When there’s a new remake out in theaters, the most obvious instruction I can have for you is to watch the original. Unless it’s a remake of something bad, I guess, but even then I think it’s necessary to go back and see the previous effort, for historical sake. With Godzilla, there are tons of predecessors. There’s another list to be written — and I think a few sites already have done so — recommending which past movies starring the King of the Monsters are worth seeing. I’ve actually only seen the first one from 1954, so I couldn’t be the authority on that anyway. As far as I know, there might even be something worthwhile in the 1998 remake that everyone hates. I never saw it (though I did see a bit being filmed when I lived near one of the locations) so I can’t argue for or against it.
Instead, this week’s recommendations consist of other movies that clearly influenced the newest version (and some, the original), as well as some necessary earlier films of talent involved in the remake, plus a few titles that I was reminded of while watching that I think are relevant. And to make it easy on you, to ensure that you catch up with all of these titles I’ve chosen, I note the easiest way for you to check out these films right now, thanks to the website Can I Stream.it?.
As always, this list contains spoilers for the movie in focus, so only read further if you’ve seen the new Godzilla or you don’t care.
Before he was called up to the big leagues, Gareth Edwards made a name for himself with this low-budget monster movie that similarly puts a human story in the foreground as the characters navigate a space invaded by giant creatures. Those creatures are more central to the plot in his Hollywood debut. Here they are more of a neat foundation on which sits a romantic road movie reminiscent of It Happened One Night. Yeah, the U.S./Mexico border wall lends an obvious, too on-the-nose subtext, but then so did the direct references to nuclear weapons in the original Godzilla. In addition to watching Edwards’s previous feature, you should check out the five-minute sci-fi short he did before it, Factory Farmed. Watch that here.
Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Jurassic Park (1993)
I’m lumping a trio of Steven Spielberg movies together because they all fit the observation that Edwards is very inspired by that filmmaker’s work overall. But these three are each related to Godzilla in different ways, too. For Jaws, it’s the main family of characters, whose last name is Brody (the main lead, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, has the first name of Ford, as in Harrison, star of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films; and Elizabeth Olsen is named Elle, which could be like Ellen Brody or maybe even Elliot from E.T.). Also, anyone annoyed by there not being enough Godzilla in Godzilla should be reminded that we didn’t see much of the shark in Jaws until the third act.
As for CE3K, the opening of Godzilla is totally lifted from the opening of Spielberg’s UFO drama. Also, when Bryan Cranston removes his gas mask it’s like a parallel scene for Richard Dreyfuss in that film. Jurassic Park is mainly included because Godzilla is sort of a dinosaur, but the scene where the first MUTO breaks loose is also akin to the first velociraptor attack at the containment unit at the beginning of that movie (and maybe of when the T-rex first gets loose?).
Meanwhile, the scientist characters played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins loosely parallel Sam Neill and Laura Dern in JP, as much as Taylor-Johnson is a loose (and bad) amalgam of Chief Brody in Jaws, Dreyfuss’s character in CE3K and Tom Cruise‘s character in War of the Worlds.
Edwards might idolize Spielberg, but he’s a bit closer to being the new M. Night Shyamalan — who at one time was thought of as the next Spielberg. Like Shyamalan he’s a lot better in a visual sense than he is with the script and in working with actors. Signs has some really terrific moments, particularly a very suspenseful scene in the basement and that jump-scare bit when we first see the alien on TV. But the movie has been too unfairly forgotten for its good parts due to its cheesy climax and some occasionally silly acting from Mel Gibson. Hopefully Godzilla is remembered more for its visuals — which also limits a lot of our early views of the monsters to TV appearances — than its weak script and acting elements.
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Long before Hollywood remade Godzilla, the 1954 Toho film was basically a rehash of America’s own original monster movie, also featuring a giant dinosaur type creature that was also awakened by nuclear weapon testing. I also think Edwards is paying homage to this and others that used the same kind of rear-projection effects (here by Ray Harryhausen). In a number of scenes, Edwards frames the creatures in his Godzilla movie so it looks like there’s a layered break between them and human characters in the foreground, many of whom are off to the side. I kept thinking of this behind-the-scenes image.
