The collective scream of an entire people that was Gojira (1954) has a resonance today that has yet to truly be matched. Ishiro Honda's masterpiece managed to channel the anxiety, rage and sorrow of Japan into an allegorical tale of the terrors of the Nuclear Age and how Man, for all his arrogance, can never truly reign in Nature. I remember watching it for the first time as a teenager and noting just how somber it all was. This was a giant monster movie (as I had gone on a binge of watching various 50's sci-fi with rotoscoped monsters and Corman-esque sensbilities) but it wasn't until I took in Honda's Gojira the first time that I truly fell in love with this oft-lambasted subgenre of science-fiction.
Gareth Edwards, a fellow fan of the genre and maker of the critically lauded Monsters (2010), scored the directing gig this time around (much to the joy of all those who still look back on Roland Emmeric's 1998 Iguanadon disaster with a bad taste left on their tongue). The notion of not just showing but unveiling the titular monster is one Edwards takes quite seriously. His approach to the canon is reverential yet some small liberties are taken. A big question that has been asked time and time again by those who've seen the movie involves whether there is enough Godzilla in Godzilla. The answer is that there is just enough. Edwards, who used a similar tactic in the 1-million dollar micro-budget Monsters knew when to reveal his creatures. The payoff of the slow build towards the unveiling of them was massive. Now lets multiply that budget by about 160 times and you've got a director with the good sense to know that we don't need every moment filled with the big G. He isn't the only big monster in town and, by God, there is such a thing as pacing in a film. This wasn't going to be Destroy All Monsters, folks.
The origins of the character are reworked a touch (which might offend some purists) but instead of being the direct result of nuclear fallout, rather, that testing done in the South Pacific wasn't what it seemed. Dr. Ihiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe playing the son of the 1954 namesake and a subtle nod to Ihiro Honda) mentions that those bombs were meant to kill what they discovered. An ancient alpha-predator from an era long before humanity walked the Earth. It is here that screenwriter Max Borenstein (screenplay) and David Callahanm (story) slip in just a touch of Lovecraft with the idea that this creature, far older and far more frightening than we could even fathom, has just been lying deep within the ocean all this time. The arrogance of Man in thinking that Nature could, somehow, be within our control is a thread that runs throughout the long-lived Godzilla franchise and here it is executed brilliantly.
The discovery, however, of other life-forms means that we're not only in for the G-man himself but also other kaiju as well. I won't go into much further than that but I will say this. The design of these monsters, massive they may be, possess far more personality than the trailers will hint at. Godzilla, force of nature that he is, is equal parts CGI wizardy and something that resembles the famous "Suitmation" that have been a hallmark of the films. This Godzilla is far bigger and more rounded out than some of the others but also possessed of an ursine quality. This was a conscious choice by Edwards as he wanted it to feel as multiple giant animals were in the midst of these cities duking it out. Unlike the highly choreographed (and admittedly badass) action of something like Pacific Rim the combat is more savage and unpredictable. It isn't anything we haven't really seen before in prior films but Edwards attention to detail and clear reverence of the Toho brand shows.
The human element, another chief complaint I've heard about the movie from those who deride it, is important. Is it lacking in parts? Sure. This is nothing new to the Kaiju scene, though. You have to have something to anchor all the Monster Madness. This is just a fact. Bryan Cranston brings a lot of pathos to his turn as nuclear plant supervisor turned conspiracy theorist Joe Brody as does Ken Watanabe. The film, however, is truly anchored by Aaron Tyler-Johnson as Joe's son, Ford. The predictably handsome young actor does his best to be the foundation the film needs but falters in such a crucial role. Elizabeth Olsen is thankless but, ultimately, forgettable as his wife. I would have liked to get more out of this component of the film as it drives much of the narrative forward but Ford just isn't a great character nor is he developed as well as one would want.
That failing, though, doesn't detract from what the movie does provide. The sensory decadence on display is delectable and Edwards frames each of the shots in layered nuance that gives those massive wide-shots of San Francisco and Vegas as their terrorized by these massive creatures a much more mural look to them than you'd expect. What I appreciated, above all else, was where most big-budget Hollywood spectacle tentpole pictures tent to be flat and totally dependent on their hollow digital trickery Edwards knew how to blend the artistry with the technical prestidigitation. The choice to slow play the big lizard and his clash with the other beasts, focus more on the perspective of those on the ground as they look up, smacks of past found-footage films like Cloverfield yet has resonance like Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third-Kind. This choice gives the film a bit more plausibility and lends to the immersion of it all. It is especially effective in wide-format theaters like IMAX and one of the few times I felt I got some bang out of my extra dollar for 3D.
If you really want to find something to complain about, though, it is perhaps the other kaiju that are the film's only real problem. All of the film's visual majesty could not cover the fact that, frankly, there is a bit too much of the other guys in this one. There is a definite lack of focus on the titular character that serves as the film's one real problem to me. Godzilla is more of the deus-ex-machina role that he's been relegated to in other sequels and it seems an odd choice. It is, all at once, a very definitely Toho Studios approach to the character and, at the same time, a puzzling choice. This is a re-establishing of the franchise moving forward so it does seem a bit strange we got a less focused look at Godzilla as opposed to the other monsters. I'm not opposed to more monsters, by all means that is not the case, but these other creatures just weren't as interesting or dynamic as Señor Scales.
That said the film itself is a pretty damn good show of talent from the young Gareth Edwards who nearly knocks it out of the park with his first big budget foray into Hollywood. Legendary Pictures really took a risk in letting this untested talent take the helm of what could potentially be the renaissance of giant monster movies. His directorial acumen is on full display for the world to see and, more importantly, we got a GOOD Godzilla flick out of it. I can't wait to see what Edwards has in store for us next.