By Arturo R. García
The release of the trailer for the latest Godzilla release spawned a pretty good discussion over at The Mary Sue Wednesday, including this critique from a fan:
It’s too early to tell just how “global” this new Godzilla is, but it would be really nice if it acknowledged that the death of human beings is universal and is no more or less tragic by virtue of location, nationality or ethnic background. I don’t see that happening for the promotional campaign, because the people who make trailers and commercials are frequently different from the actual filmmakers, and tend to be somewhat problematic at the best of times – so I don’t see them doing anything different from the norm.
Because the sad fact is that lots of people are going to look on the deaths of non-Western non-white people in films, even outright disasters, as they do for real life: as sad or upsetting, but not *quite* as upsetting as if it happened to “their” people – even if it takes place in a western city with an ethnic majority. It isn’t cinema’s job to challenge those preconceptions, but cinema is in a strong position to make a difference. Would it really be such a problem for a film to make the “bold” statement that the death of thousands of non-Westerners is just as tragic as the death of thousands of Westerners? Would that really constitute “reverse”-racism? Is that infringing on white people’s representation in the media?
The first trailer doesn’t give us a lot to go on on that score. And even if the film’s IMDB cast list counts at least six people of color involved, what we see here is mostly focused on white characters (starting with the nameless white soldier who jumps into near-certain doom at the beginning). But the only POC featured, Ken Watanabe, will likely be playing a key character in Godzilla canon — Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, the man behind the invention that killed the original Godzilla in the monster’s 1954 eponymous debut.
But a piece of the synopsis has me, at least, hopeful that this film won’t just aspire to be a “reimagined version” of the character’s first appearance, and will show better judgment in picking which parts of Godzilla canon to explore.
SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT
Per The Mary Sue, here’s the film’s synopsis:
An epic rebirth to Toho’s iconic Godzilla, this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.
“Scientific arrogance” — or rather, arrogant applications of science — is probably the one tenet that has survived through the various Godzilla film series; the film’s original trailer explicitly states, “H-bomb tests have enraged the monster in the Pacific,” and the debate between stopping the monster and studying it is put up front, alongside Serizawa’s sacrifice. This on top of the scene in the film in which Hiroshima is name-checked by a mother to her child during Godzilla’s rampage, right before they become two of its casualties. (Also of note, part of the pitch from the filmmakers at Toho Co., Ltd.: SPECIAL EFFECTS SURPASSING AMERICAN FILMS.)
The years and films since have seen human mistakes repeatedly cited as the cause of the kaiju carnage: In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Godzilla is called upon to stop a monster borne of industrial pollution; in Godzilla vs. Megalon, the subterranean race controlling Megalon is acting out of anger over humanity’s continued nuclear testing; the story for Godzilla vs. Mothra centers around Mother Nature retaliating against humans trying to control the climate. Along the way Godzilla has been a protector, a marauder, and sometimes, almost literally, the devil Japan knows — the enemy of whatever other monstrous enemy has presented itself.
So it’s disconcerting to hear director Gareth Edwards, who is leading the 2014 effort, already contradicting himself in his remarks to the press:
It’s the same with Godzilla in that I always viewed him as a force of nature. He’s not like King Kong where there’s a personality. Godzilla is definitely a representation of the wrath of nature.
It’s probably going to develop more personality as we go on and my answer might be different when we’re done, but he definitely has personality from the icon he is. We’ve taken it very seriously and the theme is man versus nature and Godzilla is certainly the nature side of it. You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about. He’s an anti-hero. I wouldn’t describe him as a good guy, but he’s not evil personified. He’s the punishment we deserve, you know?
So, does Edwards’ Godzilla have a personality or not?
As any Breaking Bad or Sopranos fan will tell you, characterization is part of what makes a well-written anti-hero. Toho realized that in redeveloping the character with an edge in his 1990s incarnations, leading up to his 2004 swan song in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. This shouldn’t be Pacific Rim, where the monster is doing the bidding of some invading force. (There’s films like that in the series, but we’ll get to that later). So there’s no need to reinvent Toho’s wheel, not when it has lead to some surprisingly poignant moments like this scene from 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, which adds to the Godzilla legend by linking him to a group of Japanese soldiers before his mutation, a relationship that is paid off in this encounter with the squad leader:
The saving grace here is the mention of “malevolent creatures” in the synopsis. Much like Joss Whedon and his creative team did with The Hulk in The Avengers, Edwards and his team are better off maximizing Godzilla by pitting him against monsters who are as Big or maybe even Bigger Bads. Which also opens the door to the “global” interpretation mentioned in the comment up top.
While Gojira established the big G as a Japanese phenomenon, the idea of a “global” Godzilla didn’t take long to manifest; 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla matched him up against an American foe, and Destroy All Monsters, released six years later, was built around the idea of Toho’s stable of monsters wreaking havoc the world over. (Basically, the Marvel strategy, nearly five decades early.)
Godzilla: Final Wars updated Destroy‘s concept in 2004 as an all-star jubilee of sorts to celebrate the character’s 50th anniversary. But Dark Horse Comics’ mini-series Godzilla: The Half Century War, allowed writer/artist James Stokoe to weave the franchise’s various characters and continuities together to best present Godzilla as the Moby Dick to a Japanese service member’s Ahab.
And as the monsters’ reach expands worldwide, so does that of Stokoe’s human characters:
On the bright side, Edwards is already mentioning Destroy as the blueprint for a possible sequel. But getting there means establishing Godzilla as a fact of life more than a “force of nature.” Otherwise, Edwards’ first movie will remind Godzilla fans of 1998 instead of 1954. And will be judged just as appropriately.