“The arrogance of man is in thinking nature is in our control.”
At the time of writing, there are 36 movies about Godzilla; which is more than any other film character in history. That is a considerable legacy, especially as fans of Japanese cinema hold many of the original Godzilla movies in an incredibly high regard. The original attempt by a western studio to produce a Godzilla movie in 1998 did not go so well… but in 2014, Warner Bros. And Legendary Pictures teamed up to take a second attempt, intending to launch a new cinematic universe built around their primary monster properties – Godzilla, and King Kong.
The opening credits of Godzilla establish a trend for the series to come; tying in the existence of monsters with key historical events, unveiling a shroud of secrecy created by Monarch, an international organisation tasked with finding the monsters of the world. A mix of news footage from the 1950’s shows Monarch’s archival footage of Godzilla being lured to Bikini Atoll in an attempt to destroy him with a nuclear bomb; re-contextualizing the nuclear testing which the United States carried out along that reef in the 1950’s. This sets a tone for the film; historical events are not what you think they are, an organisation is working to cover things up… monsters exist.
The prologue proper shows Monarch scientists Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, Letters From Iwo Jima) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, The Shape Of Water) investigating a giant skeleton found in a collapsed uranium mine in the Phillipines. The skeleton was housing 2 organic pods; one of which was still in place, but the other had opened and something has escaped. Meanwhile, in the Janjira Nuclear Power plant in Japan, the husband-and-wife duo of supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) and lead technician Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche, The English Patient) unsuccessfully attempt to stop the reactor from going into meltdown as a result of unexpected seismic activity. This sequence sets up the main bones of the film; monsters are not only real, but they are alive; there’s more than one of them, and they’re going to cause problems.
A 15 year time jump introduces us to our central viewpoint character; Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass), son of Joe and Sandra, an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Officer with the U.S. Army, who is called to Japan to deal with his estranged father. Joe has spent 15 years insisting that all is not as it seemed with the Janjira disaster and is caught trespassing in the quarantine zone looking for evidence. Ford leaves his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen, Avengers: Endgame) and son Sam (Carson Bolde, The Never List) to head to Japan to retrieve his father, and ends up becoming embroiled in his quest for answers – especially when it turns out that Joe was right, and that Monarch has been protecting the site of the reacto; which is now home to a giant chrysalis housing the creature from the Phillipines, codename MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object); which hatches while they are on site, and everything starts to unravel as the creature travels to the USA to find a mate, hunted by the military… and by Godzilla.
In terms of Big Monsters Fighting, this set-up is reminiscent of many movies from many franchises that we’ve seen before. What Godzilla does differently here is place the ethical and moral conversation regarding Godzilla and the MUTO at the forefront of the multiple motivations behind each character’s actions. While Ford Brody serves as a primary viewpoint for the actions relating to the military effort against the monsters; Serizawa and Graham serve as moral foils to the decision-making of the military, led by Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum). While the military pursue their policy of complete eradication, the Monarch team are insistent that Godzilla’s presence is good for the planet, and that they should be working to help him battle the MUTOs, not trying to kill all three creatures together. Further to this, Elle and Sam Brody allow the narrative to switch focus on the civilian aspect of the conflict, especially when it reaches San Francisco. While Ford’s interactions before finding the US military in Hawaii add some insight to the personal cost of the monster battles (such as his protection of a young child separated from his parents amongst the carnage); Elle’s nursing profession allows us to see the impact the catastrophic battle is having on the people in a focused view, as she struggles not only to find safety for her son away from the fighting, but also as she continues to try and help the wounded right in the thick of the action. The only downside to her character is that she isn’t given more to do; until the action lands in San Francisco, most of Olsen’s time on screen is simply as a narrative frame to help us track the movement of the action across the Pacific. An actress of her skill could have done a lot more with this role if given the opportunity.
These multiple viewpoints add a depth of context and emotional response that one would not usually expect from a big-budget monster movie, but work incredibly well to frame the story in a grounded and realistic way. Director Gareth Edwards, who was fresh off his indie hit Monsters in 2010, approached this film in much the same way as he did in that previous vehicle; using the threat of destruction, and the widening realisation that there is much that we do not know about the world we live on, to showcase how broad a response the human race can have to a single world-changing event that was not caused by humanity. Edwards’ approach also allows the story to develop at a reasonable pace, letting the audience to keep up with the revelations that are happening on screen as they come. Between Ford and the Monarch/military team, there are a lot of characters who develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the relationship Godzilla and the MUTOs have with each other, and with the world around them. The constant attempts by the military to use nuclear warheads on creatures that feed off radiation keep failing and they refuse to learn from that; but it allows Ford (who is deeply involved in the final military plan to save San Francisco from the carnage) to adapt on the fly when he comes to the conclusion that Godzilla is trying to help them. Edwards handles all these small revelations incredibly well, often choosing to show and not tell, and to allow his lead actors to respond physically to the events around them rather than explicitly stating out loud what their new intentions are, and it plays well through the narrative.
