Godzilla first emerged in Gojira, a Japanese film from 1954. Gojira, as Brian Merchant lays out in Motherboard, went to great lengths to indicate that Godzilla was a nuclear nightmare; he was destroying Japan the way that nuclear weapons had, and he would continue to ravage the country. Over the ensuing 60 years, Godzilla’s existence has been used to greater and lesser effect in the same service, the “lesser” side peaking with 1998’s absurd Roland Emmerich iteration, which concerned itself less with Godzilla’s metaphorical significance and more with Emmerich’s unique fetish for annihilating New York City in the most inane way possible. (Eggs in Madison Square Garden? Sure!)
However, 2014’s Godzilla appears, by all accounts, to be a much more devoted entry into the canon of the monster. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s become one of the most anticipated films of the summer. Its virtuosic trailer was the most viewed preview on YouTube of any film from this year so far, and it has charted in the top echelon of just about every “most anticipated” list you can find, including sixth in Rotten Tomatoes’ polling of readers. It’s surprising because most blockbusters are cut from the same cloth. Take this summers’ slate: It’s a mix of superhero movies, a la X-Men and Spider Man; franchise tentpoles, a la Transformers; high-concept sci-fi, a la Edge of Tomorrow and Jupiter Ascending; sequels, like How to Train Your Dragon 2 and 22 Jump Street; and young-adult adaptations, like The Fault in Our Stars. The aberrations from this pattern are few, for good reason: These movies are expensive and risky; if they don’t work, you get fired.
The Godzilla brand was damaged domestically in ’98, so you can’t chalk it up solely to that. Like Pacific Rim from last year, it should be the kind of film that charts modestly in the U.S. and does gangbusters business abroad. But there are reasons why Godzilla has achieved a fever pitch here, and it goes beyond just promised pyrotechnics. In fact, out of all the films to be released this year, Godzilla might be the one that’s most representative of American society.
Beyond its content, though, Godzilla’s form also embodies the weird place that Hollywood is in. Godzilla isn’t a sequel, and it isn’t a remake, but it also isn’t an original idea.
AN ENTIRE LANE OF cultural criticism, as summarized by Steven Schneider in his introduction here, has been devoted to plumbing the origin of movie monsters, and the genesis has as much to do with us, with society as our simple reaction to them. They are scary, or awesome, and we think of them as such; ergo the phrase “horror movies.” But at the same time, these monsters are, in ways direct and digressive, manifestations of the cultures that produced them. Fears and obsessions create aliens and mutants and killers.
In the post-war Cold-War era, Godzilla could be a symbol of the threat of nuclear holocaust, which was a constantly simmering terror, never quite on-hand but never far away. Now, Godzilla can represent the fear and disgust we feel with ourselves over the disintegration of the Earth—this sense that at any time, a super monster could rise up from inside our planet.
Among its blockbuster counterparts, Godzilla takes the wanton, almost fetishistic destruction of superhero movies—Zack Snyder’s last Superman, which ruined New York for no particular reason, resulting in a real-life equivalent of nearly 1.5 million casualties and $2 trillion in damage—and creates a real-life parallel. Director Gareth Edwards used the word “god” to refer to Godzilla—strangely enough, the name is just an Anglicization of “Gojira”—and it makes sense: Gods are only extensions of humanity, serving to help us understand the parts of the world that we cannot otherwise. Where our superheroes are normally meant as fables, pop lessons in anthropology and sociology, a creature like Godzilla allows us to confront how humans deal with the non-human. In the same way that David Cronenberg literally fused the human and the technological in his films during the ’80s and ’90s—an era when we were beginning to understand what it meant to become cyborgs—Godzilla splices the natural and the engineered in 2014, when we are beginning to understand that there’s no turning back from what we did to the Earth.
Beyond its content, though, Godzilla’s form also embodies the weird place that Hollywood is in. Godzilla isn’t a sequel, and it isn’t a remake, but it also isn’t an original idea, which, in this climate, is the kind of nine-digit production budget you can only muster if you’re Christopher Nolan or the Wachowskis, someone with previous commercial-blockbuster success. Instead, it’s an attempt to resurrect a great and fallen franchise, which makes it feel original; a successful version of Godzilla won’t be anything like Emmerich’s. With the boon of overseas grosses a guarantee, Godzilla can be low risk while still feeling like a higher concept; it meets Hollywood halfway.
And with its combination of virtuosos and cheap unknowns, Godzilla also represents the movie industry’s strange relationship with talent. The entertainment business currently prizes two different types of actors and directors: auteurs and cheap unknowns. This is why showrunners like Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner are household names, and yet you’ve never heard of the guy who directed the latest Captain America movie even though it has grossed $700 million worldwide. Godzilla reinforces its seriousness with a cast that includes America’s id, Bryan Cranston, young up-and-comers like Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and character actors like Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins. Meanwhile, the director, Gareth Edwards, has helmed one movie, Monsters, which had a budget of $500,000. (Godzilla cost 320 times that much.) It’s enough quality to spark the interest of people who love Breaking Bad or movies in general, but not so much that the actors overshadow the monster.
Godzilla has achieved a resonance prior to its release, and if it delivers on its potential, then it has the chance to be emblematic for America in a way reminiscent of what Gojira meant for Japan. And if not, none of this will distract from the most sellable component of the film: Huge monsters destroying things.