(This review is spoiler-free.)
On the sixtieth anniversary of the original Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards reboot succeeds more by the strength of the director’s undeniable talent than it does its tired and pedestrian script. Infused with Edwards’ obvious passion for the material and the genre, the film is unfortunately perched on the rickety skeleton of action and disaster movie clichés. For all the passing similarities to real world analogues, little in the film is novel or particularly exciting, and the assortment of recycled ideas keeps Godzilla from ever reaching its full potential. However, considering that it’s Edwards’ first time directing a major tentpole film the results are more than competent.
Edwards shows a flair for directorial flourish, for example, with his first reveal of the titular monster by echoing strains of Ligeti, the same notes that underscored the arrival of the equally threatening and monolithic black slab of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Edwards employs Ligeti again in the beautifully framed airdrop sequence featured so heavily in the advertising campaign (and for which I’ve previously written an analysis).
What remains of the score by composer Alexandre Desplat is effective, if altogether familiar. Strangely, scenes frequently end with customary menace by bringing the last few notes to a sustained crescendo while the film transitions to the next scene. Such transitions arrive with such vigor and repetition that the film and its music eventually become clichés of themselves, and one has to wonder if Edwards, his editor, Bob Ducsay, or Desplat were even aware they were doing it.
Speaking of cliché: given that this is the thirty-second time someone has made a Godzilla movie, it’s curious that they still thought it prudent to spend so much time bringing everyone on both sides of the screen up to speed with the fact that it’s a giant monster movie. Indeed, the film even manages to drag on somewhat after the busy opening set inside a Japanese nuclear reactor (which might as well been called Fukushima if this prologue weren’t set in 1999), as the characters work to arrive at the information already in the audience’s possession–this was no mere accident. Edwards compensates for what unavoidably makes for some dull detective work by invigorating the procedural elements with some much needed character beats for Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s father and son dynamic. (Overlook that the idea of two people forming a relationship as they travel through a quarantine zone is uncomfortably familiar to another recent monster movie–consider it Edwards’ homage to himself and get on with it.)
Cranston portrays his role of disgraced scientist turned conspiracy theorist crackpot with aplomb, carefully balancing the character’s anger towards the incident with his frustration towards himself–both for his failure to prevent things and moreso for his inability, or unwillingness, to overcome his grief. It is in the quiet, somber moment when Cranston’s character returns to his long-abandoned home and achieves that moment of emotionally shattering and uncomfortably silent anagnorisis about his lost relationship with his son that Edwards reveals a penchant to outdo even Spielberg, especially when it comes to reveling in the theme of neglectful fathers. It is in this scene especially that Edwards fulfills much of the promise he showed in his debut film Monsters (2010), which he also cowrote, coproduced, coedited and even created the special effects. (Strains of Welles must have no doubt been echoing in his mind as he toiled away in solitude making that film.) But this marks the dramatic and directorial highpoint of the film, and Edwards never again even tries to reach it. But still, this is a giant monster movie, so perhaps the film has no choice but to tie up these strands, leave any thematic resonance behind, and charge on like Godzilla towards those unfortunate cities without ever looking back.
Aside from Cranston, the rest of cast is uniformly excellent, with perhaps Elizabeth Olson as the standout performer. It may be that her talent seems so unexpected given the considerable shadow cast by her more famous (though far less talented) sisters, but Olson imbues her role with a warmth and intelligence that almost overcomes her relegation to a mere damsel in distress for much of the film. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is enjoyable enough as her returning war veteran husband, but is given little more to do than look flummoxed and concerned in almost every scene, and has no other motivation as a leading man than to rescue his poor wife and kid.
