For someone like me, Godzilla in its 60 year history is associated by two streams of thought; an allegory for Post World War II nuclear fears and a franchise of traditional and memorable kaiju fighting movies. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt to bring the King of the Monsters stateside did hurt those fond memories and for many who didn’t grow up in love with the Toho films a new film sixteen years later only echoes strong feelings towards the Matthew Broderick starring version.
Much of what has worked in the hype for the new Godzilla is a combination of name recognition (even the simplest of pop culture absorbers know the name) and a solid marketing campaign that has kept the beast’s appearances to a minimal. Compared to last summer’s Pacific Rim (a film I reviewed and have since had kinder feelings for over the past year) you know what kind of film a wide audience is getting into; a story of humanity wrestling with an unknown abomination acting as a metaphor to man versus nature. Okay, maybe that’s how I see it but Godzilla does in fact strike a balance between social commentary, mystery and overall cataclysmic destruction for the adrenaline junky in the audience.
Much must be said of director Gareth Edward’s work here because for a guy whose previous film (Monsters) was made on a shoe string of $250,000. He does a damn fine job of imagining this world for a cool but still risky $160 million and everything about the film’s composition feels confident. The thing that made his film Monsters work well was his ability to build an atmosphere of destruction within the confines of a love story. Here there is a very familiar tone but this time out the monsters are front and center especially the MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial objects) that stalk the pacific coast for the bulk of the film. The action as a whole is well-directed and all the biggest scenes feel a bit unnerving and claustrophobic. A key scene in the mountains involving one of the MUTOs and a military train carrying an atomic warhead is spooky and foreboding but Godzilla lurks not too far behind to impress when called upon and boy does he ever.
Despite maybe being in 45 percent of his own film he impresses upon appearance and from a CGI standpoint looks wonderful even if the Japanese audience has complained of his “hefty waist line.” The film has been marketed as a story about humanity so the king of the monsters was always going to sort of play second fiddle to his own film and he does. When he appears they make it count much like they do with the MUTOs and they do it in segments; a limb here and there, a shadow, a roar; it’s incredibly atmospheric. One key scene utilizes the inside of an airport terminal to display the carnage between Gojira and a MUTO and what works best is when new means of displaying the monster’s carnage are put in place. The initial fight at the Honolulu airport shows very little real time bloodshed but when it cuts to a news reel of them duking it out you can’t help but laugh at how it’s being displayed while still applauding the means of showing it off.
Edwards found a way to strike a proper balance between the commentary worthy nature of the original 1954 film and its many Toho Kaiju sequels. The first 30 minutes is nothing but building mystery even down to the opening credits that scroll across the screen and are redacted immediately as if the audience shouldn’t know what is going on beyond the background footage of nuclear testing. Much of the film’s initial build is relied upon by Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a nuclear scientist who lost his wife in a nuclear meltdown in Japan that he attributes to something bigger than an earthquake or a military accident. They play Brody up to his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor- Johnson) as being crazy and overwhelmed with emotion but they soon learn better. Cranston as he always does with gusto plays the aggressive and often distraught perfectly well and building this air of mystery around what the Japanese government are hiding from the world is done pretty well through him. However, the science is kept to a minimum beyond the first 45 minutes and it’s all about the big set pieces involving the MUTOs and our favorite towering, green monster. This is expected, I mean, the conspiracy theories can’t be at the forefront when you have towering, ancient monsters causing mass mayhem.
At one point Ken Watanabe’s Professor Serizawa makes the philosophical statement of how man thinks he can control nature but in this case nature just needs to fight it out. It’s one of the few moments of the film where there is a level of rationale between the scientists and the military. Military personnel in the film, led by David Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz, aren’t meat heads in any sense just doing their jobs as expected. One of those constant tropes of sci-fi is how the military has no rationale and the science is just crack pot but both sides here are in constant communication even if they aren’t the most engaging of people to watch.
Unlike Pacific Rim, a disaster film like Godzilla needs a human face to the potential loss of humanity and hope and minus Cranston most of the supporting players as good as they are limp through their roles. Johnson’s Ford in particular acts solely as the human account to this journey and while the moments he endures are at the heart of many of the big action sequences. In a way though, this is a film centered solely on the carnage, so any extensive time spent with these characters beyond their basic providing of information and moving plot along feels unwarranted. It’s kind of frustrating at best.
In comparing my review of Godzilla with my feelings on last summer’s Pacific Rim it really does come down to the inclusion of the human characters.It’s more necessary here than it was there but still the blandness and rather auto pilot nature of most of these characters makes the desire to see more action just that more important. Gareth Edward’s Godzilla though, is a proper ground zero for an American franchise for the green beast that does right what the 1998 film didn’t. It still has some kinks in the chain that can be fixed if there is another one but it’s more than a deserving relaunch. Often frightening even when it feels run of the mill, the giant behemoth from the sea of Japan looks and sounds great this time out and is given a proper vehicle to take on after being misunderstood by Hollywood for so many years.