Sixty years ago the original Godzilla (or Gojira) smashed into theaters as a horrible metaphor for the nuclear devastation Japan had yet to recover from. Since then both the movies and character himself have taken on a completely different life as a guardian of Earth against increasingly silly monsters/campy, rubber-suited cult figure. Director Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is an attempt to revitalize the electricity-spewing monster as a figure of terror (we’ll ignore Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version) while also satisfying the cult which grew around the creature over the last six decades. Although the movie doesn’t succeed in all of its ambitious, there is a lot to be satisfied with.
It’s doubtful that any Godzilla movie will again capture the horror which accompanied the original in its initial release. The character simply has simply grown too much outside of its primal meaning. Yet this modern version does pay tribute to the original by hinting at some current fears. Of course nuclear war is there, but in the film’s first hour we become aware of corporate cover-ups which immediately ring of so many recent scandals. From there we learn of secret military operations, government and private industry collusion in lying to the public, and other such issues. However minor, these at least hint at paralleling the fears of 1950’s Japanese audiences facing a nuclear monster.
This is also where the movie finds its deepest flaws. Like any other disaster/monster flick, Godzilla spends much of its time building up to an event which the entire audience bviously knows about and actually came to see. It’s unfortunate then that our most identifiable protagonist, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, looking absolutely nothing at all like Kick-Ass), doesn’t display much character other than being our point of view to most of the action. In fact, CGI monsters excepted, he looks especially small compared a supporting cast that wouldn’t be out of place in a Oscar-baiting prestige drama. Further, the collective talents of Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen (the best Olsen sister), Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche can’t elevate the characters or the dialog to anything more than typical monster movie drivel. We’re left to wonder why, out of the millions of people affected by these events, we should care about this lot over all others.
Yet this focus on the human level is also what makes Godzilla work best. It’s not that we particularly care about these people, it’s that these people are so incredibly tiny compared to the threat descending upon them. It’s when Godzilla stops building and becomes the monster movie we all expected that things start to get good. The monster effects are nothing short of astonishing (although the water effects are much less so), most notably in the way that Godzilla’s expressions carry as much emotion as Taylor-Johnson’s. Whereas Godzilla movies, and Transformers after them, have favored distant shots of mass destruction, this time we’re on the street watching from the ground-up as titans stomp down bridges and collapse buildings like crumbling paper (and might I add, as someone born in Honolulu, there’s a sort of morbid triumph in seeing my hometown finally become important enough to destroy in a monster movie. In your face, New York!). It’s an ant’s-eye view to devastation, and a reminder just how tiny and powerless humanity truly is.
Yet even with all its destruction, and there is a lot of it, Godzilla‘s greatest strength is in silence. Rather than burden the action with an omnipresent and cumbersome musical score, Edward often favors either minimal accompaniment or an eerie quiet. The image of fighter jets falling from the sky in absolutely silence is more impactful than the loudest explosion set to a bass blast.
If nothing else, Godzilla is an effective experiment in perspective. Sure, some will argue that the titular monster is hardly a presence through most of his own movie, but like the shark in Jaws or the killer in Seven, that’s what makes him special. It’s why hearing that metallic scream is such a wonderful moment. It was, after all, once Godzilla became commonplace that the character went from terrifying to silly. It’s just too bad that the human characters and their stories couldn’t be as compelling as a speechless monster.