Godzilla: Where’s the Respect?

The IMAX 3D poster for the new "Godzilla"

The IMAX 3D poster for the new “Godzilla”

The summer blockbuster movie season kicks into high gear next week with one of the most highly-anticipated releases opening on Friday, the 16th – the Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures’ reboot of Godzilla. The studio has been doing a masterful job of hyping the $160 million dollar spectacular, with photos, trailers, interviews, behind-the-scenes clips, and merchandising tie-ins popping up at an increasingly dizzying pace as opening day approaches. And the hype is working. Fan reaction is at a fever-pitch, with film industry news websites Dread Central, Doddle, and others posting near-daily updates for the last several weeks. Other than the notable exception of some Japanese fans who think the new Big G has packed on a few pounds, opinions regarding the look of the film and the latest incarnation of the titular giant lizard are highly favorable. Cinema Blend predicts a $600 million worldwide gross, $200 million of that from domestic markets. Like much of the current blockbuster movie fare, Godzilla is a franchise entry. The series originated in 1954 with the Japanese release of Toho Company’s Gojira, followed two years later by a heavily-edited American version retitled Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Counting both these films and including all subsequent Japanese (27) and American (3) productions, next week’s release will be the 32nd Godzilla movie ever made. And that makes Godzilla the most populous current movie franchise. But more about that in a minute. First, some background on the original film. 1953: Toho Company needed a movie. Another project had fallen through and the studio was hurting for a quick replacement. The team who’d become known as “The Golden Trio” was assembled – producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, director Ishirō Honda, and special effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya. The three were chiefly inspired by two things – The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and the Lucky Dragon. The Beast is a 1953 American sci-fi film by effects-maestro Ray Harryhausen – the first-ever movie about a giant, extinct creature awakened by atomic testing. It was a theme that would become a ’50s sci-fi staple. The Lucky Dragon was a Japanese fishing boat that got caught in fallout when a U.S. atomic test in the Bikini Atoll yielded fifteen megatons rather than the expected six. Several crew-members suffered from radiation sickness, and one died. Gojira himself was designed to resemble a cross between a dinosaur and a dragon, with his mottled skin meant to evoke radiation scars. His plodding, inexorable march through a nighttime Tokyo — surrounded by flames, toppling buildings, and laying waste to the city with his atomic breath – was director Honda’s way of embodying a rolling nuclear attack – his portrayal of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like Harryhausen, effects artist Tsuburaya hoped to employ stop motion to bring Gojira to life, but time constraints necessitated using stunt actor Haruo Nakajima in a creature suit stomping about on miniature sets. Although crude and obvious, the method became a trademark for all subsequent Japanese Godzilla films and their many spinoffs, and Nakajima continued to play the character until his retirement in 1972. The relentlessly foreboding tone of the film – dark and grim, a dire warning against nuclear proliferation and cautionary of the potentially disastrous unintended uses of science and technology – is far more grave than what many who haven’t seen the movie might expect. But because of its worldwide success, Gojira/Godzilla became an icon of Japanese cinema, and Toho reinterpreted him over the course of their many sequels and spinoffs into a national hero. In subsequent films he saves Japan from destruction by a menagerie of enemy daikaiju (giant monsters). Gojira was nominated by the Japan Movie Association for 1954’s Best Picture and won for Best Special Effects. A 2010 DVD release garnered the film a 94% approval rating on review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s described as a “potent, sobering postwar commentary.” Entertainment Weekly called Godzilla “pop culture’s grandest symbol of nuclear apocalypse”, and Britain’s Empire film magazine ranked Gojira at #31 in its 2010 “100 Best Films Of World Cinema”. The film is in limited release this year, under the title, Godzilla, the Japanese Original. Now about those other 31 Godzilla movies… Strangely, online databases Box Office Mojo and The Numbers don’t include Godzilla films in their franchise tallies. So what’s the #1 franchise in their view? With 24 entries in the series, Box Office Mojo’s Franchise Index awards the top spot to… James Bond. The Numbers Movie Franchises counts things a little differently, by including straight-to-DVD releases. When looking at it that way, the franchise king – or queen as it so happens – with 26 entries to her name, is… Barbie. I say it’s time for the Big G to get some respect. By all accounts, next week’s reboot incorporates the cautionary themes of the original film, while still casting Godzilla as a last-hope savior. The storyline – from what can be pieced together from material released to-date — pits him against one or more MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), which are daikaiju engineered by scientists as a defense against Godzilla, and unwittingly released. There’s also a Fukushima-like reactor meltdown, and what looks to be half the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force getting their butts kicked as Godzilla trashes San Francisco. Stars include Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn. Godzilla scholars were prepared to recognize Gojira star Akira Takarada in cameo, but word has it he’s been cut from the theatrical release. A petition demanding his scene be restored has been posted online Deep breaths, Godzilla fans; Friday is less than a week away. In the meantime, maybe this’ll help hold you over. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T65rW_SIzg0

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