Lucky Dragon No. 5 (1959)
In addition to being influenced by the monster movie above, the original Godzilla was partly inspired by the real tragedy of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a Japanese fishing boat exposed to radiation and fallout from the U.S. detonation of hydrogen bombs at Bikini Atoll. Those are the nuclear tests alluded to in the new Godzilla as being a secret mission to kill the monster. In the first movie, Godzilla attacks a fishing boat meant to be a reference to the Lucky Dragon No. 5, as the vessel’s name translates into English. Five years later, Kaneto Shindo directed a movie depicting the true story, centering the drama on the ship’s radioman who died of radiation sickness within months of the incident.
Unavailable, but hopefully Cinefamily will screen it again soon.
Pandora’s Promise (2013)
For two relevant documentary recommendations, I direct you to this week’s Doc Option at Nonfics, in which Dan Schindel, who isn’t a fan of the new Godzilla, says to watch 1982’s The Atomic Cafe and 1988’s Radio Bikini, both about nuclear weapons. The latter is an Oscar nominee directed by Robert Stone, who also made this recent film about nuclear energy. It’s particularly notable because Stone has turned around to become pro-nuke since the ’80s, more for power than bombs — as have some of the people he interviews. He was in production with the feature when the Fukushima disaster happened and so he even goes out to Japan in order to see how bad it actually was. While recognizing that nuclear energy can be dangerous, part of the point of Pandora’s Promise is to note that it’s still safer overall than most of the alternatives. Like Stone, the new Godzilla seems to have a reversed stance on nukes than its predecessor. Yet it’s almost as though Edwards’s movie is more pro nuclear weapons than nuclear power, as the latter is the source of human casualties while the former is helpful in eliminating monsters.
The Rock (1996)
Michael Bay‘s best movie is one that I thought about at least twice during Godzilla. First, there’s the whole idea that our hero (Taylor-Johnson) is on a mission to save San Francisco, where his wife and child are. In The Rock the hero (Nicolas Cage) is on a mission to save San Francisco, where his fiancee and (unborn) child are. Then there’s the whole sequence that has no real necessity to the plot — in Godzilla it’s the transport of the nuke via train, which is unsuccessful and puts us the characters back to where they were before the sequence began, and in The Rock it’s the Ferrari/Hummer chase, at the end of which the characters are also back to where they were before the sequence began. On top of all that, isn’t Godzilla just like General Hummel? They both mean well and are ultimately monsters we can sympathize with.
Watanabe was in another remake recently, one based on a movie by his Letters from Iwo Jima director, Clint Eastwood. The new one is directed by Lee Sang-il and, like most Japanese remakes of Westerns, it’s about a samurai rather than a cowboy. I haven’t seen it, so when I include it on this list I’m recommending it to myself, as well. I just want to give it attention in the hope that it might eventually get a U.S. release. After seeing his weak character in Godzilla, we deserve to see him in what appears to be a great role and performance.
Unavailable in the U.S. with no known distributor yet.
Taylor-Johnson may be a bore in Godzilla, but he’s not always so terrible. I like him in the Kick-Ass movies, for instance, and he’s not awful as John Lennon in the mostly weak Nowhere Boy. Outside of his anachronistic appearance as young Charlie Chaplin in Shanghai Knights when he was a little kid, his best movie is Oliver Stone‘s Savages, a movie that many trashed when it came out. Whether you’ve already seen it or thought best not to, I recommend giving it another chance. It’s not a movie to be taken seriously and its fake-out ending serves a very good point about audience expectations regarding violence. That’s a point that could be relevant to complaints about Godzilla, as well. Savages is much more clever than it’s been given credit for, especially regarding point of view. And that cleverness also includes the dialogue. “Wargasms” is a pretty brilliant term when you think about it.
Swordswallowers and Thin Men (2003)
Godzilla screenwriter Max Borenstein (who won an internship with Oliver Stone until the director’s office realized the prospective assistant was only 13) wrote and directed this movie, really a student film made while he was still at Yale (an English major, not Film), starring fellow then-Yalies like Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks) and Fran Kranz (The Cabin in the Woods). And it’s about college students on the verge of graduating and heading out into the world. Visually it’s almost the opposite of Godzilla, as the good of Swordswallowers is in the writing. Yet Borenstein is also still better with his actors, so maybe he and Edwards should have teamed up at the helm of the new monster movie.
Stream it in parts on Youtube, beginning with part one here: