Godzilla has had a career unlike any star of the silver screen. Debuting in 1954, Ishirō Honda’s Gojira was a somber, bleak and quite realistic depiction of the sheer destructiveness of nature (itself an allegory for humanity’s own penchant for destruction). From there, some 27 films later, the franchise has gone through many iterations. Sometimes Godzilla’s simply a monster, sometimes a hero, sometimes he’s truly terrible and frightening, and other times a chintzy, campy joke. Yet though all of it, Godzilla endures. [Minor SPOILERS follow.]
Stomping its way in to theatres this weekend is Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla, the series’ most recent installment intended to celebrate the big, green guy’s 60th anniversary. A co-production between Warner Bros. and Legendary – one of their last, in fact – Godzilla goes for the careful balancing act of updating the look of man lumbering along in a rubber suit with digital effects while remaining true to the monster’s iconic design (something, among many things, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla tried and failed).
But there’s more going on in Godzilla than simply giant monsters – yes, plural – battling it out while tiny humans flee. Edwards’ Godzilla, which he directed off a script by Max Borenstein, infuses the typical monster movie genre with family drama better than most. It’s not perfect, and come Oscar season no one will be citing this film’s gripping plot or performances as shoe-ins for any nominations, but there’s a heart to Godzilla that was sorely missing from, uh… Godzilla (1998).
The key to getting across Godzilla‘s more emotional beats was in casting Bryan Cranston. How many people do you know that once they heard Cranston was in Godzilla were willing to give the film a shot? The man’s hugely popular and for good reason: he’s an incredible performer, one who can very easily and very quickly endear himself to the audience. Cranston allows us to sympathize with his character, Joe Brody, father and nuclear physicist, moments after appearing on screen.
Unfortunately, when the films needs to rely on the rest of its cast that emotional connection isn’t as strong. Not to say Aaron-Taylor Johnson as Brody’s son, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Ford Brody, or Elizabeth Olson as Ford’s wife, Elle, give poor performances. On the contrary, both deliver believable reactions to the giant beasts rampaging throughout as well the destruction left in their path, but their central story of a family separated during crisis is a little thin.
Juliet Binoche as Brody’s wife and Ford’s mother, herself a nuclear regulations consultant at the same plant her husband works at, also gives a captivating performance, which is crucial given her short screen time and its importance to the film’s setup. Ken Watanabe‘s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa is another wonderful though maybe a little underutilized character. Not so much a voice of reason among the chaos as an observer who’s learned the truth, his commentary gives Godzilla its undercurrent of man’s arrogance bringing our own ruin and nature’s ability to level the playing field.
Though admittedly, Edwards’ Godzilla is less a metaphor for nuclear power than Honda’s film, and here the giant kaiju is literally a force of nature. One that is unconcerned with us pesky humans running amok as it is ensuring the planet isn’t wiped out thanks to our ignorance. More than once the film depicts disastrous scenes that have become all the more familiar: meltdowns, tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes, etc. So in a way, Edwards’ film mirrors Japanese audiences watching Honda’s Godzilla in 1954 only nine years after enduring the atomic bomb attacks, with scenes of abandoned cities, water-flooded streets, and stadiums bursting with refugees that today’s audiences will find strikingly familiar.
However, you might be thinking, “Yeah, but this is a Godzilla movie, I’m not here for award-winning performances or heavy environmental messages. I just want to see Godzilla fuck shit up!” And while those wanting Godzilla to reinvent the genre and give a more gratifying human story may be a little disappointed, fans who are only in it to see “Godzilla fuck shit up” will be very, very pleased.
There’s no question the King of the Monster’s redesign is a thing of beauty, not only retaining the model of an upright, lumbering lizard but creating a sense of massiveness a man in a rubber suit could never achieve. Every moment Godzilla is on screen it’s impossible to look away. The film cleverly uses a lot of the suspense building techniques from films like Jaws and Jurassic Park, withholding gratification for as long as possible, then blowing your mind with truly awe inspiring reveals. And in fact, Steven Spielberg was as much an influence of Edwards as the original film, something that’s equally apparent in Godzilla‘s want of an impactful, family drama alongside its monster fighting.
Unfortunately, once Godzilla turns its attention towards to the climactic battle that human story is lost. But again, the set pieces of crowds fleeing falling buildings and gigantic beasts battling through San Fransisco will be more than enough to keep an audience’s attention. The film’s other big stars – MUTOs or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism – are thankfully better designed and better utilized than some early looks implied. Cloverfield they are not, but by no means will the MUTOs become as well loved or endure as long Godzilla’s other foes.
Watching Godzilla battle these MUTOs will easily illicit cheers from the audience, I’d almost go as far as to guarantee it. The comparisons to Pacific Rim will undoubtedly happen, but while that film’s battles were truly awesome, there’s definitely something for brand recognition. Whether it’s Godzilla’s tale swinging through buildings, his shattering roar, or his favorite finishing move–blasting his atomic breath, you’ve never seen it better realized for the big screen. And usually I don’t find it all that necessary to see these movies in whatever pumped up, 3-D, smell-o-vision format the studios are pushing, but I found Godzilla benefited really well from the larger IMAX screen and sound system. I mean, you want these monsters to shake your seat, right?
In the end, Godzilla likely won’t be the film to win over those who’ve always found the monster movie a schlocky, overrated affair. Its human story of a family divided can’t hold its own against the film’s monstrous stars, but that’s actually okay. It’s Godzilla’s big 6-0, and Edwards delivers the most gripping cinematic foray the big guy has ever had. Godzilla is (as he should be) the real star here, and this film should easily propel Godzilla towards starring in even more films over the next 60 years.
Godzilla releases in theatres nationwide May 16th.