Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.
Disclaimer: I don’t think I can write a spoiler free review of Godzilla and be free to talk about it as I wish so I am not going to try. You’ve been warned…
When Gareth Edwards was confirmed as the director and driving force behind the reboot of Godzilla I was beyond excited. The main reason being that I loved his debut feature Monsters. It was a masterpiece in story telling, pacing and tension made on a ridiculously small budget. He marked himself out as a creative wizard, able to spin epic yarns on micro budgets. What I loved most about Monsters though was that it wasn’t a film about monsters. It was a love story about two people trying to get from point a to point b together and learning about each other along the way, under extraordinary circumstances. It could have been set on a train in Communist Russia, or amongst the smouldering farmland of WW2 France. It just happened to be that it was set against a backdrop of a monster infested Mexico. The courageous part of Monsters though was the decision that the monsters were the scenery, not the focus. The humanity and drudgery of existing in a war zone was the focus. Tanks and planes were just replaced by tenticles and teeth. And in the end it is obvious that they are not here to exiterminate us, merely that they are trying to exist in a place that we also exist and that we get in their way. We are collateral damage in their fight to carve a place for themselves on our plentiful and resourceful planet. It is a theme which runs heavily through Godzilla with great effect.
Flushing away the memory of Roland Emmerich’s turgid pile of stinking poop, Edwards lovingly pays respects to Godzilla’s cultural roots by setting large chunks of the action in Japan, and also making nuclear power the focus. Much has been written of Godzilla’s birth in Japanese culture, and the most widely accepted line of analysis is that his deformed nature, angry disposition and burnt appearance was a direct reflection of post Hiroshima Japan. He was a cultural bi-product of the atom bomb. So when Edwards’s opening montage charts the use of atom bombs in the Pacific in the 40’s and 50’s it is not obvious whether they are creating something, killing something, or being completely oblivious to the effects of their actions. Losing no time in setting up the birth of something evidently quite extraordinary Edward’s introduces us early on to Ken Watanabe’s troubled scientist called to a strange sinkhole occurance at a Philipino mine. It is quickly apparant that this is no sinkhole, but a nest. A rocky makeshift womb wihin the skeleton of something too big to truly comprehend. And whatever was there is no longer, leaving behind only a trail of destruction to the sea.
Shortly thereafter the action shifts to the destruction of a Japanese nuclear power plant in what appears to be an earthquake. Bryan Cranston’s nuclear physicist is less than convinced by the cause of the tremors. And when he watches his wife (Juliet Binoche) perish in the rubble, and his young son (later to be Aaron Johnson) watches the plant crumble, Edwards sends a clear message; that this is to be a much darker Godzilla. There’s no Jean Reno French stereotypes here. And there is no getting away from the recent memories of watching the devastation at Fukushima in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2011.
15 years later, what was a bustling scientific town is a quarantined city where civilisation is no longer allowed to exist on the basis of nuclear radiation levels. Consumed by the sense that a conspiracy is at play to mask the world from the true cause of the destruction, and as a result the loss of his wife and the breakdown in the relationship with his son, Cranston goes all Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind with bits of string and clippings covering the wall of his modest Tokyo apartment. When he finally convinces his estranged son to return to ground zero his fears are realised as they are swept up by a shady corporation and finally shown the true nature of what has occured; the appearance of a massive EMP emitting cocoon being monitored and controlled within the shell of the former power plant. When it eventually hatches releasing a mothlike creature the size of a skyscraper with a serious hunger for nuclear power one thing is clearly evident; we’re all seriously fucked.
All throughout Godzilla Edwards never lets the destruction and money shots unnecessarily overshadow the humanity. That’s not to say there aren’t falling buildings, uprooted nuclear subs and deformed mountains aplenty. But unlike the neverending and tedious destruction inflicted upon us by Zack Snyder in last year’s Man of Steel, Edwards treats his audience with more respect, knowing that in order to feel the effect of the noise you need the balance of quiet. The film also pays great respect to it’s culture’s origins through a series of both obvious and subtle reference. Some, like the setting of the battle in the oriental district of San Francisco are clear to see. However upon careful viewing there are several more subtle nods. None more so beautifully orchestrated than through a brief pre-amble to the final showdown. San Franciso shrouded in mist and smoke; the landscape scarred by the posturing of these mountainous creatures. Brow beaten, bloodied and without choice the powers that be step back and let what will happen happen. What ensues is a beautiful use of Japanese orchestral undertones, and framing that defines Godzilla as a dinosaur Samurai; setting his feet and using his long razor tipped tail to cut a path through the smoke and mist like a Katana Sword. It is a brief and subtle scene, but one that is equally as breathtaking as the heart racing HALO drop that many consider to be the centre piece.
The main criticism of Godzilla is the fact that none of the human characters are all that interesting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is incredibly bland as the soldier trying to get back to his family in San Francisco when the creatures begin fighting. And the otherwise brilliant Elizabeth Olson is criminally wasted as “generic wide eyed mom” who is mainly required to run away in the rain while looking up.
The real characterisation is in fact saved for Godzilla and co, with Edwards eliciting more emotional resonance from his CGI behemoths than his human cast (with the exception of Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe who are incapable of poor performances). In fact it is the one argument I have with the synopsis at the top of this article that I took from IMDB. The creatures Godzilla ends up having to fight are not malevolent, as much as Godzilla is not benevolent. To suggest as much would be to say they give a shit about the fact we are even here. These are creatures from a time long long before there was anything else. We are merely new born ants hugging desparately onto a timeline on which they will exist long after we have perished. As with Monsters, the brilliance of Edwards’ approach to Godzilla is to make us seem arrogant in the face of the mayhem around us. The creatures do not care that we are there. They hold no reverance for our history or our buildings, our monuments to the egos our predecessors. They want to eat, procreate and when they don’t see eye to eye have a huge fight. If you were to strip away the mark of our existence on this planet, our infrastructres and buildings, the same would be true. There would just be less stuff to get in their way and make their basic instincts difficult to execute in peace. In fact no moment in Godzilla’s 123 minute running time has as much raw emotional impact as the gutteral scream and look of anguish on the face of the female moth as her nest is set alight. While she may be our enemy by virtue of the fact that we can not co-exist in the same place and time, she is, at the end of it all, just a mother watching her young burn.
I heard people leaving the cinema confused and almost complaining that Godzilla was fighting for us, that he was a good guy. In the end Godzilla may save us. But that he does is merely a happy coincidence born from the hatred he has for another creature other than us. He is not a good guy. Nor a bad guy. He is just a big guy. And when big guys fight stuff gets broken. The tone of the whole film is summed up beautifully as Edwards marks the start of the third act and tells us things are about to get smashy. When Ken Watanabe is asked if Godzilla, the creature he loves, respects and fears in equal measure can really save us, he responds “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.”
It should serve as a reminder that we only exist because we haven’t yet encountered something that we cannot kill or control. Yet.
Conclusion: Gareth Edwards shows Hollywood that you can make a blockbuster monster film with heart. How I wish they had waited and given him Transformers rather than Michael Bay. Oh, how I wish….
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olson, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn