Written by: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story)
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Bryan Cranston
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“In 1954, we awakened something..."
Given the grim, foreboding blockbuster landscape over the past few years, I honestly can’t believe Legendary Pictures and Gareth Edwards have conspired to deliver this kind of Godzilla movie in 2014. After a ten year hiatus, I was all but sure the King of the Monsters was set to return as the star of his own dark and gritty, course-correcting reboot returning him to his destructive, antagonist roots, existing solely to dole out disaster porn in a misguided attempt to recapture the original Gojira (it wouldn’t be the first time it happened, of course).
I couldn’t be more delighted to be completely wrong about that. Instead, Edwards has crafted a film that reveres the breadth of Godzilla’s existence, from the restrained, high-minded original to the Tohoscope, comic book-style Kaiju brawls in the sequels. Refreshingly, there’s a pointed emphasis on the latter, which is probably why the most memorable line of dialogue expresses exactly what’s on the audience’s mind for the duration of the film: “let them fight!”
Long before the awaited fisticufs, an extended prologue takes us to 1999, where Japanese scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) discover the fossilized remains of a giant creature buried in a Filipino mineshaft. Something has apparently survived, however, and has recently left the island and headed towards Japan. Landside, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) detects unusual seismic activity but is unable to brace for the destruction wrought by this unseen force. Forced to watch on in horror as his wife (Juliette Binoche) perishes inside a crumbling nuclear plant, he spends the next fifteen years attempting to unravel the truth behind the day’s events.
By that point, he’s become a shut-in estranged from his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an American soldier with a family of his own. When Joe insists on returning to Japan’s quarantined zone, Ford is drawn into the conspiracy: it turns out that Serizawa and company have been incubating the egg of a prehistoric creature, which hatches to unleash MUTO, a winged Kaiju vaguely reminiscent of the Showa-era Kamacuras. MUTO immediately charts a course eastward, leaving a distraught Ford scrambling to return home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde).
Edwards and screenwriter Max Bornstein structure Godzilla like an old-fashioned monster movie by introducing its characters and slow-burning its way through a mystery. Between its atomic preoccupations and the MUTO’s insectoid appearance, the film initially feels more like an update of the 50s giant bug movies that narrowly preceded Gojiria, only it’s realized with a scope and grandeur most of those B-films couldn’t afford (if you can’t tell from the Brody shoutout, this is Edwards working in full-on Speilberg mode, which is appropriate since Godzilla is the most Spielbergian blockbuster since War of the Worlds). Regardless, Edwards isn’t quick to indulge and smartly, slowly builds towards his eventual mayhem. He also doesn’t shy away from subverting them—the first act almost feels like a trick, as a film titled Godzilla will surely hinge on revealing him as the giant creature that ravaged Japan as retribution for mankind’s nuclear transgressions.
Instead, an altogether different beast blasts out of the rubble of that nuclear reactor, something a little more Lovecraftian than a Toho Kaiju. It’s a bold decision that sidelines Godzilla for over a third of the film, and you’re tempted to lament that he’s been reduced to a supporting player at his own comeback party. Moreover, you’re shocked that Warner Brothers allowed such a gamble (then again, you have to think they knew exactly what they were getting considering his work on Monsters). The risk pays off, and the approach actually echoes Godzilla’s treatment in various sequels, which often found him reemerging to fend off the latest Kaiju attack; I’m not sure if it qualifies as a twist, but discovering that Godzilla is once again humanity’s protector and avenger is one of the more delightful blockbuster moments in recent years.
It’s appropriate that I’ve recently resorted to professional wrestling lingo when discussing a handful of Godzilla sequels because Edwards is a shrewd promoter who knows exactly what audiences have come to see, but he’s in no rush to give up the ghost. Initially discussed with hushed tones typically reserved for enigmas and deities, Godzilla winds up being a little bit of both. Again, Edwards wisely builds his presence in increments: some grainy, faux-historical footage here, the swelling of an ocean there. When he properly arrives, he’s something of a conquering champion, complete with an incredible hero shot announcing his return; even though this is a reboot completely untethered to any previous Godzilla film, it feels like you’re welcoming back a familiar face (albeit one that’s been given a noticeable makeover).
Even still, Edwards refuses to exhaust himself on empty, mindless spectacle, choosing instead to engage in pure, completely earned awe. Death and destruction are synonymous with Godzilla, one of the unwitting forefathers to the sort of hollow disaster porn served up on a consistent basis, and his latest outing is no different in this respect: he might be “the good guy” again, but it’s not like he doesn’t lay waste to a couple of towns in order to take care of business. What is different is Edwards’s insistence on making it impactful without completely gorging on it: he quickly cuts away from Godzilla’s first bout with MUTO and dispatches snippets of it via television footage, and the road to the rematch is lined with varied, colorful set-pieces that echo everything from Jurassic Park to Apocalypse Now.
There’s a remarkable amount of restraint on display throughout the film, and it’s rewarded by a bravura climax that’s unmistakably Toho. With one of the most magnificent Kaiju displays ever committed to film, Edwards rekindles the magic of watching monsters beat the shit out of each other. He opts for wide, grand shots to emphasize the enormity of it all, much like Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya once did with actors in rubber suits; the way Edwards manages to replicate this is incredible—it doesn’t feel like a complete revolution as much as a natural evolution of a tried-and-true technique that insists on delivering rousing, jaw-dropping moments rather than unnecessary chaos and obfuscation. Resorting to the clichéd comparison of Edwards to a kid in a sandbox even feels disingenuous because he’s not haphazardly thrashing about. He’s meticulously replicating the masters, and I love that he’s gifted a whole new generation of monster kids with a moment they aren’t likely to soon forget with the film’s most riveting, atomic-breath fuelled beat.
A lesser filmmaker might have had Godzilla roaring out of the gate, blazing a trail with atomic fumes, but Edwards isn’t one to squander a main event like that. Just as he did with Monsters, he finds quiet moments between the tumult, like a young boy’s (who notably resembles the precocious protagonists of many Showa-era sequels) reunion with his parents, or the fist-pumping image of Godzilla doggedly swimming in pursuit of MUTO. Edwards’s focus on humanity is again noble, of course, but you are left wanting a little bit more from most of the cast. Only Cranston and Watanabe make an impression, with the former especially finding the sort of emotional depth and urgency that eludes Taylor-Johnson, who is given the opportunity to shoulder much of the film’s human element (poor Elizabeth Olsen isn’t even given much of a chance in a more thankless role).
These folks are just compelling enough to carry the load before handing the baton off to Godzilla, at which point they recede into the background, overshadowed by the forces of nature surrounding them, a turn that reinforces the film’s mantra that mankind is but a hapless collection of creatures at the mercy of the universe, a notion that Edwards similarly keyed on in Monsters (there are at least two close-ups of small animals here—an insect and a lizard, I believe—that skew them to oversized proportions; meanwhile, the human characters are consistently dwarfed throughout and often reduced to gaping, slack-jawed masses).
Repression has often been at the heart of Godzilla since his conception as the nightmarish avatar of Japan’s atomic mourning and fear; even his reconfiguration into mankind’s avenger is an extension of that, and this latest film deftly observes Godzilla’s status as gatekeeper. It’s a film that begins with a quest to uncover buried history and ends with the confirmation that you can’t suppress it even if you try, lest you awaken some ancient beast. Likewise, it serves to reinvigorate and reconfirm Godzilla’s potency, much like Skyfall did for James Bond; even when you attempt to vanquish him (and did Roland Emmerich ever try to fucking annihilate him), he reemerges to reclaim his crown as King of the Monsters in triumphant fashion. Buy it!
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