The Return of the King

And I don’t mean Elvis. We all know he was taken by aliens to planet Rx.

When I first heard that a new Godzilla movie was coming out, my mind immediately cringed. After Roland Emmerich’s debacle that was the “American” Godzilla in 1998, which, if not for Jar Jar Binks, might surpass Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in movie awfulness, I was understandably skeptical of this latest installment.

Godzilla has always held a special place in my heart, and brings back a lot of childhood memories of racing home to watch Monster Week when The 4:30 Movie would have that special week of sci-fi bliss. They also had Planet of the Apes Week, but I wouldn’t appreciate that classic until I was older. Apes were boring as hell, but giant atomic fire-breathing lizards were awesome. Whenever I get the bug to go back and watch one of these movies featuring Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidrah and all the rest I am reminded of just how cheesy almost all of them were. But I haven’t forgotten the boy who saw none of the cheese, either, or the things those producers accomplished without the benefit of today’s CGI tech. They are nice jaunts down memory lane, but also everything that I don’t want to see in a modern rendition that doesn’t intentionally aim for the cheese or target kids.

The original Godzilla, or Gojira, was made in 1954 in glorious black and white and remains a classic. With its muted color and adult theme I don’t recall it ever gracing Monster Week, which was filled with kid pleasing robots, monsters, UFOs, alien roaches disguised as people, and more. The first Godzilla, made less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a strong metaphor embodying the fears of a world now filled with the threat of nuclear annihilation. In the end Godzilla is stopped by the scientist Serizawa, who destroys both the atomic beast and himself while taking the secret to his own destructive device, the Oxygen Destroyer, to the grave with them. The original may have been surpassed by electronic gadgetry and other movie magic, but the story has not. When the film was brought to America, it was promptly sliced up and rearranged with new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin and a few others to help it transition better to an American audience. The attempt was creative, but ultimately takes away from the impact of the original film given the chance to compare.

From there Godzilla would evolve from a lumbering menace born of humanity’s hubris to favored anti-hero and (if benign) champion/defender of earth before going into hibernation in 1975. Nearly a decade later he would reappear in The Return of Godzila to seek out nuclear sustenance (hey, a ten year sleep leaves you a little hungry). The 1984 Godzilla was pumped up in size to compensate for a cityscape now filled with towering skyscrapers. After being knocked out and revived by the skittish Russians launching a nuclear missile, Godzilla is finally led to a volcano by tapping into his evolutionary background with some bird calls. A few explosive blasts to create a controlled eruption sends the giant to a hot bath. Again, the film was sent to America where it would be sliced and hacked. Godzilla wasn’t the only thing that grew in size, as a very rotund Raymond Burr would reprise his role as Steve Martin.

And this would launch into the next series of Godzilla films with a reboot thrown into the mix, as well as reviving such famous adversaries as King Ghidrah. Lots of higher tech movie fluff, but still lots of cheese. Then throw in the American, non-atomic fire fish-breath Godzilla of 1998. Which brings us to now.

The Godzilla of 2014 is the biggest Godzilla yet, and the film does the proper job of not showing too much of him too soon. The film follows the Brody family, which serves as the primary vehicle to transition the audience from scene to scene. Their story is unoriginal and cliché. But we aren’t really here for them. The first full reveal of the new Godzilla, along with the halo jump later in the movie and the first time Godzilla unleashes his atomic breath, are some of the best cinematic shots. This bull-doggish faced CGI Godzilla expresses a better range of creature emotion, from pissed off to exhausted. He is oblivious to the ants (people) swarming around him, and the unleashing of the atomic breath down the MUTO’s throat (MUTO = Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object) at the end before ripping its head off truly establishes Godzilla’s title of “King of the Monsters.” This is the kind of geekdom that makes my inner child roar “hell yeah!”

What the movie lacks is that its titular character, recreated with no acknowledgement of previous appearances, is not the focus of the story. The focus revolves mostly around the MUTOs, giant, radioactive insectoid monsters that go around sucking up radiation and preparing to reproduce until Godzilla comes to save the day. In short, the movie feels like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. The limited history given on how the atom bomb tests were really attempts to destroy the big G leading up to today seems like something worth exploring–“we tried to destroy it, and now look here, it comes to save us.” The movie tips the hat by having Ken Watanabe play a scientist named Serizawa, but instead of having created a WMD of devastation equal to the original Oxygen Destroyer, his job seems to mostly be standing around gawking. But perhaps I pass judgment too soon. With its success, I understand another movie is already in the works.


