Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein and David Callaham
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston
If you don’t already know, than you will soon find out just how much of a tokusatsu and kaiju film fanatic I am; just the fact that I refer to those films by their actual subgenre terms and not just as “Godzilla” movies should begin to account for that. With this known, hear me on this: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the redemption American filmmakers and audiences have been seeking since the first fumble Roland Emmerich’s film made with the Big G’s legacy. It’s probably even the best Godzilla film since the original 1954 classic. It certainly is the only one that feels like it belongs in the same class.
In 1999, the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan is mysteriously destroyed with most hands lost including supervisor Joe Brody’s (Bryan Cranston) wife, Sandra. Years later, Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US Navy ordnance disposal officer, must go to Japan to help his estranged father who obsessively searches for the truth of the incident. In doing so, father and son discover the disaster’s secret cause on the wreck’s very grounds. This enables them to witness the reawakening of a terrible threat to all of Humanity, which is made all the worse with a second secret revival elsewhere of an even greater threat. And yet, this new enemy of civilization may be its only hope. And its name is Godzilla.
Edwards probably had the toughest job imaginable ahead of him when he accepted the job directing this film. Having only directed one film beforehand, even if it was the critically acclaimed Monsters, this must not have instilled a lot of confidence in the fanbase. Boy, were they wrong. Everything about his gargantuan vision is perfectly suited to the King of the Monsters, and in many ways improves upon what Ishiro Honda and Tomoyuki Tanaka envisioned for their God of Destruction over 60 years ago.
However, to talk to the average moviegoer who claims to have “watched Godzirra movies back in the day,” you’d think this movie was a sin against God. “There’s not enough Godzilla!” “It’s boring and pretentious!” “Not enough monster fighting!” These are the usual complaints I heard from behind the concession counter when this film was still in theaters.And sorry, but all of these arguments betray a lack of true love for the titular creature and what he represents. Godzilla is best understood not through the prism of the seemingly-countless Vs. series of films from 1956 on (and don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of entertainment to be had there), but through the dark iris of 1954’s Gojira.
As expanded upon in The Long Take’s excellent comparison video, Edwards’ Godzilla opens the story with a disaster related to the headlines of the time: the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown becomes the Janjira tragedy. And then the new film branches off: while Tanaka’s Godzilla was always a response to unchecked nuclear testing and aggression, the title monster having been awakened and severely scarred by a nuclear bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla is impervious to the bomb, indeed, to all human attempts to destroy him. The new Godzilla represents the entirety of nature’s response to mankind’s stupidity and arrogance, effortlessly swatting away the best of our weapons and soldiers in his single-minded quest to destroy this film version’s nuclear allegory, the MUTOs.
With this, the writers achieved a distancing from the old anti-nuke allegory in a perfect way that doesn’t negate those fears; it expands upon them, bringing every human action against Mother Earth into sharp, uncompromising focus. From there, all the nitty-gritty narrative plot points become borrowed from the best of the unmade Godzilla films. The MUTOs are discovered within the carcass of another Godzilla-like creature, just like in Jan de Bont’s 1994 script. The MUTOs themselves are constantly evolving; another lifting from Godzilla vs the Gryphon. The final battle takes place in San Francisco–hello, Godzilla 3D. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to reward us for waiting through the deaths of all of those promising projects by giving them a chance to shine through this one.
And then Edwards takes over, drawing out the suspense of the main set pieces Spielberg-style, keeping the camera fixed on a human-eye vantage point. Whether watching Godzilla stomp his enemy from an hovering helicopter shot or the male MUTO swooping over from a 40th-story window, not a single shot aimed at the monster is not in documentary style. There were a few moments where I felt like I was watching a Jurassic Park sequel.
And now comes one of the bigger complaints, and one that is hard to ignore: the human characters. Everyone gives a great performance, from Strathairn’s by-the-book command to Cranston’s tortured, obsessive search for the truth. The problem is that they all don’t do much. All of their actions contribute to the greater calamities that propel the plot along to the final confrontation. Ford is the only one who accomplishes anything worthwhile, but in the end, still fails in his mission. But I say this isn’t a failing of the screenplay, but a main feature. Looking back to the original film, the exact same problems exist: too many people who do nothing but watch, slack-jawed, in terror of the monster. Only one, Dr. Serizawa, is the man of action, defeating the beast in the end. Ford is now that character, but is infinitely more relatable as a soldier and a father–another aspect of American cinema.
I could go on and on, but I trust my point is made, or at least begun. Godzilla is more than the majority of its predecessors. It is the first successful reboot, from any country or filmmaker, of the original film. There are a handful in the Japanese series that are worthy followups, but none captures both the fear and wonder of the unknown, and the sheer power of Allmother Nature like this one. Like the incredible, bone-rattling roar of the Big G himself, Godzilla makes a mighty impression.