Directed with a Spielbergian flair and geeky reverence, this is the Godzilla film we have long deserved.
The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control…and not the other way around.
Following the festering pile of kaiju dung that was 1998’s Godzilla, the franchise had lain dormant at the bottom of Hollywood’s idea pile, slowly regaining its radioactive power until it was once again time to emerge. Schlock auteur Roland Emmerich’s version was such a disaster that it temporarily killed the “monster movie” genre (Peter Jackson’s King Kong pitch was summarily shelved, leading him to refocus on Lord of the Rings, so perhaps it wasn’t all bad), and the Japanese creators over at Toho later got their revenge by rechristening Godzilla In Name Only as “Zilla,” and having the real thing dispatch him in his most recent appearance.
But 16 years after America’s last attempt at the Big Green Guy, he’s in the hands of a young director named Gareth Edwards, who to this point had only been known for a low-budget indie called Monsters, a moderately-received alien invasion flick. But whatever Legendary Pictures saw in Edwards, it’s paid off: the new Godzilla is a genre classic and gets the title character exactly right, even if the humans can never hope to be as interesting.
At a Japanese nuclear power station, something goes terribly wrong, and the Brody family is ripped apart. The grieving widower, Joe (Bryan Cranston, channeling Heisenbergian rage while sporting a ridiculous hairpiece), is obsessed with finding out exactly what happened, and why it has been covered up. 15 years later, his data shows that whatever kind of “seismic event” it was is about to happen again, but no one takes him seriously — not even his soldier son, Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) — except for Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who knows the truth: a giant creature, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (or “MUTO”) is breaking free to the surface, and not even the full might of the American military will be enough to bring it down.
Godzilla is an exercise in delayed gratification, as the King of the Monsters himself doesn’t even appear until the film’s halfway point, and Edwards holds off on most of the big “money shots” until the final sequence. The second half, after an hour of human drama and exposition, feels like an entirely different film, as it moves to focus tightly on Ford running from/helping to fight creatures on his journey home to San Francisco, where his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son wait for him. But the slow buildup makes the big moments — like when Godzilla is finally unfurled in all his glory — that much more thrilling.
We’re in a very fan service-y age, where you have to have a massive action sequence every fifteen minutes, and never risk teasing your audience to this degree — multiple times we’re led to believe a show-stopping moment is coming, then the film cuts away to something else. But in taking this approach, it’s obvious that Edwards has studied the masters of the genre, primarily Steven Spielberg, whose Jurassic Park is all over this thing: from the opening shots of a familiar blue helicopter against a familiar jungle, to a half dozen little nods and references sprinkled throughout (“Turn the light off!” you’ll want to yell at the screen at one point). It especially nails JP‘s pacing — as you’ll recall, the T-Rex was kept off the screen for a full hour, too — and the “less is more” ethos of Jaws.
It’s enough to make a more impatient viewer ask “Now, eventually you will have Godzilla in your Godzilla film, right?” — but trust me, it’s worth it. Because boy howdy, once all the characters get together for the film’s climax, and the great “alpha predator” shows up to do what he does best, it’s exhilarating. (Though, to one perhaps less enthused by the material, the actions beats themselves might start to feel a little repetitive.) It’s bigger than King Kong vs. The Rexes. Bigger than anything in Pacific Rim. Godzilla is more enormous than he’s ever been before, and moving a lot more slowly — in 2014, very much in the grumpy “I’m too old for this s–t” stage — but no less effective. The effects work and sound design are extraordinary; you can feel the full weight of these creatures, and Edwards primarily keeps the camera at a human level, putting us directly in the path of destruction (though thankfully without the shaky-cam of Cloverfield).
But as perfectly as Max Borenstein’s script (from a story by Dave Callaham) nails the mythological aspects — MUTO behavior, man’s hubris, even working in a retrofitted Bikini Atoll history — and of course Godzilla himself, it’s the human characters that we have to spend the most time with…and they’re a bit lacking. No one here is as interesting as Ian Malcolm, or even Alan Grant, and everyone plays their roles extremely seriously — I don’t believe a single person ever cracks a joke; only the monsters seem to be having any fun. Aaron-Taylor Johnson, our hero, is underwritten despite having the most scenes: we’re told about his history and expertise with the Army’s bomb disposal unit as if that’s going to be really important, but it never is. He even gets a small subplot where he rescues a kid on a train, as if someone was already worried that there wasn’t enough to make the audience care about him. The film seems to be working extra hard to keep him at the center, placing him in different perilous situations without bothering to actually make something of his character.
It doesn’t help that Johnson comes off as terribly bland; Olsen doesn’t have much to do except worry, though she’s quite good at that; Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) is thankfully less of an obstacle than what’s typical for these things, but we still know nothing about him. The best character is Seriwaza, the true believer in what is good and just about Gojira, but that’s half because of the natural magnetism of Ken Watenabe, and half because his geeky excitement makes him a better stand-in for this audience than the young soldier. But he’s arguably the film’s second lead, and makes every moment he has on screen count, even if I would have liked them to flesh out the personal history they only hint at here. The highlight of the human side of the story is the HALO jump (seen in the trailers) into the smoking ruin of the city, a heart-stopping sequence shot with a lyrical, almost dreamlike quality — yet that’s obviously a visual success, not a writing one.
Despite the screenplay’s pitfalls, it’s the direction of Gareth Edwards that elevates the material to the level of pop art. As the taiko drum-infused score by Alexandre Desplat thunders in the background, there are a number of truly clever scenes (again, Spielbergian touches): long tracking shots, the use of reflections and lens flares, and the obligatory moments where the camera pushes in on actor as they look on in wonder. But it never comes off as derivative — it’s Godzilla as it should be done. As it should have always been done. Between Edwards’s work here, and the Russo brothers on Captain America: Winter Soldier, and whatever Colin Trevorrow has up his sleeve for Jurassic World, more and more “untested” indie directors are being suddenly handed the keys to enormous franchises — and so far, they’re delivering.
But it’s more than just great fight scenes and creature design; it’s the success in taking a very old character and making him feel new again, without diminishing his majesty or losing the spirit of those original “man in suit” productions. Godzilla carries heavy symbolic weight for the entire Japanese culture, and until now, Hollywood has never really understood that. It’s never wanton destruction for its own sake — there are stakes, but it’s not a bleak film, and not even a gruesome one — humans may be smaller than ants to the mighty forces tussling for dominance above, but they are worth the efforts to protect them. Godzilla doesn’t need our thanks, but he demands our respect. Putting the “God” back in “Godzilla,” you might say.