The giant creature (Muto, it's called) wreaks havoc and devastation. A massive foot lands in the foreground. The camera pans up, up, still farther up the length of this creature. Eventually we’re face to face with it, and as if finally introducing itself, the title creature roars, a sonic blast recognizable from decades of giant monster cinema, but given a new, 21st century feel. And at this point in Godzilla, I start crying.
It was always going to be a difficult assignment. Director Gareth Andrews had drawn, for his second feature directing gig, the 60th anniversary iteration of a beloved fantasy series with a gigantic, iconic monster at its center. He was doing this in Hollywood, whose previous attempt in this franchise was a resounding failure. Even Toho Studios, Godzilla’s home studio, had retired the character indefinitely.
Happily, Edwards was scrappy enough to address the Godzilla mythos much in the way that Orson Welles took on the Shakespeare canon: an avowed fan of the series who wanted to do right by it and by its fans, Edwards nevertheless brings his own eye and ideas to the table. There are aspects of its story familiar from the genre: a wild-eyed scientist (Bryan Cranston, here) whose findings point to something nasty on the horizon; the title monster heading, with ambiguous intentions, to the point of conflict; the ascent of an unambiguously destructive other monster; the failure of the military to repel/contain either creature; the dire prognostications of a Human Who’s Seen Too Much (here scientist Serizawa, a minimal but earthy turn from Ken Watanabe); and the final showdown amid a major metropolis-turned-war-zone.
If these beats are overly familiar, they’re given new life by the energy Edwards brings to them. Edwards (and scenarists Max Borenstein and David Callaham) further embellish the scenario with a number of flourishes and details that make this Godzilla their Godzilla. Not all of these ideas land (at least one fight scene is cut away from cruelly early), and yet some of them, in this context, are downright daring (we’re suddenly seeing this fight on cable news, through the eyes of a young child whose mind is freakin’ blown)(and we’re kicked back to our own first childhood experience of kaiju action). The rogues gallery cast at the very least execute their functions dutifully; Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s munitions expert Ford Brody emerges as the movie’s hero in a somewhat meandering process, but he wins us over. Even Sally Hawkins, who subdues her usual exuberance in an ongoing presence as Serizawa’s aide, gets a sublime quiet moment in her final reaction shot, a graceful, moving coda that the movie earns. I wanna see her go hand-to-hand with the Controller of Planet X. Maybe next time.
Edwards executes this without indulging in overt fanservice. Edwards only really gets meta in a dialectic going on between American general Stantz (David Strathairn), who prefers to simply destroy all (of the) monsters, and Serizawa, who believes that Godzilla is an agent of nature working in the Earth’s defense. It’s as if the militarized action of filmmakers like Michael Bay and the mythic fantasy of Japanese cinema are quietly arguing their virtues and differences right up on screen. (Serizawa’s admonition to “Let them fight” effectively ends the dialogue, as effective a statement of purpose as you could ask from a summer movie.)
Yet even here, there’s more going on: Stantz isn’t simply a power-mad military man. Though all smooth efficiency and military might, his thoughts are never far from the civilians whose lives are at stake. When a plan is launched to defeat the creatures with a bomb, Stantz immediately plots to withdraw civilians from the blast radius, rather than write them off as a regrettable but necessary loss. This morality extends across the movie, with Edwards accounting at some length for the lives at stake; even Godzilla seems to tiptoe carefully around high population areas, and doesn’t even tear through the Golden Gate Bridge until those trigger-happy soldiers leave him no other options (yet even there do Edwards and co. account for the safety of a school bus crossing in his path). Compare this to Zach Snyder’s tone-deaf Man of Steel, in which Superman pummels Zod through buildings across Metropolis, collapsing buildings in his wake without a thought for those inside. (And a friend reminds me that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan killed more San Franciscans than Godzilla does here.) It’s yet another balancing act in a movie full of them, and Edwards manages to create blockbuster-level destruction without callousness or cynicism, thrilling us while keeping us mindful of the human costs of the unfolding story.
I’m not sure if Godzilla will turn out to be a favorite for the year. And yet it pleased both the eternally-young kaiju-fan and the older, more discerning moviegoer in me. It is a rare movie, to be acknowledged, that fully engages one’s adult sensibilities while satisfying something so primal, deep-rooted, and cherished as the love of gigantic monsters beating the tar out of each other.
(Gratitude to Aaron Luk and Chris Sellers for clarifications & discussion.)