My first major exposure to Godzilla was during one of the countless movie marathons that ran back then. This was before the Sci-Fi Channel started deliberately misspelling their name. When there was nothing on basic cable TV but reruns of everything you ever saw from your childhood, or at least wish you had. It was there that I first witnessed a giant lizard teaming up with, of all things, a silver robot that somehow could grow to the size of a skyscraper, and the two proceeded to kick the crap out of a giant insect sent to kill everyone from an underwater civilization called Seatopia. It was completely insane and ridiculous, so naturally, I fell in love.
Fast-forward a few years, and I’ve consumed about as much of Godzilla as I could. From the batshit adventures of a heroic monster that watches over mankind, to the dark and terrifying exploits of a beast bent upon showing humanity who’s boss (hint: it’s not us). And along comes this movie from director Gareth Edwards, which promises to outdo the– shall we saw, less-than-awesome American entry from a few years prior. Like Godzilla himself, that’s a pretty tall order. Read on for this spoiler-lite review.
Godzilla fandom is an interesting mix of people. There’s a significant faction that says these movies are all about campy action, where the monsters are king (heh) and the humans are useless fodder. If you watch the right movies, that’s a reasonably accurate description. And, while I do get a kick out of watching the big G shoot atomic fire in order to make himself fly through the air like a rocket, or seeing him literally perform a flying kick on his enemies like Daniel-san in the final round while a stone-faced Mister Miyagi looks on (sweep the leg, Megalon!), I have to say that this is not always my preferred style for the franchise.
Anyone who has not seen the original, uncut japanese film “Gojira” should really do themselves a favor and take a gander at the awesomeness that was this movie. Here you’ll find the deep and serious story of a people locked in the jaws of a menacing creature that absolutely devastates their world, and the small band of humans that rally together to fight back. It’s not all wacky nonsense (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s a human story as well as an action flick. This, above all else, seems to be the tonal inspiration behind the new film by director Gareth Edwards.
I knew going in we’d get something a little different. Among Edwards’ previous credits was 2010’s low-budget kaiju drama, “Monsters.” Despite the name and the giant-beasty trappings, this was a character piece first and foremost, and the non-human element took a major backseat. In Edwards’ Godzilla, you see significantly more of the big bads. But perhaps not as much as some people will be satisfied with.
Bryan Cranston, fresh off the heels of the amazing AMC series “Breaking Bad,” kicks off the proceedings. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know how utterly racked with hysteria he is over the srs business that’s been going down in this world that we’ve just been thrust into. He adds a great deal of gravitas and emotion for the surprising events of the movie’s opening act. The delightfully puffy Aaron Taylor-Johnson joins him as the film’s lead hero, with a wife and kid he’s got to protect at all costs. If it sounds alarmingly like every disaster film you’ve ever seen, I don’t blame you. It’s likely the most Hollywood-conventional element of the film. To the cast’s credit, it’s beautifully performed when it counts. Though perhaps a shot or two of adrenaline wouldn’t have hurt Johnson’s delivery.
Speaking of counting. I think I lost track of all the different in-jokes and references to past monsters in the franchise. Mothra alone racks up a considerable tally by the end. It’s a delight to hear the name of Doctor Serizawa again. And to see a fair portion of the film’s important events play out in Godzilla’s old stomping grounds of Japan. Clearly, this thing is helmed by someone who loves the film series. Apparently, this movie also stars the entire cast of Canada. Every actor, in the entire country. I challenge any hardcore “Battlestar Galactica” fan, or fan of half a dozen other Canadian productions, to watch this thing and not count off at least a few of those crazy canucks. They own this movie in a major way.
But primary ownership goes to the man himself. The big lizard, who seems to have grown since the last time we saw him (whether that be in the painfully “quirky” American flick, or the explosion-tastic “Godzilla Final Wars”). What I love about the presentation of Godzilla in this film is the atmosphere. To deliver such a thing is a skill that often seems lost these days. Favored instead are films that play more like highlight reels, where everything is big, everything is loud, and everything flies right at you in a million flaming pieces. And some of that stuff is really freaking awesome. But if it’s a constant barrage of the same thing, I can’t say I’m always blown away, even though everything on the screen certainly is.
And, while I’m sure there will be many divided schools of thought on this matter, and even I might have expected a few more stompy, blasty bits throughout the movie, I ultimately come out more on the side of the filmmaker here. Sometimes less is more. This was never going to be “Pacific Rim: Part Deux,” and I didn’t want it to be. I enjoyed the hell out of that movie, and would love to get a sequel out of it, but that was an intentionally crazy adventure piece. This is a deadly-serious drama, where much of the city-toppling mayhem is seen from the perspective of the people on the ground, scrambling to get the hell out of Godzilla’s way as he seeks out his prey.
A few fans may be disappointed to hear that none the many famous monsters of Godzilla’s past make appearances in this movie. The likes of King Ghidorah, Mothra, Rodan, and the rest will have to form a line to the left, as a new villainous creature steps into the ring. Honestly, I would have done the same thing. I love the old monsters, but in the over two-dozen films in this franchise, I just wish we had gotten a few more chances for originality. Obviously, those classic monsters bring in the big bucks, and I’ll be glad to see any one of them again some day. But I was happy to see they decided to step out of the nostalgia bubble on this one and just come up with something new.
And, while a great deal of the movie’s biggest action is left for the final confrontation, when it all finally does hit the fan, it’s pretty satisfying. Including one particular element that was left out of the main trailer– though I confess I did stop paying attention to previews after a certain point, in a desperate attempt to stay unsullied by spoilers. For those that have been equally left in the dark, let’s just say this is one American Godzilla that comes with all the bells and whistles of his Japanese forebears. I may or may not have punched the air at one point toward the end. If a fanboy claps in the middle of a packed theater when things are blowing up on-screen, does it make a sound?
So, is this a good film? Absolutely. Will it appease everyone? Well, no, but that would have been true no matter what. Anyone who goes in expecting a wall-to-wall slugfest between monsters may be setting themselves up for disappointment. The film is masterfully directed, but it’s not designed to launch you out of your seat with fight scenes, so much as glue you to it with tension, suspense, intrigue, and human drama. And yes, lots of stuff goes boom as you get closer to the cataclysmic ending. The film’s score does wonderfully with eerie mystery and explosive chaos, though there is one particular music cue at the very end that I might have changed, given the opportunity. And what’s with the weird lack of reaction shots on a couple key moments?
These choices aside, I’d say they handed the reins of Godzilla to the right guys. They have a reverence for the material, but not so much that they abandon their own style or have nothing of themselves to offer. There’s a distinct flavor that you just don’t get in a lot of big spectacle flicks these days. We should be so lucky as to get more like this in the years to come.