Released 2014. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Screenplay by Max Borenstein. Story by David Callaham. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston.
The first thing you have to do is see this on the most enormous screen you can find. The second thing you have to do is come back here and agree with me about why you were utterly thrilled and only a little disappointed.
There are two possibilities. Either that I make the wrong demands of blockbusters, or that it doesn’t matter what my demands are because my expectations are so low that I end up pathetically satisfied with whatever I get. I say this because I appear to be the only member of my entire circle of friends and acquaintances who liked Godzilla, and surely they can’t all be wrong?
I don’t want to suggest that Godzilla is perfect. Far from it. It makes extremely weak use of its great array of actors – Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn and Ken Watanabe are all extremely talented, and all are given thankless tasks and dull characters (and the women are barely even given any screen time at all anyway). Cranston plays the patriarch of the world’s unluckiest family, a scientist driven mad by the loss of his wife in an incident at the nuclear facility where they both worked, believing the official line that it was an earthquake to be a lie; Aaron Taylor-Johnson is his son, a bomb disposal officer dragged into his father’s world. It’s perfectly acceptable to build a story about a nuclear family torn apart and a son repeating his father’s mistakes to inform and heighten the upcoming action, except when it simply fails to work. Ostensibly tragic moments appear blank; the film’s mechanisms are clear but I was only watching and comprehending, I wasn’t feeling anything. I wasn’t bored, but it was despite the by-the-numbers plot and flat characters that my interest was retained. (It’s also unimaginative as can be to have the military be the focus of the human story – Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was fabulous because it eschewed that.) What kept me going in these early moments was my low expectations (the “this is the bit they have to do before they do the good bits” attitude that I have been conditioned to have by almost every blockbuster in history – I don’t propose that this is a good thing, incidentally; it’s pretty damning of them), and the direction, which drip-feeds glimpses and moments of our monsters.
Godzilla certainly can’t be accused of rushing its colossi to the fore. It’s a good half an hour before we get a good look at one, and even then, it’s not Godzilla to which we’re treated. It’s a shame the characters aren’t interesting because the film teeters on the edge of tedium for much of its opening act, but even so, the occasional snatches and rumblings of the creatures do feel earned, and certainly impactful. What we see at first is a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), essentially a humongous mantis with a space alien’s angry red glowing eyes, as it responds uncharitably to an attempt to execute it. It’s another fifteen minutes before we’re formally introduced to Godzilla, and even then it’s broken into parts – the plates on its back slowly diving under a boat at one moment, emerging on the other side but never surfacing; its leg heavily stomping outside an airport window the next, just the segment of leg and tail that fits into the frame establishing the monster’s impossible size in a shot that deserves to become iconic – and during its first engagement with a MUTO, we cut from the scene of the battle to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s son watching tourist camcorder footage of it on the news, cutting back moments later to visit the aftermath of the skirmish. It’s beautifully done, and delivers just the right visuals in restrained ways to prevent from climaxing too soon, instead ensuring that our appetite keeps growing. In discussion with friends I’ve heard the refrain that the monsters arrive far too late – it’s not a view I share. What we should certainly be able to agree on, though, is that whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing, it’s a Gareth Edwards thing.
Edwards, Godzilla‘s director, has previously directed one feature film, his 2010 alien drama Monsters, made for half a million dollars and receiving reasonable critical acclaim. Godzilla repeats both its strengths and weaknesses, in that the drama and characters are at best dull, but the treatment of the creatures, the building of moments, and the ways in which they’re shot and delivered to the audience are all terrific. One wonders whether it’s sensible for Edwards to approach a film with a $160m budget in fundamentally the same way as one that cost 0.3% of that, given that there were so few full-on monster shots in the indie effort precisely due to its tiny budget and single artist (Edwards himself), but he made a name for himself with Monsters – the positive reception of that film, and in particular the praise for the way he handled its titular creatures, was clearly part of the calculation that resulted in his employment here. (The other part being his fee, I’m sure.) Was this not why he was put in charge? Wouldn’t it have been a shame, even a failure, for him to not apply a similar strategy to the blockbuster? One of Godzilla‘s finest moments is directly reminiscent of Monsters – two MUTOs meet, one giving the other the exquisitely romantic gift of an atomic warhead, and the two creatures nuzzle like cats, just for a second. It’s the calm before the storm, whereas the similar moment in Monsters was the calm before the credits, but it’s equally bizarre, and still, and arresting, for the briefest of moments. That’s exactly what I want. I know I’m using the word ‘moment’ an awful lot, and the film could cohere more, but truly, these ‘moments’ are worth the price of entry alone. You can see the straight line that leads from Monsters to Godzilla. There are directors who, on making the leap to huge budgets and studio power, would have got lost in the melee, ending up with a nondescript film. Not Edwards. For all its flaws, Godzilla is a Gareth Edwards film, and that is worth praising.
The design of Godzilla (the monster, that is) is remarkable, surprising, and a bit of an eye-opener. It’s a throwback to the original in just the right way – it’s fat and can barely move. Since Jurassic Park broke new ground in computer-generated imagery, movie monsters have become altogether too agile. After all, it’s animation – you’re no longer restricted to what an actor in a heavy, cumbersome costume can do. Even the very biggest creatures of recent years – King Kong‘s eponymous ape, Cloverfield‘s enormous thing, Pacific Rim‘s colossal whatevers and any number of assorted dragons – move with a degree of speed and grace that theoretically ramps up the fear factor but in reality is a little too absurd (and which is arguably worse, utterly unexceptional). Godzilla‘s Godzilla, though, shuffles around San Francisco on his short little stumpy legs bumping into buildings and being attacked by far more athletic, and indeed far less noteworthy, gigantic insects. It accomplishes a huge amount. It’s a vivid reminder of Haruo Nakajima’s original portrayal of the monster, feeling faithful to and respectful of its ancestor; but for its ability to emote facially and evident lack of concern for conserving energy, it really is just a big old inflated lizard, a refreshing alternative to almost everything else you get these days (as well as 1998’s Godzilla, and this film’s own MUTOs), which is typically somewhere between space alien and T-Rex; and faced with two irritating gnats that appear to have the upper hand in all sorts of ways, you really root for the poor old chap with the turning circle of Nevada.
Worth less praise than everything except the characters is the reimagination of the underlying themes, which is fairly confused and not well conveyed. Reinvention is no bad thing – it’s not as though any cinemagoer who cares about this type of thing will be unaware of the genesis of the concept of Godzilla in Japan’s collective painful memory of nuclear attacks, and it doesn’t need rehashing if there’s another idea to be explored – but the film doesn’t appear to have much of a clue of how to do it. We’re told that the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attempts to kill Godzilla; it’s a little unclear quite as to how Godzilla was unleashed, but it no longer appears to be humanity’s fault, unless it is, and the monster feeds off nuclear radiation… or maybe it doesn’t. The MUTOs do, that’s for sure, leading to the biggest about-face in history when the military has a nuke with Momma MUTO’s name on it pinched and they have to sneak in to her nest to desperately try to defuse it. There’s something in there about making rash decisions, something about a nuclear obsession literally feeding our monsters (a lovely metaphor that’s about 25 years out of date), some nonsense about parenting and raising or neglecting your kids… the film’s thematically all over the place, really, and there isn’t anything cogent to be drawn out of it. It’s not even hilariously absurd and over-egged like Pompeii… oh, except when Ken Watanabe gets out a pocket watch that hasn’t worked since Hiroshima, because that’s enough to make a point. It’s just not good enough, but thankfully, easily overlooked.
In the end, I take pleasure in recommending Godzilla, despite all its flaws. The monsters are terrific, and the VFX work and visual design, which I can’t believe I’ve waited to my conclusion to specifically praise, are simply breathtaking, the conception and composition of several shots, be they shaky top-down glimpses of monster battles through a skydiver’s visor or delicately framed long shots of the same through layers of scenery and fog, is stunning and unquestionably worth it for its own sake. Purely on the basis of its visuals, Godzilla absolutely must be seen on the biggest, sharpest screen possible. I repeat: the way to see Godzilla is on any IMAX or IMAX Digital (aka LIEMAX) screen within fifty miles. Make the journey. The images are pure and beautiful, the 3D fabulously emphasises the creatures’ unbelievable scale – if there’s one thing this film understands, it’s the visceral power of seeing tiny people in the foreground and a sensationally huge beast far away – and the crisp, heavy bass in the sound design nigh-on shakes the cinema and is genuinely thrilling. I haven’t seen the film on a regular screen, and I would be interested to see how it affects the experience. I’m sure that it would be significantly diminished. Don’t take that risk, I urge you. Pay the extra fiver or whatever it might be to see Godzilla the way the production demands. It’s trite, it’s a slow-burner, it never met a trope it didn’t like. And you will not regret it for a moment.