Confined by the paradigm of the modern day blockbuster, Gareth Edwards‘ Godzilla kowtows to any and all that have preceded, ticking the formulaic narrative boxes along the way. Owing a lot to the grand scale of Michael Bay’s Transformers – at times it could be Optimus Prime fighting Megatron as much as it’s Godzilla vs M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) – you’re presented with, arguably, as ‘big’ a blockbuster as you’ve ever seen.
There are glimpses of Edwards’ visual flare, first seen in his breakthrough and stand-out 2010 feature debut, Monsters, verging on brilliance (the jaw-dropping red skydive sequence); screaming, as loud as Godzilla himself, through the gaps left by the surrounding cage of clichés – promising something truly original but always encased in the inescapable bubble of Hollywood. There’s a blueprint to follow that will make the most money; so stick to it.
In line with that, the marketing campaign has been very good but also very clever. All the, it must be said, excellent trailers that were released played very heavily on Bryan Cranston’s character as the lead of the movie. Discerning nod to Mr Hitchcock, circa 1960, here.
Cranston certainly delivers the (considerable) gravitas needed with the casting of KickAss (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and one of those Olson girls (Elizabeth) who are both just fine but young and pretty rather than anything special or captivating. They are the peppercorn sauce to Cranston’s 24-day-aged sirloin steak.
Taylor-Johnson is almost unrecognisable here from his green spandex days but he makes an admirable attempt at stretching his acting talents to fill out a much more grown-up role (if you thought he was starting to bulk up in KickAss 2 then it appears he’s been very busy since). Ken Watanabe picks up the reins as senior statesman in the acting department and is always interesting to watch but spends much of his screen time looking either bemused or lost.
The best character in the film, after Cranston, is Godzilla himself; somewhere between giant amphibian Gorilla (‘Godzilla’ translates from the Japanese compound Gojira: half gorilla, half whale) and monstrously cute black Labrador, at one point even shooting puppy eyes at Taylor-Johnson, his size is formidable and his resolve indefatigable.
Our destructive neighbourhood leviathan goes up against the M.U.T.O.s, vast prehistoric creatures, from the depths of the Earth, who feed on radiation and will stop at nothing to get their lunch. The design of these beasts is close in concept to Edwards’ creations in Monsters; not alien or fantastical, they are believable evolutionary grotesque-isms; with suggestions of a bird’s wing here and an insect’s abdomen there. This is a nice angle; we all came from the same origins, the same primordial beginnings, these are just supermassive and prehistoric variations on those principal themes. The science is brief but feasible, making this more near-future reality than pure science-fiction fantasy.
As Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa says: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control, and not the other way around.”
In an attempt to polarise us against this ‘nature’ we spend a lot of time with the human characters, spoon-feeding us pathos and emotional engagement. When the gigantic CGI set pieces do occur they’re so sought after and vital that their impact is redoubled. The special effects are awesome in scope and quality anyway but when punctuating elongated and generic exposition scenes they’re even more welcome and enjoyable.
This is a monster movie with a celebrated history and it deserves credit for the manner in which it pays homage to its filmic ancestory. Setting half the film in Japan being a particularly nice touch, although clearly questionable is the sequence involving a Japanese nuclear power plant disaster. Yes it’s flabby, unoriginal and drags in places but it delivers where it absolutely must: in blockbuster over-the-top-special-effects-action-spectacular splendour.
Messrs Nolan and Whedon (Dark Knight and Avengers respectively) showed the world it’s possible to go big and still maintain a proper film with (a little bit of) soul along the way. Edwards joins that club but brings a little something of his own to the party. The visuals in Godzilla are faultless, which in a massive blockbuster monster-disaster movie is the key. And Edwards uses that key to knowingly unlock the doors on this impressive, albeit formulaic, modern day reimagining of a cinema classic.