When it comes to the long and prestigious history of movie monsters, there is only one king. 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of “Gorija”, the 160 foot lizard more commonly known as Godzilla. The world’s most famous reptile made his debut in 1954, and his impact on the medium is still being felt today. He’s made it to the big screen over thirty times, and numerous homages have been constructed in his honor (films such as 2008’s Cloverfield and 2011’s Super 8 have been the most successful in my opinion).America’s last attempt to reboot the franchise, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla, was met with general critical and audience detest. Fifteen years later, the U.S. has finally released a film that captures the essence of the iconic figure. 2014’s version of Godzilla is a visually stunning adventure, part blockbuster disaster film and part suspenseful horror/thriller hybrid.
Godzilla’s story opens in 1999, where a supposed natural disaster in Japan spells tragedy for scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford. The disaster is written off as aftershocks from an earthquake in the Philippines, but Brody is less than convinced. The film flashes forward to present day, as a grown-up Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) is a bomb specialist in the U.S. Army, happily married to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and raising his son Sam in San Francisco. Ford travels to Japan to visit his father, who inadvertently makes a discovery that uncovers a large government secret. A really tall and monstrous secret, to be precise and vague in the same breath.
It’s refreshing to see how simple and stripped down the story for Godzilla is, especially in comparison to the convolution of other summer blockbusters. The setup is solid, with the mythology behind Godzilla being divulged meticulously so as to build tension and excitement. The pacing is really strong here, as the scripting relies on a slow burn and a “less is more” mantra. The titular monster is revealed in pieces, body part by body part until we get a full view. The big reveal is appropriately grand thanks to the marvels of modern-day visual effects, but it takes almost two acts to get to this point. This may be frustrating to general audiences expecting three acts of monster mayhem, but personally I found the structure engrossing and far more interesting than dictated convention.
Part of the reason the pacing works so well can be credited to director Gareth Edwards. Edwards, whose work on the 2009 indie thriller Monsters made him seem like a natural fit for this reboot, crafts a film that is intelligent and atmospheric in its use of camerawork and editing. I’ve read several pieces that have compared Edwards’ direction to the early works of Steven Spielberg, and I think that’s an apt comparison. To me, Godzilla most resembles Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, both in its gorgeously moody visual style and commitment to the human perspective. Standout sequences include an intense train sequence that rivals the T-Rex reveal from Spielberg’s aforementioned masterpiece, and an exhilarating HALO jump into the wreckage of San Francisco (captured in a great mix of wide shots and POV shots).
The reveals of Godzilla are obscured from clarity because of a dedication to show the chaos from ground level. Unfortunately, the characters that we must follow are not particularly interesting. Ford is sort of a blank slate, with only a motivation to get home that keeps us rooting for him rather than a unique personality. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, both strong young actors who have been standouts in other projects, are just OK here. It’s not their faults, as they are casualties of the script’s few downfalls. Cranston is great as expected, but his role is limited. Acting veterans Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn give their usual solid performances, inhabiting stereotypical roles as best they possibly can. Godzilla’s biggest problem is its lack of a compelling lead human, despite its success in capturing the overall struggle of humanity during this catastrophic conflict.
The lack of a powerhouse human protagonist ends up meaning little in the long haul. Make no mistake, Godzilla is the star of his own movie. Even if his time on screen is limited, Edwards and crew do a great job of conveying the severity of what Godzilla represents. There’s a lot of talk (mostly from Watanabe’s character) about the importance of an alpha creature who must protect his dominance in the natural order of the world. This, plus a lot of the destructive visual cues and the appropriate musical accompaniment by Alexandre Desplat, do wonders in establishing the looming larger-than-life existence of our titular monster. That’s one sign of a good antagonist or antihero; they don’t have to be present for us to feel their presence. This creative team get the legacy of the big guy and they’ve created a return for Godzilla that should satisfy many. After all is said and done, this Godzilla is an experience fit for a king.