LOS ANGELES — Inside an editing bay on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, Gareth Edwards listened carefully to the sounds of war spool out from a cluster of speakers. The young director kept his eyes locked on a high-definition screen as crimson flares illuminated the night sky over Oahu, watching as explosive blasts demolished stands of trees and helicopters in mid-flight violently plummeted to Earth, threatening a battalion of soldiers tearing through the Hawaiian jungle.
“I’m always trying to get a bit of ‘Apocalypse Now’ into anything I do,” said Edwards back in January, when the soft-spoken Brit was still in the throes of completing his Hollywood debut.
But it wasn’t a conventional war movie Edwards was crafting; rather, it was another new take on “Godzilla.”
Due in theaters Friday, Edwards’ “Godzilla” reboot might not necessarily inspire comparisons to Francis Ford Coppola’s meditative epic, but there’s no question the would-be blockbuster has apocalyptic concerns in mind. The $160-million film, which stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Bryan Cranston, draws inspiration from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 classic, presenting a sober, dramatic take on the King of All Monsters.
Amid the creature feature trappings, Edwards presents a cautionary tale about environmental collapse and the dangers of nuclear energy.
An early flashback to a reactor meltdown in Japan recalls the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster that devastated the east coast of Japan — which the director admits could surprise audiences expecting pure summer movie bombast.
“Our film doesn’t preach,” said Edwards, 38. “But we tried to respectfully show that we opened a Pandora’s box when we started doing all this stuff. Obviously our monsters are metaphors, and they’re never going to really appear, but (the film points out that) we should be very careful in terms of this amazing power of nature that we’re trying to control. The reality is, we can’t always contain it.”
Written by Max Borenstein with a story by Dave Callaham, “Godzilla” pits its 355-feet-tall title character against a new monster, the M.U.T.O., which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. Cranston’s scientist, Joe Brody, and his son, Ford, played as an adult by Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass,” “Nowhere Boy,” “Anna Karenina”), accidentally learn about the M.U.T.O. after Joe leads them into a quarantined area of Japan and plunges them into danger.
Soon, Ford, an explosive-ordnance disposal expert just back from a tour of duty in the Middle East, must put his naval skills to use to make it back to San Francisco and his wife, Elle (Olsen), and their young son as giant monsters rain down destruction across the globe.
The ensemble cast also includes Juliette Binoche, David Straithairn and Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as researchers with a personal connection to the marauding M.U.T.O.
“Godzilla” arrives as Edwards’ second film; his first, 2010’s “Monsters,” he wrote and directed himself and paid for partly with his own savings. But he aspired to give the big-budget movie the same poignancy as the crowd-pleasing sci-fi cinema that initially inspired him, the late 1970s and early 1980s films directed by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.
“When you look at a film, there’s certain key emotions you’re going to provoke and feelings you’re going to try to create for the audience,” Edwards said in a separate interview at the end of April. “I’m always looking for where’s the bit where they might tear up — even if it’s not tearing up in a sad way, just that you’re so much in awe of what you’re looking at that you get goose bumps and you start to well up. ’ Close Encounters (of the Third Kind’) does that for me.”
When Godzilla rose out of the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the creature struck a deep, emotional chord with a ravaged nation decimated by the atomic blasts that ended World War II. The film, which saw the radioactive dinosaur-like beast emerge from the ocean to demolish Tokyo, astutely used genre to address the horrors of war and connected with a traumatized, wounded people.
The most expensive movie Japan had then made, “Godzilla” elevated the profile of production company Toho to international acclaim — though on the occasion of its U.S. release in 1956, the film famously was dubbed into English and new scenes with actor Raymond Burr were added to help “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” appeal to American audiences.
In all, Godzilla — or Gojira, as he was originally known — has starred in 28 live-action feature films, many of them gleeful B-movies that pitted the giant lizard against some equally enormous foe (usually actors wearing rubber costumes) with such titles as “Son of Godzilla,” “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster,” “Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” and “Mothra vs. Godzilla.”
Although he’s remained a fixture in video games, comic books and other avenues of popular culture, Godzilla has had a mixed track record at the box office of late.
