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The Myth of Monsters: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla at 10



Feature By: Steven Sloss

I have vivid memories as a 12-year-old, near the tail end of 2004, staying up very late into the night (more likely morning) to view a dubiously legal edition of Godzilla: Final Wars that had somehow made its way online. Despite the lack of English subtitles, I remember my pulse racing as I thrilled to the adrenaline-fueled spectacle of Ryuhei Kitamura’s kaiju epic. However, there was sadness too. Final Wars – Toho’s theatrical celebration of the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary – was touted as the final Godzilla feature for a long time. As a preteen superfan, this notion was heart-breaking. I didn’t understand realities like audience fatigue, box office failure, and creative exhaustion – I simply wanted more Godzilla.

Almost 10 years later, I was 21 years old in the Spring of 2014. I was wrapping up my time at university, in a happy relationship with my future wife, and there was finally a new Godzilla feature releasing. After almost a decade’s worth of rumours, false starts, and intense speculation, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla finally released. A few years prior, Edwards’ made his debut with the marvellously lo-fi Monsters, and I was thrilled when he was announced shepherd Godzilla back to the big screen. I was equally thrilled with the film itself: Edwards’ Godzilla is a ponderous, quiet blockbuster, expertly crafted and elegantly restrained to elicit genuine emotions of awe, helplessness, and wonder in the audience. In its roundup of the best films of 2014 (Godzilla placing at #10), The Skinny compared the film to “Steven Spielberg in his better blockbuster days”, praising it as “a big effects movie with genuine poetic craft behind its visual storytelling. Intense, disorienting, intimate, and often rousing.”

A further decade later, this pithy and elegant surmise of Edwards’ Godzilla– a film which remains widely misjudged and hasn’t yet been afforded critical reappraisal – remains crucial. Discussion around the film has almost exclusively focused on less-than-anticipated monster screentime and – spoiler alert! – the death of Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody at the conclusion of the first act (which, let’s be honest, would not be cared about as much if Cranston wasn’t hot off the heels of Breaking Bad at the time). But Edwards’ Godzillais significantly more narratively and thematically nourishing than popular discussion has afforded it. In a 2014 interview with the Empire Spoiler Special podcast, Edwards was asked about the continued lure of giant monsters and our fascination with our own destruction. He replied:

If you’ve ever gone round England, there’s these castles on the hilltops. When you invade a country, everyone would retreat to the castle and get ready to fire arrows. You could just invade England and say, ‘Okay, you can have your castle – we’ll take the 99% rest of the land.’ But the invading forces were only interested in the castle. You take the castle, you’ve taken the country. I think cities are our modern castles. There’s this feeling from humanity’s point of view that until you take the highest landmark, you haven’t actually won.

This unique perspective illuminates Edwards’ fresh approach to adapting the modern myth of Godzilla and can be deconstructed further – if cities are our modern castles, what might other staples of kaiju cinema represent? After a tragic childhood prelude, our protagonist Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) enters the film having completed a military tour of duty, returning to his family in the apparent safety of their San Francisco home – a knight returning from a Crusade to the security and comfort of his court. However, he very shortly receives a summons and embarks abroad once again to aid his dispossessed father (Cranston) in Japan, confronting the tragic mystery of his mother’s death in the process.

After run-ins with military officials and secretive agencies, the estranged father and son eventually unearth the answer in the form of the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) – dragons that threaten the sanctuary of modernity by defying logic, understanding, and reason. The MUTOs are beasts that lurk in the forest, just out of sight beyond the castle walls and the refuge of the court – lurid echoes of an ancient Pagan world that threatens to tear down the shelter of Christian rule by refusing to abide by the laws of God-given sovereignty. It’s no coincidence that the shadowy organisation tailing these threats and attempting to contain and understand them is called Monarch.

Ford’s quest continues, and he is caught in a maelstrom of events he barely understands and – despite his technical and military expertise – is essentially powerless to affect: an ill-equipped knight in a world he doesn’t recognise. Ford’s (much-criticised) lack of agency eventually transpires as one of the film’s key strengths: like Sir Gawain centuries before, he appears as an audience cypher, shepherding the viewer from one strange, unnatural event to the next – both parties experiencing events as they unfold and equally unable to impress upon them.

Godzilla himself – dubbed the King of the Monsters and dubious saviour of the court by the film’s conclusion – takes on the role of the mythical European giant: simultaneously capable of great feats of destruction and chaos and equal benevolence and intelligence. Like the MUTOs, Godzilla appears as a Pagan reminder of an older, feral world – a protector not of humanity or its castles, but of the natural world beyond the scope of Christian rule.

Despite the thematic nourishment it offers (and Edwards’ dedication to crafting the film as a standalone beast, allowing for but not directly teeing-up any sequels), Godzilla has been retrofitted as a launching point for a tonally antithetical cinematic universe, no subsequent entries of which truly feel as though they belong to the same world (except, perhaps, the first few episodes of Apple’s Monarch: Legacy of Monsters). Perhaps cinemagoers of 2014 were not ready for a quiet, contemplative Godzilla – one that shares more tonal and aesthetic DNA with the likes of David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 than Godzilla vs. Kong, one of its own direct sequels.

Regardless, Godzilla’s deceptively engaging character subtleties and echoing of medieval storytelling tradition continue to ensure a fulfilling and awe-inspiring experience a decade later – a monstrous journey worthy of the myths and legends it so elegantly evokes.

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