For well over a decade, at least here stateside, the Godzilla franchise and universe had been left ostensibly for dead. Following a truly horrible 1998 take on the legendary monster from director Roland Emmerich, the character has laid dormant in the eyes of many people in the film world, save for those of us who return to the truly great days, the early stages of life for this cultural landmark.
However, in an age where just about every film is getting a remake and every legendary film character is getting a new update or “reboot,” it was only a matter of time before we laid our eyes on a new and energized take on Gojira himself. That said, in the face of all of the collective doubts the film world may have had, no one expected us to get what may very well be this generation’s truly great event motion picture.
From director Gareth Edwards, best known for the indie gem Monsters, comes the latest attempt at bringing the world a new take on the storied Godzilla character, and frankly, this may be the best one we’ve seen in a half century. And frankly, it’s indicative of how little the titular character is actually used.
Instead on focusing on anything pertaining entirely to him, or including him for a majority of the film’s run time, the film is driven almost entirely by an admittedly broad, but engrossing, central human tale. Introducing us to nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) as he goes about yet another, albeit extremely stressful, day at work, the film takes a decidedly dark shift almost from the word go, when Brody’s life is turned entirely upside down following an accident at his facility in Japan. 15 years later, with his son now a fully grown military man with a wife and child of his own living in San Francisco, Brody is entirely unable to let some rather large demons leave his mind. Ultimately leading to what appears to be just another arrest trespassing on private, government property, his son Ford comes to visit, only to get sucked into his web. However, when his previously thought to be “insane” ideas are proven to be more than just glorified hunches, lives and ostensibly the entire world will never be the same.
This is where the titular monster comes in to play. When two monsters are brought back to life after much modern human scientific pestering, Godzilla is also brought into the fold, but without much knowledge of his intentions. It becomes very clear the motives behind the two antagonists here, but to some he’s a mindless monster, and to one scientist here, he’s truly nature’s way of putting things back into balance.
In that idea you find the film’s greatest attribute; scope. While being an admittedly broad emotional narrative, the film is very much, in the grand scheme of Hollywood blockbusters, on the lower side of the scale narratively. Yes there are cities leveled, giant action set pieces and not one, not two but three massive the film almost doesn’t truly seem to care much about the character that truly got the viewer into his or her seat. Instead we are privy to a film that almost from the very beginning has powerful and palpable stakes, be it near the end of the film when we are watching a world on the brink or at the start of the picture when it is a family we are watching unravel, the film is able to balance both the larger action beats with the intimate home moments with such grace that the picture really packs an oddly big emotional punch for a film of this nature. Instead of following the Marvel prototype of simply giving us a film based entirely around action set pieces with no real drama to speak of, the film almost does the opposite, steeping us in a small scale narrative of a family on the edge only to tease a much larger and action packed final act through various glimpses of the three central monsters.
And in that final act, the film really shines. Where most modern day action films, and particularly summer tentpoles, have become more aesthetic endurance tests than anything, Edwards’ picture feels very much like a throwback to great monster pictures of previous generations. While it’s a rather packed action film, the viewer never seems to lose his or her breath until what is one of the most exciting and powerful final acts in modern action cinema. Almost signified by a singular line reading near the end of the film by the picture’s scene stealer, Ken Watanabe, the film is so beautifully structured that despite not having an ounce of thematic subtext, this film does what every studio picture should strive to do; giving us a beautiful mix of tactile emotion and aesthetic awe being inspired.
It also helps that the film has some superb performances. Much like the film, the performances here are not groundbreaking nor carry many layers, but they are more than perfect for what they aim to do. Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars here as Ford, and carries much of the picture as both Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are out of the picture narratively relatively quick. Cranston and Binoche are great, but not given much to do, which is a shame as their brief moments together are truly something special. Toss in some solid turns by Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins and the aforementioned Watanabe (who may have the most commanding voice in all of film currently) and you have a film that may be superficial in many ways, or at least lack subtext, but does not lack some real and true emotion.
However, it’s Edwards’ show, and thankfully so. Seemingly born to make this picture, Gareth Edwards may seem like an odd choice to make this quick a jump from the world of indie character dramas to big scale action tentpoles, but he does a remarkable job here. With gorgeous photography and a shockingly assured handle of tone, Edwards has such an uncanny understanding of what makes a big monster action film like this such a thrilling concept. Instead of making this into nothing more than a video game cut scene for two hours, we get a real story to connect to, and some beautifully crafted teases of what will be an epic collision in the final act. And then, when that final act comes to life, Edwards and his writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham get the citizens of this fictionalized San Francisco out of harms way, and allow themselves to truly tell an action story between these three monsters, and a collection of soldiers on ground level. Never getting lost in shaky cam malarkey, Edwards’ camera is seemingly plaintive and understands the geography and choreography of a fight like this. Calling Edwards a mad genius for putting this picture together is an understatement. It really has no reason to be this damn good.