Waiter, there’s a cross in my horror.

I’m a person of skeptical bent, which means I remain dubious of most any and all faith claims as fact. But my mind postulates that without religion and myth, two of the things I enjoy most in life, namely supernatural horror and fantasy, would not exist. What creature of the night or flighty god of fancy does not owe something to a mythological predecessor?

Perhaps that explains my continuing fascination with theology and mythology, which to me are much one and the same. Asked to concisely define mythology, Joseph Campbell answered, “Mythology is what we call someone else’s religion.” Mythology today has come to be equated to “a fiction,” whereas I prefer to think of it as Campbell put it, “symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time.” Myth is storytelling with meaning. It can carry truth, and it carries on today.

In the past,  as often as not, supernatural horror did not come without the inverse supernatural good. There was kind of a karmic balance. That’s changing somewhat in this modern era, and can particularly be seen with vampires. Anne Rice writes about vampires that can be fond of crosses, taking away the Church as antagonist and leaving the vamps to a carnal, dark underworld of their own making. In fact, being a vampire these days seems more of a sleek, sexy lifestyle with a couple of social glitches and hang-ups than being a curse. An American Werewolf in London (best werewolf movie EH-ver) dispensed with the notion of silver bullets. What seems to be happening is that the mythology surrounding the core ideal is stripped away, leaving just the creature. Sometimes that mythology is reimagined and replaced with a more modern interpretation, which can be a lot of fun. Or it can result in plain, unadulterated Evil, like sparkly vampires. Regardless, that is the nature of myth for each new age. It is never static. The novel I am currently working on carries many theological and religious overtones, drawn from a variety of  sources. These are our metaphors for relating to the universe.

I doubt supernatural horror will ever be completely free of religion, any more than man will. Like horror and fantasy, religious myths adapt and move with us too, and give birth to new ones. There is a natural progression. Scientology comes to mind as a recent example.  In many respects, belief in alien life is only the transference of belief in gods to belief in gods with space suits. Religion, in one form or another, will continue adding flavor to our cups of horror for many moons to come. We are hard-wired for it.

For my part, not all religions are built equally, though, and some make for more entertaining storytelling than others. The aforementioned Scientology is prebuilt for sci-fi. Given its creator wrote science fiction, perhaps that is not really surprising. It gives me pause that its faithful don’t quirk an eyebrow at this. But then again it makes sense–our myths come from our storytellers. Modern storytellers tend to be entertainers; L. Ron Hubbard went the extra mile to establish a new religion. The Mormons took us to space with Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars carried a quasi-Eastern religious feeling with the Force, until Lucas went and screwed that all up with “midi-chlorians.”   And the Roman Catholic Church gave us rich tradition and the cross which was the bane of evil for hundreds of storytelling years and remains so today. Catholicism is the standard foil for many a horror flick. It’s filled with awesome pageantry and ritual, making for great storytelling and visuals. It’s played such a huge role in history, both positive and negative, its influence on myth and faith is found across the globe. Modern day Protestantism, in comparison, is just damn boring. They don’t do flashy.

It’s also trendy to cast the man of god into the dark role, which may be somewhat a product of our age, but something the Church has lent itself to both historically and in current affairs. After all, when your local preacher gets busted for porn or theft, they’re guaranteed to make headlines. You can’t preach a higher standard and not expect to be excoriated for it when you yourself fail. Stephen King’s werewolf in Silver Bullet was the town preacher and the Da Vinci Code stirred the Catholic conspiracy pudding to such a degree some people thought it was real. But it’s good, even refreshing, to have an unspoilt (even if troubled) man of the cloth now and again. Father Karras and Father Merrin from the Exorcist come to mind. I liked those characters. I may not be a person of by-the-book faith, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t positive metaphors there to be used, one that most often involves sacrifice or atonement.

I’ve really enjoyed seeing fantasy and horror reestablish themselves in today’s culture. When it comes to fantasy, I credit a lot of that to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films. Being a fantasy and horror lover is no longer equivalent to being a social pariah, as a rash of new book series and movies will attest. It has begun to enter television media now, with HBO launching Game of Thrones last year (a personal fan favorite for me), and networks airing Once Upon a Time and Grimm. And forget Disney, these are shows with something of a darker bent–as is right and proper.

No matter how they are used, these are powerful themes and archetypes used to build the fantastic metaphoric tapestries that spring from our imagination and express the depths of the human mind, and I welcome them.