Review: Godzilla Offers Thrills, Scares And An Enormous Lizard
It feels odd to praise a film that takes it’s cues from a 1954 film as being refreshing but Gareth Edward’s remake of Godzilla offers a welcome antidote to the current glut of obnoxious, city levelling blockbusters that we are currently being bombarded with. This 2014 model, like it’s inspiration, is a horror film first and a disaster film second and that’s a really, really good thing.
The film starts in 1999. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is called to a digging site in the Phillipines and finds a colossal, and I mean colossal, ribcage. The excavation awakens a living creature that levels a Japanese nuclear power plant killing the wife of the plant’s supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Fifteen years later Brody, obsessed with the cover up of the incident, discovers similar seismic patterns and decides to warn people by shouting and screaming at everyone.*
There’s a very fine line when approaching a film like this. It’s imperative that the characters are sufficiently sympathetic to engage us on a human level but at the same time, and with all due respect, we didn’t pay to watch Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Edwards is moderately successful in balancing the two together. This is very much a monster movie viewed through the eyes of civilians. For some this might prove a bit of a chore, but a half glimpsed tail and enormous ridges ominously gliding through the waves sells the scale of these creatures better than a dozen Pacific Rims. It’s the best way to approach a Godzilla film but unfortunately the characters aren’t the most fleshed out bunch. The film centres on Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson), Joe’s grown up son. ‘Doting husband’ aside he isn’t a particularly compelling protagonist. He’s heroic and likeable but rather forgettable. You won’t find yourself longing for the beasties but you won’t feel overly concerned when he’s in peril. Likewise, Elizabeth Olson plays Elle, Ford’s wife, well but she doesn’t have much to do except wait by a phone. It’s not bad by any means but it feels like a waste of a lot of extremely talented actors. It’s a necessary element of the film but it never really transcends “functional”, which keeps the film from being great.
The other side of the coin though, is the kaiju.
This is where Edwards’ skill as a director really shines through. His debut film Monsters had a budget of $7.83 and required that he use his creatures sparingly and creatively. Here, released from financial restrictions he resists the temptation to blow the money shot in the first half hour (something that, admittedly, the vastly inferior 1998 version got right too). Instead he dedicates the first fifty or so minutes to building up tension and a palpable sense of dread. There’s actually a decent bait and switch early on that’s sadly been spoiled in the trailers but when the size of Godzilla is finally revealed (soldiers shoot flares that go up and up… and keep going up) the effect is incredible.
When the wrastlin’ happens (Godzilla doesn’t come alone) the mayhem itself is terrific. It suffers from the same problems as similar films in that these creatures seem to appear exclusively at night in the rain but it is dazzling nonetheless. With the chaos used sparingly in the build up to the the third act the all out, for lack of a better phrase, smackdown feels earned.
If there’s one thing the film does seem to slip up on is in its treatment of Godzilla as a hero. Everyone automatically has an almost godlike reverence for Godzilla. The MUTO (the giant winged creature in the trailer) is an ‘it’ but Godzilla is a ‘He’. Dr Serizawa is adamant that Godzilla is their only hope despite the fact that there is nothing to suggest he won’t continue terrorising the city once he’s given the MUTO the ol’ People’s Elbow. It feels like they’ve skipped a film where Godzilla has already appeared and has been established as a “trustworthy” monster. When Serizawa gravely suggests that they “Let them fight” I kept wanting someone to step in with “Umm… We’ll call that Plan Z.” In fact once the day is saved (Spoiler I guess?) the humans applaud Godzilla and literally declare him a ‘saviour’. Why? As Deadgeek said, it was not unlike Perry White (or whoever) standing in the ruins of Metropolis looking up at the weird alien in the red Cape and saying “He saved us”. It’s jarring and at odds with the rest of the film. A slightly more ambiguous ending might have worked better than a triumphant one, at least for this film.
But that’s a minor complaint that comes at the end of a very satisfying Monster film, one that celebrates it’s predecessor while putting a modern (and very large) spin on it.
*Cranston is great in this of course but the Apartment-Full-Of-Newspaper-Clippings thing got some unintentional laughs at our screening.