With the new 3-D version starring Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston, Godzilla is bigger, badder and louder than ever. From a technical standpoint, there’s no sense in even comparing director Gareth Edwards’ computer-generated monster of today with the Japanese original of 60 years ago – a lumbering creature that practically screams, “I’m a man in a rubber dragon suit!”
Still, like others who have tried to resurrect the monster, Edwards and his writers make a common error: They mistake the monster Godzilla’s origins – he is summoned from his long sleep by a nuclear mishap – as an environmental fable.
When Gojira (his original Japanese name) first rumbled ashore on screens in November 1954, Japanese audiences immediately understood the film as an allegory not about nuclear waste, but about nuclear war. The 1954 original was made less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to those audiences the monster’s mindless rampage and all-consuming path of destruction crystallized the sense of national helplessness that followed World War II. Director Ishiro Honda’s scenes of a flattened Tokyo, shot in stark black and white, could have been newsreel footage from a nuclear Ground Zero.
The film’s final chapter – in which the plans for a superweapon to kill Gojira are destroyed so it can never be used again – reflect a nation’s fervent desire to be the last society in history brought to its knees by nuclear destruction. Strange as it seems, a movie about a mountainous fire-breathing dinosaur clomping through the streets of Tokyo was, for many Japanese, the most starkly authentic vision of World War II they would ever see.
And like all great monster movies – Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jurassic Park, King Kong and more – Godzilla held up a mirror with its scaly claws and revealed that the real monsters were not the imagined creatures on the screen but humans like those sitting in the audience.
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