The United States has a rocky history with Godzilla, the uniquely Japanese big green symbol for unease in a post-atom bomb world. The less that is said about Roland Emmerich’s disaster of a disaster film the better, but the entire genre of giant monster movies in the tradition of Godzilla from areas beyond Japan is hit or miss at best. Enter Gareth Edwards, whose 2010 film Monster was a low budget entry into the genre that appears to have gotten him enough good will for the folks at Legendary Pictures to put him behind the helm of a $160 million blockbuster relaunch of the big green guy himself. It represents a big jump in prestige, talent and budget, and could be seen as a risk for a studio to put such an unproven director in such a big chair on such a troubled project. Yet, these are often the sort of moves that can create diamonds almost as often as coal, and with the right unproven director and the right project, things can turn out quite well indeed.
Our new Godzilla starts where it should: at a nuclear power plant in Japan. It is here we meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), an American who works there with his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) as they raise a young boy. Some troubling earthquake tremors lead to a containment failure at the plant that claims Sandra’s life and sends Joe into a crazed hermit-like state of exile. The film flashes forward fifteen years to introduce their son Ford, fully grown into Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to stop his kooky, conspiracy-addled father from constantly venturing into the quarantine zone created by that fateful accident and looking for answers. It does not take long for Joe and Ford to find themselves in the middle of a facility run in part by two Godzilla researchers (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) only to discover that they have been monitoring a giant egg sac-like organism that appears to have been the cause of the original accident. It should not come as too much of a shock when the pod bursts and a giant monster crawls out, and the humans are suddenly faced with a danger on a scale that cannot be ease to reconcile.
Godzilla does a very smart thing once the rubber hits the road and the monsters come out to play. The motivations of the antagonists are made clear (they feed on radiation and are hungry. Simple enough), and they are not remotely malicious in their portrayal. Sure, they look scary, and they tend to mess up electrical equipment and buildings pretty good on their way to their ultimate goal, but these beings are not characterized as some malevolent sentient force. Their goals are animalistic in nature. Feed. Mate. Reproduce. The humans are attacked because they are in between the monsters and where they are trying to go. They stomp through buildings and only turn to engage when fired upon. This was the ethos of many of the classic Godzillas, where the humans were no more than ants, and this new reboot of sorts is a welcome return to that approach. The scale of the film serves to reinforce these themes; the camera angles, the score, the set design all point to one specific idea: the humans are really really small, and these monsters are really really big. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it. They can bring their armies and their tanks and their weapons of war. They can fire their ordinance and use whatever means they can to try to slow them down. It doesn’t make a difference. They are too small to matter.
It is a particularly good call here to go with this approach when it is considered how generally uninspiring the characters are. Cranston and Binoche do good work with what they are given, though they are nothing more than set ups to the main storyline. Sally Hawkins is pure window dressing, having nothing of consequence to do at all, and Elizabeth Olsen has found herself in another uninteresting damsel in distress role (it’s like the distressing moments of Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House typecast her in the completely wrong direction). Aaron Taylor-Johnson is basically a blank slate for most of the film, and Watanabe’s inclusion seems like a trick to make the film more in tune with its Japanese origins. In general, the characters are not great, and the dialogue is wooden. Why, then, is Godzilla so much more of a success than, say Pacific Rim, last year’s dreadful bore from Guillermo Del Toro that featured similarly snore-inducing characters fighting giant monsters? It’s simple, really. The characters in Godzilla don’t actually matter. They are our portal into the story, the lens through which we see everything, but their insignificance is their defining trait. Take, for instance, the best sequence of the film, when Ford and some Navy paratroopers halo jump into San Francisco in the middle of a knock-down drag-out between Godzilla and his antagonists. They skydive down, breaking through the cloud cover to reveal the giant lizard and waves of carnage in his wake. Edwards lifts Ligeti’s Requiem from 2001: A Space Odyssey to score the scene, and it works beautifully. It’s a breathtaking visual feast that calmly and directly points out exactly how small these little humans are compared to their threats. In a film like this, the humans are allowed to be wooden and silly and a little grating. They can get away with it because they are just insects compared to the real stars.
Godzilla succeeds precisely due to its mix of modern technological wonder, old school devotion to the themes that made the series the genre-defining behemoth it has been, and a measured understanding of what makes a story like this work on the big screen. It is by no means perfect; regardless of the insignificance of the characters, wooden acting is still wooden acting, and some of the early nods to the Fukushima disaster and 2011’s tsunami seem a touch tacked on, but once the story gets going and the monsters come out, the film settles into a refreshing and thoroughly entertaining romp. One day, we will get a big budget disaster movie that successfully molds great action and a compelling story with the carnage and the horror, and that will be a great day. In the meantime, Godzilla is not a bad start back in the right direction.