In between all of the indie films and world premieres, SXSW 2014 played host to a very special repertory screening: the original 1954 Godzilla, projected in 35 mm.
Sixty years after it first stomped into theaters, Godzilla is still a triumph of filmmaking. A dour and occasionally terrifying experience, it's a horror movie, a film that only could have been made by a nation that was just a decade removed from a tremendous trauma. Godzilla isn't just a monster movie -- it's an examination of Japan's greatest fears, an examination of the scars left behind by nuclear fallout.
But everyone wasn't just there to see the first (and best) Godzilla film projected in 35 mm. They were there to see the exclusive debut of a scene from the upcoming remake/reboot, and director Gareth Edwards was there to answer some questions.
First, Edwards took the stage to introduce the footage and he made it clear that this was a huge deal to him. Four years ago, his tiny independent movie Monsters played the fest and now he was back to present a scene from a massive blockbuster based on an iconic character. You couldn't make up a better narrative.
(SPOILERS start here. If you want to go into Godzilla completely fresh, this is where you can avert your eyes.)
The footage begins in Hawaii, where we see star Aaron Taylor-Johnson riding an elevated train. The power goes out, the train comes to a halt and he assures the young child sitting next to him that everything is going to be fine.
But things are not fine on a nearby beach, where the tide is mysteriously receding at an alarming rate. The crowd looks on in confusion… and then terror, as the water rushes back at the beach in a massive tsunami. It's a classic Godzilla moment as the crowd flees and screams while water overtakes the beach and instantly floods the city, with only a few pedestrians managing to take refuge in nearby buildings.
In the ocean, the crew of a military vessel (including Ken Watanabe) watch in horror as the massive wave (and the giant, familiar spikes creating it) passes under their boat.
Other civilians watch the chaos from the rooftops. Red flares are shot into the air, illuminating something impossibly big emerging from the water and stomping into the streets. Nearby military machine gunners open fire. The crowd ducks. It's pandemonium.
And then we're back to the train. The power kicks back on and the train resumes, only for another monster -- a giant praying mantis-type thing -- to emerge and tear apart the track. More chaos ensues as the train derails, giving Taylor-Johnson a heroic moment where he rescues the kid from the opening moments. This new monster continues its rampage to the nearby airport and hundreds of tourists watch from the terminal as every airplane on the tarmac erupts into fireballs.
Giant feet enter the frame. A challenger has entered. The camera pans up and we're face to face with Godzilla, king of the monsters… and he's about to throw down with this intruder on his turf.
(Spoilers end here.)
A written description really can't do the footage justice. Edwards' take on Godzilla doesn't just look expensive and slick, it looks big. There's a sense of scale at work here that is truly something to behold, and unlike so many other CGI creations which never transcend being a bunch of pixels, the glimpses we catch of the title monster are filled with genuine awe and terror. Edwards' Godzilla is taking its cues from the original film and emphasizing horror over adventure. If the footage is indicative of the rest of the movie, this is going to be a terrifying and intense film.
When Edwards took the stage again, he was asked why Godzilla still resonates with audiences. "Thousands and thousands of millions of years, we've lived with nature…and it's deep in our DNA that a [predatory] animal is going to come today or tomorrow," Edwards said. "We've built these massive cities and we've pushed nature out. But it's still very strong in us. The animal is still going to come and he's still going to ruin everything that we've built. Our nightmares have gone from little huts to 30-story buildings."
As for recapturing the original Godzilla design for the new movie, Edwards said that the goal was to design a "real" animal that, if seen briefly, could be be basis for the original '54 version. The iconic roar was trickier to capture, but his sound designer eventually nailed it. However, Edwards has no idea what he used to make it: "He says he'll tell me when the film is over. [He says] if I know, I 'll always be hearing that sound!" He joked that he gets asked to do the roar all the time, so he asked the audience to join him in trying to pull it off. It's not bad, but as Edwards admits "It's the end bit that's the hard bit."
On the serious horror tone of his film, Edwards said it's just a callback to the original film. "It takes itself very seriously," he said. "I challenge anyone to point to any film, let alone a monster movie, where a doctor goes up to a toddler with a geiger counter and gets a radiation reading and goes 'Kid's going to die.' How brave is that filmmaking?" Edwards sees his film as a return to those dark roots and tell a story of how man's abuse of nature leads to his downfall. "We've abused our position on the planet," he said. "We consider ourselves the alpha predator and everything revolves around us. What if we weren't the top dog and something came to put us in our place? If you try to pick a fight with nature, you will lose every single time."
When asked how he approached Godzilla, Edwards cracked "I never approach Godzilla. I always call his agent first. He's really touchy in the morning." However he said that his Godzilla is neither good or evil -- he's just nature. "That's a question you have to ask. Is he a good guy or a bad guy?" Edwards said. "Is a hurricane [good or evil]? It's not evil, it's just pure nature. We tried to treat Godzilla like he was indifferent to humanity. He's an animal. He represents a force of nature."
In the time he's spent making the movie, Edwards has encountered fans in every walk of the industry. "I've spent two years meeting people about the film and when everyone walks away, they lean over and say "I love Godzilla, don't f**k it up," he said. "This is a once in a million lifetimes opportunity to direct a film like this. I was saying to myself don't f**k it up!"
"I grew up with Spielberg movies that hit this holy grail sweet spot of cinema," Edwards said, "which is spectacle and epic imagery, but with emotion and you caring about the characters. Of course you're going to have the crazy visuals, but I wanted there to be weight to it. It's not just some throwaway popcorn movie." Ultimately, he wanted to make a movie that he, as a Godzilla fan, could geek out over: "You've got to make a film for yourself. You've got to make a film that you want to sit and watch."
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