Godzilla is one of the movies' most famous monsters, but his filmography is spotty. He debuted strong, with the shell-shocked 1954 Japanese film Gojira, but since then he's had to battle goofy adversaries (Mothra, Gigan, Mechagodzilla) in countless campy Japanese sequels and get shot to pieces on the Brooklyn Bridge in Roland Emmerich's 1998 American version, a big-budget disappointment. So eyebrows shot up when Legendary and Warner Bros. Pictures – the studios behind the retooling of the Batman series with director Christopher Nolan – decided to resurrect the franchise and hand the reins (and the estimated $160 million budget) to Gareth Edwards, who had previously directed just one feature, the sharp indie sci-fi flick Monsters. "If you want to do something that isn't the paint-by-numbers version, you have to take that risk," says Legendary CEO Thomas Tull.
Edwards' goal was a film that dared to take Godzilla seriously. "Godzilla is ultimately a disaster film," he says. "If there really was a monster, the repercussions would be like a hurricane or a tsunami." Edwards' terrifyingly realistic version – a primal, scaly, 355-foot-tall reptile – was created digitally. But the director let his CGI monster bust up real-world stuff, with actual cars, buildings and helicopters getting destroyed on set. As Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who stars in the film alongside Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen) explains, this wasn't a film where "we're in the fucking studio for six months with green screens. We'd just smash the shit out of everything. The only thing missing would be Godzilla, but everybody knows if you saw Godzilla, you'd shit yourself, so as an actor, you just reacted that way."
Edwards also tried to go easy on the digital effects. "I grew up in the era of Spielberg and James Cameron, their early stuff, before digital effects came along," he says. "I actually did the math on Jaws, and it's an hour before you see the actual shark. I wanted to hark back to that kind of filmmaking."
Most important, the spectacle needed to mean something. "The original version was one big metaphor for Hiroshima," he says. In Edwards' version, Godzilla becomes the embodiment of Mother Nature's wrath at mankind's arrogance. "The best horror always begins with guilt," says the director. "As cool as it is to see giant monsters smashing things, it's always stronger if it feels like we sort of deserve it."
This story is from the May 22nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.