The biggest compliment I can pay to Godzilla is that it got financed. It’s a film that breaks the common wisdom of the 2014 blockbuster and seeks creative ways to entertain. However, creative means untested or at least atypical, two words that give anxious pause for the major Hollywood studio. One explanation for their open-wallet faith is that it came from the unhesitating mind of British director Gareth Edwards, who became an indie filmmaking hero with his 2010 debut, Monsters. Judging Monsters on its own terms leaves a lasting impression, but when you learn Edwards wrote, directed, edited, and even did the visual effects himself, it becomes a miracle of indie filmmaking. His reward was an offer to direct the $160 million Godzilla, and it’s thrilling to see that level of talent work on a major studio film.
The credits begin in the 1950s with familiar images of atomic bombs being dropped on tiny tropical islands, testing the power of the world’s first nuclear weapons. We glimpse towering and jagged scales emerge from the ocean. Alexandre Desplat’s excellent and exuberant score dominates this section of the film, full of bombastic strings and cryptic reptilian sounds that sound like a summons by Godzilla. The score often seems mismatched to what’s going on onscreen, but the credits aren’t among them. We immediately plunge into two opening scenes set in 1999. The first shows two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) investigating a gigantic and cavern-like skeleton that housed two alien eggs, with one now missing and ostensibly in the ocean. We later learn this egg is a “MUTO” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The second follows the Brody family, and they work at a nuclear power plant (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche) that in the opening minutes suffers a cataclysmic meltdown. We launch 15 years into the future, and the Brody family son, a military man, is our hero, and it doesn’t take long before all generations of the Brody family become the center of the Kaiju conflict.
Max Borenstein’s script is cripplingly flawed – it’s the single greatest problem of the film — but one thing it does right is how it doesn’t over explain. We infer the meltdown at the power plant is from the MUTO, even if it isn’t shown or even directly alluded to. Over-exposition is a problem of almost every film made for more than a hundred million, so it’s welcome when audiences are expected to fill in at least some of the blanks. That’s one of the keys to making a compelling mystery, but so is having characters the audience can empathize with. Godzilla has none. The cast don’t play human beings, they play emotional cues. Scene 39 needs Elizabeth Olsen acting sad, so she’s sad. Scene 50 needs Aaron-Taylor Johnson gazing at the horizon heroically, so he does. They don’t have characterizations much less a character arc, and it’s a testament to the pacing and natural charisma of the cast that the film doesn’t halt in between buildings getting crushed.
Cranston (and his oeuvre of floppy wigs) leads the cast as the film’s best performance, giving an affectionate turn that riffs off the ‘crazed conspiracy’ nut without overplaying the part. It would be a great sadness if his cinematic stay was brief, since if he turns a part this thin into a character this rich, one wonders how good he’d be in a Fincher or a Tarantino. Although his tenure in the film is brief, Ken Watanabe is convincing as a scientist who feels a palpable bond to the Godzilla creature. If the film cut extraneous characters to flesh out the better ones, it would be a considerably easier film to get invested in. It must be said that while every other member of the cast added to their part, Johnson is the only one who subtracted from it. He’s shown potential in other roles, but here he’s such an under-emoting bore one hopes he’s cast as an android in the next Star Wars.
Instead of falling victim to the trend of instant gratification, Godzilla borrows from the schools of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Alien. Like those films, it isn’t until around halfway through that we actually see the title beastie; we are held in writhing and, to some, frustrating, anticipation. The goal is to stimulate the imagination — make the audience wonder — and use that to build momentum and excitement. There’s a more significant effect to keeping audiences in the shadows as long as possible. In these films, especially Close Encounters and Alien, there’s a pervading feeling of life beyond the frame, as though the story is a vessel through a much larger world, and we’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it and awe. This is a style Edwards treats as gospel, and Godzilla is his sermon.
Some critics have reasoned Godzilla’s super-serious tone is a consequence of the recent surge of dour blockbusters, like Man of Steel or The Lone Ranger, and it might be true to an extent. But treating a larger than life subject with the same seriousness and respect as you would drama is not new. Once again, Edwards looks to the late 1970s for inspiration, as it was an outpour of idealism culturally and as well as in cinema, with Star Wars leading the charge. It was a time where the impossible seemed possible, and glowing alien lights zigzagging through the vast night sky was no longer treated as B-science fiction. Monster sharks, aliens, and adventures in deep space took on an emotional realism almost unheard of previously. This is vital to note, since understanding Godzilla’s influences is key to understanding Godzilla. It must be said that how much you like the film will wholly depend on your own fondness for this era, and that is both a major flaw and a major success of the film.
Godzilla has been marketed as this summer’s ultimate (monster) disaster film, hoping to reign in the same crowds that gave their money to see The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. But, to some degree, this has been misleading. Sure, skyscrapers crumble as gigantic scaled tails whip them apart, but Godzilla is every bit as derivative of Spielberg as J.J. Abram’s homage, Super 8. Edwards has a unique stamp on cinematic language that I’ll get to, but it’s a flaw that he borrows too freely and frequently from the world’s most popular director. Using monsters to provoke an atmosphere of 9/11 apocalyptia is right from War of the Worlds, and he doesn’t seem sheepish in repeating scenes either. Two in particular come to mind: a train on fire rattling past, and a mammoth-sized monster head rising slowly into the frame in profile. Additionally, the ‘Spielberg face' is used to mix wonder and fear, nudging audiences to treat the spectacle with a human perspective in mind. If it seems like I’m over-explaining the film’s debt to Spielberg and the late ‘70s as a whole, it’s because the film sometimes feels like an extended paraphrase. That said, to imitate a master successfully demands a certain level talent, and Edwards is ripe with it.
For me, it worked. There’s a primordial attraction to the bell-curve narrative, where the first half builds up a plot thick with mystery and the last half relishes in divulging it. Moreover, this era is known for showing and not telling, and it is there that Edwards truly excels. The action is staged largely through human eyes, and it’s an effective device, at once claustrophobic and real. Since we see action from our own vantage point, the scale of enormous creatures battling is uniquely felt in a way they couldn’t be in the other monster-fight film, Pacific Rim. Edwards rarely cuts to objective camera, and one particularly effective scene takes place on a bridge under attack by Godzilla. We slip between the perspectives of military men, stranded civilians trying to flee, and people back on the bay watching in fear. We get an intimate sense of a massive scale, and, more importantly, it’s a feeling that few films bother to give. The visual design is consistently wonderful, and each scene, set, and location has a distinct look and flavor. Look to a moment where Godzilla swims underneath an aircraft carrier and the shot is framed from above looking straight down and helicopter lights reveal the miniscule humans sliding on deck.
See, Godzilla isn’t a film of scenes; it’s a film of images. Instead of building to the usual fare like explosions or car crashes, sequences build to stunning portraits, like the image of skydivers chased by red smoke juxtaposed against a beautiful but ominous sky. Edwards constantly plays with where light is in the frame and what the audience can or cannot see, and there’s a stunning artistry in the composition. It’s a funny thing to pay such attention to in a major Hollywood film, but it’s a style that celebrates the capacity of cinematic language as a means not only to excite but to tell a story. The real success of Godzilla is in how Edwards takes pause to luxuriate in the power of the images he’s concocted, whether they’re giant beasts demolishing major cities or flashlights revealing the dark corners of the jungle and how he uses the human element to tether them to the audience. It’s a massively successful formula, one I hope Edwards isn’t scared to repeat.