As the only human character who is physically present for the events in Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco (and a lot of what happens in-between), Taylor-Johnson not only provides the aforementioned audience viewpoint but also holds a lot of the action on his shoulders from a human perspective. Despite the larger ensemble cast all being important to the overall story developments, we spend a lot of time with Ford Brody on the ground, and Taylor-Johnson does a great job of not only keeping us engaged with the action, but also demonstrating the toll it is taking on him. His motivations are divided between his duty to help protect the people around him, but also his desire to get back to his family (the narrative conveniently allowing the events to converge where his family is helps with that a lot, though that does seem to be the only reason why we end up in SF). By the climax of the film, Brody looks utterly exhausted; and while I initially read Taylor-Johnson’s performance as strangely lacking emotion when I first watched this film back in 2014; in revisiting the film for this piece I realise that I misread the intention behind his stony demeanour. As time goes on it is more and more evident that Brody is just trying to hold himself together so he can accomplish his tasks; and Taylor-Johnson slowly stripping back his initial exuberance as he narrowly avoids meeting his end, over and over again, is a much more nuanced performance than I originally gave him credit for. His silence is more than just a display of the stereotypical military hard-man persona, but a window into the pain and exhaustion the character feels, all while knowing he has no choice but to keep fighting.
Watanabe also gives us our money’s worth of exhaustion in this piece, but in a different way. Having spent 15 years monitoring and protecting the MUTO chrysalis in Japan, to find himself suddenly contending with the military and their attempts to destroy these titans is his primary source of conflict, and he delivers both in his exasperation at those around him, and also in his calm, quiet confidence in his scientific theory and his personal interpretation of the evidence he is collecting. While Taylor-Johnson is the primary viewpoint for the audience, Watanabe represents our emotional response; as someone who can only view the action and does not actively get involved, his championing of co-operation with Godzilla in combat aligns with our own, and his timely iteration of the now-infamous “let them fight” line is the perfect transition into the final act. The only shame in this use of Watanabe, is that Sally Hawkins often is left on the sidelines in his stead; mostly being used to either provide context to Watanabe’s lines, or as a sympathetic presence when the Stenz is at loggerheads with him. Given the incredible performance she gave us in The Shape Of Water, it’s a shame this script didn’t have more for her to do here. Combined with the underuse of Olsen, this film doesn’t have a whole lot of time for the women in its cast.
Edwards is reserved with the action in the earlier acts so as not to burn the audience out; the first confrontation between Godzilla and the MUTO in Hawaii is but an appetizer for what is yet to come, and the other violent conflicts are used mainly to establish that a human-led assault is likely to fail; so that when Godzilla finally does step ashore in San Francisco to collide with his adversaries, the audience is practically salivating at the thought of these beasts throwing down; and the climactic final confrontation does not disappoint.
Part of the efficacy of Godzilla comes from the creature design, which is incredible. The MUTOs capture a lot of different influences in their design, allowing them to simultaneously look other-worldly while also reminiscent of other forms of earth-based life, and harken to the types of primordial creature from the time before the dinosaurs. The detail given to differences in design between the two sexes is a nice touch, and allows the viewer to keep track of the intent of the creatures amongst the chaos and carnage. Likewise, full credit must go to the Godzilla design, which takes a great leap to appeasing the sins of the disastrous attempt at a Hollywood Godzilla property from 1998. Our favourite giant lizard is a fantastic transcription from the original Japanese costumes into a fully CGI rendition, with motion capture provided by T.J. Storm (Deadpool); Godzilla’s movement feels animalistic, while also retaining a whisper of the human element that harkens back to the Guys In A Suit days. Combined with the overall high quality of the graphics and some excellent cinematography work, including an effective use of the immediate impact of the various battles to adjust the overall look and feel of the surrounding environment and raise the stakes of the conflict. Also, it just looks really cool when Godzilla is gearing up to attack with his fire blast. I would phrase that in a more constructively critical fashion, but sometimes the pretense needs to be dropped around these things. It looks incredibly cool.
Godzilla is juggling a lot, and doing it very well. A big-budget popcorn monster flick which has time for an emotional drama, filled both with questions of morality and an exploration of our response to unknown dangers; a film which treats the idea of a titanic struggle between prehistoric life forms as more than just a blood-sport. For those looking for nothing more than big monsters fighting; clear your mind of expectations and allow the story to take you on a more interesting journey than a mere fist fight, as this movie is better than you might expect, and may also be better than you remember. I highly recommend going back to watch this one again.
This review is a davewritesreviews.com original.