Roland Emmerich failed to launch a new “Godzilla” franchise for the CGI era with his critically drubbed 1998 film — though that movie, which brought the monster to Manhattan, did earn $379 million at the worldwide box office.
The character most recently anchored “Godzilla 2000,” directed by Takao Okawara, in which he saved Tokyo from an evil kaiju that arrives in a UFO.
As a boy growing up in Warwickshire in the center of England, Edwards was familiar with the sillier incarnations, specifically the children’s television cartoon starring the roaring lizard. Even so, Legendary Entertainment Chairman and CEO Thomas Tull, whose company financed “Godzilla” with distributor Warner Bros. and who served as a producer on the reboot, said he was sufficiently impressed by Edwards’ facility with storytelling and his personal demeanor to hand him the reins to a possible franchise, despite his limited experience.
“There’s no real time table for talent,” said Tull, whose company helped bring Christopher Nolan’s Batman films to the screen. “We’re much more in the camp of looking for some of these great directors that have aptitude and bring that fresh voice to something like this. We wanted to find a director that would bring more intimacy to the film than just making a big popcorn movie that had our favorite giant monster and a bunch of destruction, but not much else.”
“Godzilla” was shot over about 80 days last year, with the production headquarters in Vancouver, but it also visited Oahu, Las Vegas, San Diego and Tokyo. Edwards said he favored practical locations whenever possible, though the film does feature at least 1,000 visual effects shots, mostly involving the monsters, which were completed by London’s Double Negative and Canada’s Motion Picture Co.
Tull said during the time he spent on set that he was “struck by the command and control” Edwards exhibited, a sentiment shared by Watanabe, the respected performer who was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in “The Last Samurai.”
“Gareth looks and acts like an ordinary person, but there is nothing ordinary about his talent,” Watanabe wrote in an email. “He has a very clear vision of what he wants to accomplish…. He is a director that I put my complete trust in. On set, Gareth always spoke gently, and I never saw him raise his voice, no matter how difficult things got.”
Edwards has a scruffy, boyish aspect and self-deprecating British wit, but Tull points out that beneath his humility are a “very steady confidence, and a point of view.” His interest in filmmaking dates to his childhood, when he was inspired to draw storyboards and borrow an 8mm camera belonging to a friend’s father.
His desire to direct led him to pursue a career in London working in visual effects. He quit in 2008 to travel to Mexico to shoot “Monsters,” a low-budget two-hander starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able as strangers who journey across part of Mexico years after an alien invasion.
“It was a real gamble because I ended up getting into debt to make a film,” he said. “There was definitely a point where I thought, ‘You’re such an idiot.’… Suddenly something happens, and it turns round, thank God. I think if I had played out my life lots of different ways in parallel universes, the one I’m in right now is the one where I got lucky.”
Edwards said the difference between making a $500,000 film and a $160-million film isn’t as great as one might presume.
“If you were to list the pros and the cons of having a little amount of money and list the pros and the cons of having a lot of money, you basically just swap them over,” he said. “When you sit in the cinema and you’re an audience member, you don’t care how it’s made, you don’t care how much money they did or didn’t have. All that matters is that you have this experience that transports you.”
Anticipation for the new “Godzilla” has been building since 2012, when Edwards premiered a teaser at San Diego’s Comic-Con International expo, and early industry estimates suggest the movie is on pace for a strong opening (though some Japanese fans have grumbled that the redesigned creature is too portly and should have a trimmer build).
Tull, however, declined to say whether the movie is designed to kick off a series of films — his company last year released a different sort of monster epic with Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” which brought in $411 million at the worldwide box office but has yet to spawn a sequel.
Nor is Edwards willing to commit publicly to return for another round should “Godzilla” star in future big-screen adventures. Right now he is looking forward to a future directing bigger, better blockbusters, but first, he’d like a break.
“Filmmaking sometimes seems like punishment, but then the movie turns up at the end, and you go, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the reward,’” he said. “I wish it was easier. I wish you could just plug a wire into your brain for two hours and press record. I think James Cameron’s working on that.”