The film does possess more than a few grievances for its often shameless use of real-world homologies. I’ve already mentioned a few that are innocent enough, but a film that contains tsunamis, earthquakes, countless buildings collapsing and even planes crashing into them ought to be made of sterner stuff than a contrived monster movie can offer. Though one should hesitate before making any proscriptions, a film that fails to show the real consequences of these disasters would do well to consider whether it might be better not to offer these images for our enjoyment. Images of wanton citywide destruction fluoresce brighter than is perhaps intended in an era when one can’t help but tally up the loss of life rather than enjoy the impulse to see it all come crashing down. Though Edwards thankfully doesn’t seem to want us to thrill at the sight of hundreds of terrified, screaming people being swept away in a roaring wave, one has to wonder what emotion he is after, especially given the rather asinine moment before when a dog breaks free of its leash on the beach to outrun the oncoming wave. God forbid the dog should get it. The film’s denouement in the Superdome, another obvious and necessary parallel this film tucks into its allegorical framework (this time of course to the Louisiana Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) shows only families being happily reunited the very next day after the disaster. Granting that this is all done amidst the wreckage and chaos of what remains of San Francisco, the film nonetheless glosses over any of the unfortunate consequences of its destruction. Though not quite so heinous as the crass and wholesale destruction of Metropolis in the odious and offensively stupid Man of Steel, the film does obviate, for example, what would undoubtedly be a lifetime of pain and suffering from inevitable respiratory illnesses for the hero and his wife after breathing in all that rubble and radioactive debris. But of course, one must remember, as I’m sure the filmmakers hoped we would, that it’s only a giant monster movie.
But if that’s the case, then why does it contain the same ticking-time-bomb climax as The Dark Knight Rises? Though the overblown theatrics no doubt work better here than they did in that film, the ticking clock theatrics are a well-worn trope of action films, going as far back as fifty years ago with Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964)–the counter famously ending as it does on that familiar codename 007. Though, to be fair, the premise for the climax of The Dark Knight Rises was a rip-off of a more recent 1974 Thomas Harris thriller (he of Hannibal fame) starring Robert Shaw, John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday, more than it owes any credit to James Bond. This new Godzilla veers closer to its more recent predecessor, however, and even includes yet another scene where our triumphant hero flees the ruined city, nuclear weapon in tow, only to jettison before detonation. With all the money and imagination at their disposal, can’t the scriptwriters invent something other than the tried, tested and long-since detonated finales of action films past? (I am no doubt asking too much from the writer of the Expendables series, Dave Callahan–though, to be accurate, it was Max Borenstein who wrote the script, which might as well be considered his debut for all there exists of his previous credits).
The strength of the original Godzilla (1954) was the very absence of any ticking clock. The terror of the monster came from the presumed inevitability of humanity’s demise. Quite simply, nothing could stop Godzilla, mankind was doomed to be destroyed as an ironic consequence of nuclear warfare. Nuclear bombs would be the catalyst, Godzilla our destroyer. The brilliance of the film, and one of the chief reasons for its continued resonance, was the ethical paradox presented by the conclusion. The only way to destroy the monster was to create an even greater weapon of destruction, and as the melancholic final notes of Godzilla’s triumphant theme faded into the depths of the sea along with the husk of the creature the audience was left to ponder who the real victim of nuclear war had been.
In lieu of any of those ethical questions, this film is instead beset by the scourge of the modern American blockbuster to render all its heroes into religious allegories. The final battle plays out like a secular Stations of the Cross; replete with the scourging, death and inevitable resurrection (if only because there are sequels to consider). During Godzilla’s resurrection, Sally Hawkins’ character Vivienne Graham clasps her hands together in a supplicating gesture, as one might do in prayer. Ken Watanabe’s character even goes so far into the realm of the obvious as to declare the creature a god. Or a monster–another chimes in. The same dilemma presents itself in the absurd newscrawl announcing the creature’s triumphant resurrection. King of the Monsters–Savior of the city? Your enthusiasm for this conceit may vary. Regardless, Edwards’ film works better when he’s trying to interpret modern disasters than he is religion, so let us hope–and pray–that the recently announced sequel graces us with the former instead of the latter. After all, it wouldn’t do to forget that it’s a giant monster movie.