The big green guy turned 60 this year. Will a new film live up to a long legacy of destruction?
After six decades of destruction, spanning colossal brawls with otherworldly creatures from King Kong to King Ghidorah, with his radioactive breath and that iconic, window-rattling roar, the atomic-born creation is old enough to join the AARP.
But one achievement has eluded the mighty giant, even in the midst of his diamond anniversary tour.
He's yet to star in a successful American-made movie that capitalized on his popularity, stayed true to his mythology and gave fans of all ages a feature film to treasure as much as the original Toho Studios productions.
That could change Friday with the release of Gareth Edwards' “Godzilla,” a $160 million gamble that hinges on baby-boomer nostalgia for a creature born during one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.
“We're going to see how enduring the appeal of Godzilla is,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “There are a lot of people predicting this could be the flop of the summer. This is going to be the big American pop culture test. This is the one that can make us forget that last Godzilla film.”
Based on an advance showing of Edwards' “Godzilla,” the new Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures production thankfully, finally gets everything about the king of monsters right.
Every beloved hallmark that fans have fascinated and fussed over since 1954 finds its way onto the screen, and the special effects/creature design couldn't be better.
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
Godzilla's origins trace back to Aug. 6, 1945, the day U.S. forces dropped an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, instantly killing 80,000 people.
Nine years later, Toho Studios released “Gojira,” an environmental public service announcement disguised as a monster movie with a man in a giant green rubber suit wreaking havoc on a miniature version of Tokyo. Audiences were immediately entranced.
The Japanese used the monster to expose the hubris of U.S. military officials who unleashed a devastation they could not fully predict, leaving an innocent population to deal with the aftermath.
“Nuclear radiation brings him to life,” Thompson said, “and once he's brought to life, he kind of becomes a metaphor for the destructive power of the nuclear age.”
Before long, Gojira — a combination of gorira and kujira, the Japanese words for gorilla and whale — was rebranded Godzilla. An American version of the film was recut with actor Raymond Burr inserted to provide a familiar face to audiences. Godzilla became less scary, and more heroic. Later films introduced comedic elements and, during a particularly low point, he even spawned a child.
In the 1960s and 1970s, when Godzilla movies morphed into a succession of battle royal matchups, the giant lizard became a sometimes ally enlisted to battle an even worse threat, which was a sly Cold War metaphor, according to Thompson.
What do you call an emotionally unhinged woman approaching matrimony? Bridezilla.
THE LIZARD'S LAST ROAR
The last time Godzilla stomped into U.S. theaters was 16 years ago.
The 1998 incarnation, directed by disaster maestro Roland Emmerich, starred Matthew Broderick and featured a female Godzilla desperate to find a place in New York City to nest and lay eggs.
The film tanked. It was ridiculed by fans and critics alike. Made for $130 million, it barely broke even stateside, grossing just $136 million.
Longtime fans such as Frank Stever couldn't even bear to give it a try. To this day, he has never watched the entire movie from beginning to end.
“They were keeping what he looked like a big secret,” said Stever, 36, who still vividly recalls his disappointment. “When I saw it, I was like, 'That's not Godzilla.' I know you have to update things as time goes along, but there are some things that are iconic. It's Godzilla. There's no reason to change.”
If you grew up in Tampa between 1973 and 1995, chances are you watched “Creature Feature” on WTOG, Channel 44, with longtime horror movie host Dr. Paul Bearer.
That's how Chris Holcom discovered Godzilla.
He turned to his mother, an Air Force brat who spent five years in Japan, to fill in the rest. She explained the history of World War II. He found parallels in other giant monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s. The education gave his newfound fandom an added resonance.
“It still echoes today,” said the 37-year-old actor, a 15-year veteran of Tampa's Jobsite Theater who directed the company's 2009 production of “Night of the Living Dead.”
“We are in such a rush. We discover new technologies and we immediately exploit them without knowing what they can do.”
Holcom considers himself a lifelong fan, but still, he's cautious about this latest iteration.
“We've been so disappointed. We're in this day of remakes and sequels,” he said.
“Sometimes you have to walk a very narrow line. You don't want to be too much of an homage, there's nothing original. But you don't want to stray too far from the source material.”
So far, Holcom said he's been impressed by the dramatic mood of the early trailers. He likes the few glimpses he's seen of the creature, and he's satisfied with that iconic roar. But he still worries that the movie might devolve into one long behemoth battle like so many of the dozens of sequels.
“I'm not going to lie,” he confessed. “There's still an 8-year-old boy in here that wants to see a big monster fight.”
Stever, who works at Tampa's In the News, also grew up watching Godzilla movies on Saturday matinees. He's actively sought out bootleg copies of subtitled imports such as “Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla” that never played in U.S. theaters. He's excited that the original production company, Toho, participated in the new movie.
More than anything, he just wants to be transported back to his youth in Philadelphia, when he watched the original films on TV with his father.
“It's something that's fresh from your childhood,” he said. “It's a monster movie. It's a giant lizard destroying a city. You can't mess that up too much. I'm hoping it's very good because if they make a couple more, that would be nice.”