When I was a kid, about ten or eleven, I had a nightmare about Godzilla. I was in one of those big industrial warehouses, the kind with the frosted windows. Outside, the world was on fire, and in the fire I saw a massive shape moving toward me. I couldn’t see what the shape was, exactly, but you know how dreams are…sometimes you just KNOW things. The warehouse began to burn, with me in it, and there was nothing I could do.
The thing I remember most about the nightmare (or any memorable dream), was the way it felt. That echo of dread, of insignificance and inability to act has stayed with me ever since. And ever since, I’ve been waiting for a Godzilla movie to deliver that same feeling.
The closest a Godzilla movie has ever come is the original, and I say this after having re-watched it recently after about 15 years since my last viewing. Say what you will about the guy in the rubber suit, there’s just something about those black and white nighttime shots of Godzilla stomping through Tokyo, silhouetted against a a burning skyline; something about that shot of a woman sitting helplessly on the street, praying as a building crumbles around her; something about the scene following Godzilla’s attack, as a children’s choir sings a sullen song over shots of devastation and people being treated for their injuries.
It isn’t difficult to figure out why these images are so powerful: less than a decade before, Japan had witnessed the horrors of nuclear attack first hand. The director, Ishiro Honda, had intended to make a movie about a recent U.S. nuclear test that went awry in the Bikini Atoll, but politics kept it from happening, so he went allegorical instead.
When I first heard about the new Godzilla movie, the filmmakers where saying all the right things: this movie would be true to the spirit of the original, and it would be made with the help of TOHO, the Japanese film company that owns Godzilla. They discussed the pains they took to make Godzilla relevant to modern society, to make him scary again. They said the focus would be on people, not visual effects. Godzilla would have weight, physically and emotionally.
Early trailers re-enforced these philosophies. The first teaser showed several soldiers HALO diving into an apocalyptic hell-scape while something massive crept through the smokey chaos behind them. Watching that, I felt the tinge of that same dread I felt as a kid, alone in my bed in the middle of the night after waking from a nightmare.
Well…this is NOT the movie I thought, or hoped, it would be. And surprisingly, I’m okay with that. Because this Godzilla movie, for what it is, is still the best damn Godzilla movie made since that original.
What it does is straddle the line somewhere between the dour seriousness of the original and the sometimes completely insane fun of the later movies, where Godzilla was a defender of earth facing off against other, more destructive monsters. The human element of the film is passable–nothing particularly memorable, but nowhere near as bad as some other reviewers have made it out to be.
My main problem with the human element is how convenient it all is. Our POV character is in Japan when the first monster attack occurs. Fine, I can accept that. He went there to investigate something strange. Makes sense. He then leaves Japan to return to his family in San Francisco. He has a layover in Hawaii, just as that same monster is a few miles away, eating the nuclear reactor out of a Russian submarine. He then hops a military flight heading to the states, still with the priority of simply going home. Said flight is then diverted to Nevada, where another monster attack has occurred, and once again he finds himself at the center of the action. Like I said, convenient. It continues in this way throughout the movie, and perhaps I’m making it sound worse than it is. But it is the one major quibble I have about the plot.
As for the plot, it deals with three monsters, Godzilla and two others, and those two others are surprisingly well done. I would go so far as to say they’re sympathetic; they’re just two prehistoric animals that awaken on opposite sides of the modern world and then begin to move toward each other in order to mate. When they finally meet, it’s actually kind of sweet (and echoes Gareth Edwards own directorial debut, ‘Monsters’). They bump heads and the male gives the female a gift, which will serve as food for their young. They defend their nest, and each other, in battle. They don’t seem so much monsters as giant animals filling a biological imperative. They have motivation. They’re believable characters in their own right, where they simply could have been punching bags for Godzilla.
Which they ultimately become, once the big guy shows up. And when he does show up and rises fully from the waters of San Francisco bay, he is majestic. Motion Capture guru Andy Serkis ( Gollum in Lord of Rings, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of Apes) served as a consultant on the movie, and it shows. Godzilla moves with a lumbering gait that feels proper for a 350 foot tall mountain of muscle and thick scales, and his face is quite expressive in close ups (too expressive for some people, perhaps. There’s an odd humanity about him).
Much of the action is seen from our human character’s POV, a decision that serves to establish a brilliant sense of scale. You know that HALO jump in the trailers? What you see moving in the smoke below is completely different in the movie itself, and it’s ten times more bad ass.
There is a certain restraint present in the action of the film that I find admirable, and the long buildup pays off. Many effects heavy blockbusters in this day and age present their action in long, mind numbing sequences of destruction and mayhem that never let up once they start. Director Gareth Edwards knows when to stop, when to let the audience breath. It’s hard to believe this is only his second theatrical movie, and the first one of this high profile. The movie is more comparable to Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in terms of pacing and the way effects are used than to any thing Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay have done in the last ten years. People have said the movie is slow. I would counter that this is what blockbusters of this sort USED to feel like, before Hollywood started barfing three hour long VFX reels onto the screen.
I’d say, go see it. If you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie before, this is as good a place to start as any. Minor quibbles about plot convenience aside, it’s well worth your time.
Godzilla (2014), Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros., Rated PG-13
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche