The sheer sound and size of director Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla remake is worth the price of admission as long as you’re seeing it on the right screen. I doubt it would have nearly the same effect on a standard multiplex screen, but seeing it on one of the smaller IMAX screens (skip the 3D version at all costs) was impressive. More than once I can recall thinking to myself, My god, Godzilla is HUGE! And when you’re sitting down for a monster movie this is what you want — size, scope and bone-rattling roars — and Edwards’ decision to slowly reveal this behemoth was well played.
Certain aspects of the story, however, had me wishing screenwriter Max Borenstein hadn’t tried to wedge in a hero story as it wasn’t at all necessary. Neither was the reliance on a countdown at the film’s end, which is well below the standards this movie establishes early on. That said, Godzilla more than delivers on the monster madness you’re looking to enjoy.
Godzilla is and should be a monster movie first and foremost… the end. And, for the most part, Edwards’ remake accomplishes just that while creating a human connection early on. The credits suggest Godzilla isn’t something new, instead he’s a monster long in existence and he’s not alone as he and others used to feed on the Earth’s radiation, but as the Earth’s surface has become less radioactive they’ve had to resort to feeding on energy from the Earth’s core… it’s humans that have awakened them from their slumber.
The narrative begins in Japan in 1999. A hole has opened up in the Earth at a mining site revealing fossilized bones. “Is it him?” a scientist played by Sally Hawkins asks Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). “No, it’s too old,” he replies, but in their search of the cavern more than just bones are revealed. Meanwhile at a nearby nuclear site, strange seismic activity has become a major concern for Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his concern is soon realized as the power blinks out and his son looks on from his school across the water to see the plant collapse into a pile of rubble.
Flash forward 15 years later, conspiracy theories abound. Joe remains alive, his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is now a bomb disarmament specialist in the military and living in San Francisco with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and has a son of his own. Just arriving home after a recent tour, Ford is quickly called to Japan where his father has been arrested, searching for answers in the quarantined zone that used to be his home. Ford catches a red eye, bails his father out and soon realizes the truth alongside his father as more than just Godzilla is unleashed upon the Earth.
Multiple monsters, multiple locations and a whole lot of destruction follows and Ford just so happens to be the guy in the right place at the wrong time over and over again as he serves as the “guy we follow” from one disaster zone to the next. Problem is our connection to him is merely narrative specific as we’re never offered enough time to actually care about his character. Instead we grow more interested and attached to Godzilla whose appearances are brief glimpses as other monsters wreak havoc for the first 60% or so of this film.
Be it Godzilla’s hand or massive foot coming into frame, or his giant Stegosaurus-like spikes announcing his position as he swims through the Pacific Ocean on his way toward San Francisco, he’s the one we become connected to in this film, not the humans. The theme of this reboot has become less about the nuclear fear that guided the original Toho classic and more about human arrogance and our attempts to control or ignorantly destroy that which we don’t understand.
As a result, Watanabe’s character is all that’s needed to keep us emotionally connected as Godzilla and the monsters he’s tracking are more than enough to keep us invested. Nearly every scene with Taylor-Johnson’s character doesn’t need him at all to be compelling. In fact, his involvement merely slows things down as this 123-minute film could have been snipped by 10 minutes or so had he been killed off early or never introduced at all. His performance is fine, what there is for him to do, but it’s unnecessary largely because Edwards has a wonderful grasp on how to handle the raging giant monsters we’ve come to see.
Edwards burst onto the scene with his small independent film Monsters, which relied far more on its human protagonists, but showed Edwards knew what he was doing when it comes to giving life to giant creatures outside of merely presenting them as world-destroying organisms.
This doesn’t mean Godzilla has gone soft and doesn’t have it’s share of destruction. Buildings will fall, planes will fall from the skies and bridges are no match for these beasties, but the destruction feels organic to the narrative rather than being presented merely as a reason to show buildings collapse. Edwards, along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, have done an astounding job getting across the sheer size of these monsters. A HALO jump that finds soldiers falling only feet away from Godzilla as he battles another monster offers an amazing perspective at just how massive and wholly realized he really is.
An attack on the airport at Honolulu is wonderfully composed as we see the destruction through the glass at the terminal or from within a train shuttling passengers from gate to gate. The alternative would have been to place the camera in-between the monsters, confusing the perspective and attempting to wow us with debris rather than giving the audience a clear idea of what exactly is happening. By stepping away from the action Edwards actually delivers a much more frightening image of the destruction taking place. The use of fog and sound creates similarly great results as the action moves to San Francisco, culminating in a rather standard blockbuster finale, but Edwards earns it once Godzilla starts doing his thing.
I was also surprised at how the film manages to mix realism with a slight sense of humor, realizing this is still a monster movie and we’re meant to have fun. By not taking itself too seriously it actually adds to the realism as a moment of “Holy shit! Look at that!” turns to “Hey, look mommy, dinosaurs.”
As easy as it would be to tear this movie apart for its blockbuster trappings and specifically the ticking clock at the end, which, as I said, is beneath everything that comes before it, I had a lot of fun with Godzilla. This is about as close as you can get to replicating the feel of watching a classic monster movie with today’s filmmaking techniques and technology.
Filmmakers can accomplish so much more now that it has become possible to present a story in which giant, radioactive monsters do battle within the confines of our major metropolitan areas and do so without men wearing rubber suits. Presenting that in way that satisfies the studio executives as well as maintains what it means to be a monster movie is to walk a fine line and Edwards has created just about as accomplished a feature he can within those confines and I think audiences are going to dig it.