British director Gareth Edwards makes his Hollywood debut in jaw-dropping style, bringing Godzilla back to the big screen in a grand scale action adventure that is pitched perfectly between obligatory disaster drama and indulgently delightful monster mash.
2014 marks the 60th anniversary since Toho Studios first unleashed Godzilla onto the big screen. Hondo Ishiro's film is a surprisingly bleak and mournful allegory of Atomic Age fears that was largely butchered ahead of international release, only to have recently been restored to its former glory. In the six decades since, the King of the Monsters has evolved from a mindless force of destruction into more of a guardian figure, defending (for the most part) Tokyo from a rogues gallery of marauding giant beasts - or kaiju - both alien, mutated and indigenous in nature.
After the disastrous efforts of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to translate Japan's greatest (or at least largest) export into a Hollywood-friendly property, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures have been entrusted with the task this time out, and the results are exponentially better. Max Borenstein's intelligent and respectful script understands the expectations of Godzilla fans, while doing its best to introduce the concept to audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the notion of giant monsters doing something other than simply destroying everything in their path. That said, the script is not slavishly enchained to its roots, creating a new origin story that remains coherent while also steering the film's overall message in a slightly new direction.
In 1999, a mining project in the Philippines collapses when a large underground cavern is discovered, housing the fossilised remains of a giant, unidentifiable creature, as well as similarly unregistered cocoons - one of which is still intact. Shortly thereafter, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) pick up strange seismic readings at their power plant in Janjira, Japan. Their attempts to shut down the plant fail, and Sandra is killed as the structure collapses.
15 years later, young Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now a bomb disposal expert with the US Navy, receives a call that his estranged father has been arrested in Japan, attempting to break into the still-quarantined Janjira plant. Leaving his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son behind, Ford heads to Japan, only for both Brody men to soon find themselves in custody at Janjia. Joe's rantings attract the attentions of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who seems to hold the key to what is really going on. But before they can join forces, all hell breaks loose at the plant.
While on paper it might have seemed an incredibly ballsy, perhaps even misguided, move on Warners' part to put 35-year-old Gareth Edwards in charge of a US$160 million summer tentpole release, as to-date he has only directed one other film. You only need look at 2010's Monsters, however, to know that the Godzilla franchise is in incredibly safe hands. While this time out, Edwards has been forced to relinquish control of the film's cinematography, editing and visual effects - all of which he handled pretty much single-handedly in addition to directing his debut - there remain many similarities between the two films, both in narrative structure and execution.
For the first hour of Godzilla, we see very little of the monsters themselves - and yes that's monsters plural - but Edwards does a great job of setting the scene, laying the breadcrumbs and ratcheting up the tension until he lets things rip in the second half. This was very much the situation in Monsters too, where - for budgetary reasons more than anything else - Edwards was unable to show his giant cephalopod aliens running amok, but would have his characters arrive after the fact, to survey and process the devastation. In Godzilla, we are always one step behind the carnage, or barricaded too far away to get a good look at what is going on. It's a risky approach, especially when Borenstein's script shows such a disinterest in developing any multi-faceted characters, but under Edwards' assured guidance it comes off brilliantly.
Thankfully, when all is revealed, and the King of the Monsters arrives in Hawaii, it proves an incredible sight to behold. Godzilla is a cinematic icon every bit as recognisable and intimidating as King Kong or even Frankenstein's monster. He is the reason audiences have bought their tickets and have been sat with baited breath for an hour, and Edwards' monster has size, weight, and most importantly personality, which was so sorely lacking in the previous English-language outing. This is the other great strength in Monsters that Edwards transfers across to this film - his creatures have character, he makes us believe they are living, breathing entities with a purpose, rather than simply marauding mindless mounds of meaningless muscle. It's one of the biggest failings of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, but proves one of Godzilla's greatest triumphs.
More than anything, audiences want to see Godzilla in action, which doesn't mean terrorising innocent bystanders or knocking over buildings - those things are merely window dressing for the main event. As the film's only memorable line of dialogue so eloquently states: "Let them fight". There are bigger things at stake than what we puny humans can comprehend. We are far from the most important things on the planet. Godzilla knows this, and as much as anything else, the film is about us learning and understanding that our planet was here long before we were and will outlive us all. Godzilla is not the threat, he is the solution. There are other beasties out there, giant bug-like creatures dubbed by the military M.U.T.O. - Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms - that can emit an electromagnetic pulse large enough to disable an entire city or army and feed on radiation and nuclear weapons. In other words something we have no way of defeating. At times like this, we need a friend. A big one.
As in any cinematic incarnation of Godzilla, it's the monsters that take centre stage and the human characters are at best of secondary significance. While Borenstein's script lovingly stages epic encounters between towering creatures of mass destruction - set to a triumphant score by Alexandre Desplat - those standing idly by are developed far less successfully. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has yet to prove he has any kind of range, and does little to advance that notion here. Ford Brody is a beefcake grunt haunted by a traumatic childhood, but ATJ's performance seems to begin and end with how wide his eyes are open. Brody has no personality to speak of, regardless of whether he's reuniting with his family or facing certain death by giant monsters. He's not so much a charisma vacuum as simply part of the furniture.
Sadly, other far more talented thespians are also buried under the rubble of Godzilla's carnage. Elizabeth Olsen does a fine job of staring tearfully at TVs or collapsing buildings, but that's pretty much where her job description ends. Similarly, Sally Hawkins, as Watanabe's dutiful sidekick, steps in to give backstory and exposition about Godzilla's origins from time to time, but otherwise stands and nods as her boss looks increasingly concerned. Filling out the female cast is Juliet Binoche, who manages to create a more emotionally powerful and believable relationship with Bryan Cranston in their two brief scenes together than anyone else in the film. Almost as punishment, she is dispatched the moment her quality acting is recognised.
This leaves Cranston and Watanabe to carry the film's dramatic weight on their more than capable shoulders, a task they handle diligently despite also having precious little scope to work with on the page. Joe Brody starts off strong but gets increasingly hysterical as his character is painted more and more like an obsessive madman. Conversely, Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa is always the smartest man in the room, knows exactly what these creatures are and how they are going to act, so simply furrows his brow when he's not pontificating on Godzilla's true role in all our destinies.
But to criticise Godzilla for having poor characterisation would be to miss the point of the film. The title tells us who our hero is and who we should be rooting for, and thankfully this time out the filmmakers know that too. While Emmerich's version tried to do everything in its power to distance itself from the original character, inexplicably taking dead aim at Spielberg's Jurassic Park films instead, Edwards completely understands the towering legacy of Godzilla and his numerous adversaries, and lovingly embraces it all. The only reason to invoke Spielberg's dinosaur film in this discussion at all is to strip it of its crown. Edwards' Godzilla is not only a safe bet as the best summer blockbuster of 2014, it's the best monster movie since Jurassic Park. Where it stands in the 60-year pantheon of Godzilla lore, however, is something for us all to fight about, preferably laying waste to a large city in the process.