For as long as I can possibly remember, I’ve had a fascination with monster movies. Whether it’s the intriguing idea of imagining giants beasts ruling the earth, or just the sheer terror of the hell they can rain upon the human race, monsters on film capture the essence of nature’s truest and most beautiful form. Sadly, a majority of western culture doesn’t agree.
Western cinema has had a pretty terrible track record when it comes to putting beasts on the big screen. To most, monster movies only succeed in conjuring memories of terrible audio tracking, corny CGI, and worn out plot devices. Even the most recent monster movie, del Toro’s Pacific Rim, proved to be no match for the Western box office. The idea of monster movies started and greatly succeeded exclusively in the international theater — until now, of course.
I’ll say it now: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is most-likely going to be the biggest blockbuster of 2014. Forget everything you think you know about Godzilla. Forget the terrible dubs, campy mecha-zilla, and failed attempts to revive the cinematic genius that was Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla. Edwards’ $160 million attempt to breathe life into the aging franchise proves not only to be an overwhelming success, but the start of something cinema has needed for a long time: unhinged imagination.
The film starts us in Japan, where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife are working at a nuclear power plant. Upon finding odd seismic readings, all of which are increasing in frequency, Brody attempts to sound the alarm to oncoming disaster — but no one is listening. Disaster soon strikes, killing Brody’s wife and leaving nothing but sorrow in its wake. Fast forward 15 years, and we find Brody’s son, Ford (played by Kick-Ass‘ own Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returning home from a 14-month military stint. What was supposed to be a joyous reunion with his wife and child soon turns into an emotional nightmare as Ford is called to Japan to bail out his estranged father — a man who can’t seem to let go of the past.
As it would seem, Joe Brody is still obsessed with the notion that whatever caused the horrors at the nuclear power plant 15 years earlier was no natural disaster, but the result of the mysterious seismic activity — and he’s certain it’s about to happen again. With Ford in tow, Joe Brody sets out to prove that the government is hiding a terrible secret. It’s not until the seismic patterns line up and the duo comes face-to-face with a creature of unmatched proportions does Joe’s once-thought insanity prove to be justified. The creature is set loose on the world, and there’s only one thing that can stop him: Godzilla.
From there, the film plunges into an ever-constant thrill ride that proves monster movies can be more than just ridiculous brawls and lackluster performances. By and by, Godzilla is a completely character-driven experience. Seeing as Godzilla, as intelligent as he may be, is still just a giant lizard, the emotional performance has to come from the film’s main stars — and they most certainly deliver. Cranston’s time as Joe Brody is a regrettably short-lived performance, but his character serves as an important catalyst for the plot. With what little time he has in the film, Cranston delivers a very real and very heartfelt characterization of Joe Brody; a great deal of it involves his classic “I am the one who knocks” speech mindset, and it seems to be one in which Cranston is undeniably comfortable being in.
Aaron-Johnson’s performance lacks much of the emotional complexity Cranston brought to the screen, but there are certainly a few select moments where his character’s stoic nature feels fluid. Nonetheless, Aaron-Jonhson brings interesting depth to Ford, touching on deeper emotions when paired onscreen with his wife, Elle — played by Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy). While the pair spends most of the movie separated, the chemistry between the two is almost palpable as they interact both in person and via telephone. There’s a certain electric dynamic that drives the audience to connect with the duo on a personal level, allowing for a very natural and believable performance.
And of course, where would we be if we didn’t talk about the main man himself: Godzilla. For a long time, casual movie-goers have believed that Godzilla’s role in cinematic history is one only of destruction; that he exists solely to terrorize and punish the human race. However, Godzilla originated as a social commentary on the world’s dependence on nuclear technology, and Edwards’ Godzilla can certainly serve as a homage to that. But Godzilla isn’t a ruthless killing machine; he exists for a purpose — one that doesn’t include killing the entire human race.
Not even 5 minutes into the film, we are treated to our first glimpse of the famed beast. Afterwards, we’re constantly teased with bits and pieces of of the goliath, until ultimately, mid-way through the film, we see Godzilla in all his chunky glory. All the teasing up to this point was well-worth the wait, as the tension throughout the entire film allows for a fluid pace that doesn’t leave the audience bored. Godzilla, aesthetically, is everything you could have ever hoped for and more. It’s often-times hard to make a giant lizard both terrifying and God-like, but Edwards accomplishes it without breaking a sweat. Equipped with the boisterous “skreeonk” roar, he makes for a dynamic focal point whenever shown on the big screen. Of course, underneath all the sharp teeth and scales, Godzilla serves as more than just humanity’s savior; he’s the embodiment of Mother Nature. He is the chaotic neutral in the world, and he will stop at nothing to restore proper balance to the ecosystem — a balance that has been thrown off with the hatching of the MUTO’s.
Ah, yes. Plural. There is not one, but two Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms in the film, and the flying one we’ve been teased with in the trailers pales in comparison to it’s female counterpart. The monsters themselves are something of a CGI masterpiece, seeing as GCI monsters are very often hit or miss. The sheer colossal size of both monsters is awe-inspiring, and upon further examination, there’s much more depth to the pair than meets the eye. First and foremost, the male MUTO is able to emit a crippling EMP — the same one that destroyed the nuclear plant 15 years prior. He also has the ability to fly, making him no longer a terrestrial organism, but we can’t be too picky. The female, on the other hand, is at least double the male’s size, and has has a single goal: mate.
This is where much of the social commentary comes into play. The MUTO feed and thrive off of radiation, and will stop at nothing to get it. All of it plays into the metaphor of man’s hubris and the struggle versus nature. As Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) states in the film, “the arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control, and not the other way around,” the human race has come to believe they are immune to the blunt force of nature’s will. It is not until the appearance of the MUTO that humankind begins to realize the folly of their ways.
In the end, what really brings the entire film together is the terrific cinematography. In no way does Godzilla suffer from juvenile shots, senseless destruction, and boring framework. Every scene is beautifully shot, each one masterfully thought out and composed. One shot I felt really stood out is actually one that was shown in one of the first-ever teasers for the film: the HALO jump. The stark constant between the beauty seen after opening the bay door and the fiery remnants of San Francisco proves to be total eye candy. Throw in a beautiful wide-angle scene of the falling soldiers with red flares, and the film instantly becomes more than just a monster movie. It’s more Spielberg than Bay, and exactly the treatment Godzilla needs.
Overall, Godzilla is a shining example of untapped potential monster movies have in this day and age. Every aspect of the film is played out with absolute tenacity and precision, lending to a cohesive piece that leaves you wanting more before you even leave your seat. Even those who aren’t fans of the monster genre or the Godzilla legacy will find something to love in Edwards’ epic. Gareth Edwards proves that monster movies can be so much more than a campy mess and mindless destruction — they can be dimensional, methodic, and a testament to human emotion. So take a moment to forget superheroes, and invite Godzilla into your life; you just may find your new favorite movie.
Godzilla is out in theaters everywhere May 16, 2014