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'Godzilla': A Brief History of the Original Gangsta Lizard

Thompson on Hollywood By Joe Leydon | Thompson on Hollywood May 15, 2014 at 11:00AM

Much like Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Miley Cyrus, Godzilla illustrates a time-honored showbiz dictum: The best way to sustain your superstardom is to repeatedly reinvent yourself.
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Godzilla

Much like Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Miley Cyrus, Godzilla illustrates a time-honored showbiz dictum: The best way to sustain your superstardom is to repeatedly reinvent yourself.

During six decades of Japanese-produced low-tech monster mashes and made-in-America CGI-stuffed spectacles, Big G has remained au courant through the miracle of image makeovers. From nuclear-age nightmare to doting single parent, from freelance global defender to butt-kicking tag-team wrestler, he has evolved and developed, evincing a versatility that might make Meryl Streep turn green -- or, perhaps more appropriately, charcoal gray -- with envy.

Godzilla

In "Godzilla," slated to open this weekend at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, The Original Gangsta Lizard has a bit less spring to his step, and a tad more spread to his waistline. But never mind: Even as he approaches eligibility for Social Security, Big G remains ever ready to rumble, and authoritatively defends his title as King of the Monsters in this terrifically exciting flick.

Of course, it helps that he has in his corner Gareth Edwards, a filmmaker who, suitably enough, first attracted attention with a 2010 movie titled "Monsters." Edwards' latest creature feature benefits greatly from the director’s ability to pull off a tricky balancing act: While ingeniously reimagining the legend, he also respectfully acknowledges the tradition. In short, he lets Godzilla be Godzilla.

'King Kong vs. Godzilla'
'King Kong vs. Godzilla'

The mythos began in 1954, when the Toho Company of Japan introduced Big G as "Gojira," a rudely reawakened dinosaur who developed toxic halitosis and an extremely bad attitude after exposure to H-bomb testing in the South Pacific. (The plot device of mutation through radiation was profoundly impactful on Japanese moviegoers less than a decade after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Growling and grouchy, the fire-breathing behemoth sauntered though Tokyo with a sumo-wrestler shamble while burning buildings, gobbling trains, stomping bit players, and generally making an epic nuisance of himself.

Two years later, legendary producer Joseph E. Levine and a group of associates renamed the movie and its eponymous star when they released "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," a redubbed and re-edited version of picture designed for English-speaking audiences. Some of the Toho-produced footage was trimmed to allow for new scenes featuring Raymond Burr as a gravely serious journalist – named, no kidding, Steve Martin -- who provided the creature-feature equivalent of play-by-play commentary. ("A prehistoric monster just walked out of Tokyo Bay!" Geez, ya think?)

But none of these alterations dulled the movie's surprising power as a cautionary Cold War fable about the threat of nuclear annihilation. Keep messing with the forces of nature, "Godzilla" warned, and this could happen to you.

Read the rest of the story here.

This article is related to: Godzilla, Godzilla: The Japanese Original, Features, Gareth Edwards


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.