in his book Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of the Monsters. Very little of this, needless to say, made it through into the bowdlerized, American edit, which smoothed over the moral crisis of radiation with the calming tones of Raymond Burr recasting Godzilla as just another monster on the loose, recalled to the screen again and again for what amounted to prolonged bouts of monster-on-monster pro-wrestling. Mankind was relegated to the status of stupefied observer, like those cavemen that cowered in the corner of Ray Harryhausen epics while the dinosaurs duked it out above.
Edwards has more than honored the spirit of the original. Those hospitals are now filled with Americans and tended to by Elizabeth Olsen, while refugees collect in giant sports stadiums that recall the aftermath of Katrina. The American psyche wold appear to be in roughly the same state of disrepair as that of Japan in 1954. We’re ready for Godzilla in a way we weren’t in 1998, when Roland Emmerich rolled out his remake. If the cycle of disaster movies that gripped audiences in the 1990s were notable for their jocular oops-apocalypse tone – “Ha ha! It's the wonder of nature, baby!” boomed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as tornadoes ripped up the south in Jan De Bont’s Twister – our contemporary variants are joke-free zones in which mankind isn’t just threatened with extinction. We're told we deserve it.
Not only do we bring our own nuclear doom upon our heads in Godzilla, but in a few weeks' time, we stand in the dock once again, indicted for crimes against the primate in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And this just a few Sundays after God annihilated the Earth on account of our wickedness in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. “The wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us,” insisted Russell Crowe’s prophet. “It had to be what He wanted – a world without men. You see that, don’t you?”
The right went into its usual tizzy over Aronofsky’s film, with Glenn Beck saying, “it’s just so pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human,” but for once, the nut fringe was basically right. The blockbuster has finally gone post-human. The Godzilla movies always tilted audience sympathy towards the monster, of course, but as Edwards' lizard takes a bow and slips into the ocean once more at the end of the film, I felt something else: a nip of the old Avatar blues. The first true hero of summer and he doesn’t even say goodbye.