With Godzilla, the King of Monsters Roars Back to Life
It’s easy to have moderate to mixed to even low expectations as they concern Gareth Edwards’ (Monsters) reimagining of director Ishirô Honda’s immortal and highly influential 1954 Japanese classic Godzilla. This was a cinematic effort that significantly changed the game and in most corners is regarded as the greatest giant monster movie to have ever been made. More than that, though, it is a supremely moving and shockingly honest look at the nuclear age as seen through the eyes of a country and people who knew only too well its devastating dangers, the subtext and metaphors liberally sprinkled throughout impossible to miss and even harder to walk away unaffected by.
In the six-plus decades since the titular creature has seen 27 official sequels, a handful of animated incarnations, a plethora of toy versions and one ill-conceived remake released in 1998 directed by Independence Day impresario Roland Emmerich. The Toho Co, Ltd. icon has been paid homage to on multiple occasions (Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim being two of the more obvious examples), while countless rip-offs have attempted to steal the self-described King of Monster’s thunder more times than can be easily counted (from Gamera to Transformers, DNA remnants leading back to Honda’s epic abound).
So having a somewhat diluted sense of tired déjà vu as it concerns this latest incarnation of the titular behemoth isn’t entirely unexpected. Yet that doesn’t make it any less misplaced. Edwards has done the unthinkable, crafting a modern Godzilla that not only pays deft homage to the creature’s glorious past but also makes many of its closest impersonators feel hollow and misguided when stood up next to it. Putting character first, leaving all its best moments for the ferociously frenetic, neck-snapping climax, the film is a monstrously entertaining disaster spectacle of nature run amok, humanity’s inability to deal with what is happening a potent reminder of what can happen when our planet rebels against the ills being carelessly done to it.
Opening in 1999 on a small Japanese island, Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (the long delayed medieval epic Seventh Son) waste no time dropping us right into the center of budding catastrophe, American nuclear expert Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) forced to make an unthinkable choice when the power plant he supervises suffers a bewildering meltdown. Almost 15 years to the day, his grown, Navy bomb disposal tech son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is forced to return to the scene of this calamity when it appears dear old dad has finally suffered nothing short of a full mental breakdown.
The truth is anything but, of course, a group of international scientists, led by Japan’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Britain’s Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), studying a supposedly dormant creature apparently feeding off the remains of the destroyed power plant. When it awakens, all kinds of Hell can’t help but happen. Ford finds himself at the center of an epic battle pitting giant creatures one against the other spanning the Pacific Ocean and heading straight into the heart of San Francisco, his home town and also where his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son Sam (Carson Bolde) happily reside.
While admittedly nowhere near as deep or as prescient as Honda’s original effort, Edwards’ take on the material does not skimp as far as larger social and political commentaries are concerned. The way human beings treat the planet is at the center of the carnage, the communal disrespect for the environment a key factor as far as the the unleashing of the main threat is concerned. As for Godzilla, his presence is in most ways that matter Nature’s response as far as attempting to maintain balance is concerned, his tracking down and eradicating the newly birthed terror the driving force around which everything else continually revolves.
Not that things are as deep and as dour as that. Edwards remembers the fun of these movies is in not only seeing the big guy in action but also the unbearable suspense of waiting to see him both appear as well as lay waste to all that is in his path. Like the majority of the Toho sequels, humans are more like bugs to be swatted out of the way, an annoying inconvenience and little else, the big beastie standing in Godzilla’s way the true danger in need of being dealt with. Buildings crumble, bridges fall, all the while the military looks on castrated, unable to lift a finger in order to combat what it is that’s laying waste to all it comes into contact with.
The human element, save for the glorious opening prologue, some wonderful bits between Cranston and Taylor-Johnson before they return to the power plant and a bittersweet, eerily touching shipboard monologue from Watanabe, isn’t particularly strong. Juliette Binoche pops up briefly, adding a nice touch of gravitas to a pivotal early moment but is otherwise wasted. David Strathairn gets to do the stoic soldier thing as the Navy commander tasked with trying to find a solution to the monster mash currently threatening San Francisco, and while he’s fine in the role it’s not like he’s doing anything noteworthy. As for Olsen, the Martha Marcy May Marlene scene-stealer is wasted in a rather thankless part, and other than a deftly underplayed sequence where the young mother must make a heartrending decision regarding Sam it isn’t like she’s got a whole lot to do.
Be that as it may, Edwards unleashes scene after scene of surprising visual and dramatic eloquence, building tension with ease allowing the talent hinted at inside his similarly-conceived debut Monsters to fully blossom here. Mixing in Alexandre Desplat’s (Zero Dark Thirty) rousing score, not to mention utilizing György Ligeti better than anyone has this side of Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability to get the pulse racing. He allows cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Anna Karenina) to fill every corner of the frame yet still finds a way to leave clutter to a minimum, all that happens having an organic, almost delicate quality that belies the carnage and destruction taking place. Make no mistake, Godzilla roars to life with spectacular fury, this latest incarnation proving without a shadow of a doubt who the indisputable King of Monsters continues to be.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)