Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
For sixty years now Godzilla has been the undisputed king of movie monsters. Debuting in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla, the legendary creature has appeared in 28 films for Japan’s Toho Company. Despite that legacy, only once, in Roland Emmerich’s much maligned 1998 effort, also called Godzilla, has he received the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. But sixteen years later, Hollywood is ready to give it another go: different studio, different director, same title – Godzilla.
Scientist Joe Brody is certain that the Japanese government is covering up the true nature of a nuclear power plant disaster which took his wife’s life fifteen years earlier. With his son, Ford, a Navy explosives expert, he discovers that rather than being the result of a natural disaster, it was an attack from a MUTO, a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object. That MUTO, and its mating pair, are now heading across the Pacific Ocean towards the west coast of the USA and their only hope appears to be an equally large and mysterious creature which is tracking them.
Godzilla is only Gareth Edwards’ second feature film, after the 2010 independent film Monsters. He does, however, have a background in visual effects and that really comes through in this movie. Clearly taking his lead from Spielberg in Jaws, Edwards is careful not to overexpose us to the monster – in fact with Godzilla not featuring prominently until the third act there is a fair argument to be made that we don’t see enough him. But when he does show us the star of the film, he makes it count. Godzilla looks fantastic. The combination of immense scale and intricate detail makes for a very impressive visual presence. Edwards avoids the quick-cutting, shaky-camera style that makes some of the action sequences in the Transformers films such a headache inducing mess, allowing us a really good look at creatures as they battle it out. The film retains the traditional shape and lumbering movement of Godzilla, so even with these brilliant effects there are still moments when you get that nostalgic feel of a man in a costume, which is fun.
One of the other things this movie does really well is give a classic film figure contemporary relevance. This is achieved through the clever way that the film’s narrative ties in with contemporary fears. The catalyst that gets everything rolling is a nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. There is a tsunami. We see crowded city streets enveloped by a cloud of dust as skyscrapers crumble, which feel very familiar to 9/11 footage. All of these moments engage our memories of real world events. Effectively pressing the emotional buttons of relatable, real world experiences serves to ground what is otherwise a fantastical story.
Unfortunately though, as much as there are some great things about Godzilla, the film also has some pretty glaring problems. Primary among them are the film’s human characters. They simply aren’t engaging. Bryan Cranston’s nuclear scientist, the film’s most compelling character, does not feature as prominently as the trailers would have you believe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a pretty bland, cookie-cutter protagonist, serving his role adequately but failing to take us on any sort of emotional journey. Elizabeth Olsen, who is a really good young actress, is the most underutilised, getting little more to do than wait by the phone and worry about her husband. The blockbusters of the last few years have made audiences largely immune to watching cities being leveled. We need individual characters to care about, and this film doesn’t adequately give them to us.
These characters are also not helped by the fact that there is an unavoidable disconnect between the characters and the central narrative of the film. Classical film narrative uses characters as the primary causal agents which propel a cause-and-effect narrative towards its resolution. The actions of the protagonist are supposed to make things happen, to ultimately determine the outcome of the film. In Godzilla, the human characters have very little dramatic importance. The message of the film is that nature will find a way to correct imbalance. Thus, the events that the human characters are involved in are only side stories, having little bearing on the outcome of the film which is to be determined by the battle between Godzilla and the MOTUs.
Godzilla is a film that gets some things very right and some things quite wrong. It possibly takes itself more seriously than a film about a 350ft sea-lizard should, but as a piece of pure spectacle cinema it does the trick.
Review by Duncan McLean
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