dir: Gareth Edwards
Come in, close the door, have a seat. We didn’t know we missed you, Godzilla, because we thought we’d had enough of you over the last 60 years. But it turns out we really missed you.
Sure, we bumped into you in 1998, in that terrible film by the German Michael Bay known as Roland Emmerich, where Matthew Broderick was meant to save Manhattan from you, but that was an embarrassing run-in. It was the equivalent of going out and seeing an ex you still think fondly of, covered in vomit and staggering in the gutter. It’s best to forget about that time.
And honestly, the halcyon days between you and the audience was so long ago that we’ve all moved on. We’ve amused ourselves with cute kitten videos on the internets, and week after week of superhero flicks being poured out into the cinemas. The question becomes: do we ever really need to see each other again?
Gareth Edwards made a flick called Monsters back in the grim, distant days of 2010. In really obvious ways it was a test run for making a new Godzilla flick, except for a miniscule fraction of the cost. The budget for Monsters was in the tens of thousands. The budget for the hair care products alone used on performers in Godzilla would have been in the millions. It’s an easy transition for Edwards to make, apparently.
I didnae particularly love Monsters, nor even like it that much, but it was somewhat interesting. Its treatment of the monsters themselves, and the thin allegory for the US/Mexico border/immigration etc was enough to keep me watching. The intention with this latest Godzilla flick was to take it all deadly seriously, no laughs or camp appeal, but also to keep it on a very human scale. I cannot fault the makers for entirely succeeding in their ambitions.
They achieved the objectives they set themselves. For me, though, only half of their intentions were worth my time. The ‘human’ element was hilarious to me in parts, and dull in others, and curiously histrionic, considering the quality of the actors in this. Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins are all people whose work I’ve admired in the past. Here, I am ashamed to admit I laughed many a mocking laugh at some of the stuff they said and the ways in which they said it.
Bryan Cranston especially was kinda terrible in this. Replete with a terrible, distracting wig, I would watch him intone his dialogue and wonder how this was the same guy who was so great in Breaking Bad. Here, let’s be honest, I thought he was fucking terrible. Sure, he was great as Walter White – Heisenberg, but seeing him here made me long for the days when he was just the kooky dad on Malcolm in the Middle.
It’s not easy playing an obsessive guy, obviously, but when the script’s against you it doesn’t help either. The set up of the ‘plot’ is that something happened at a nuclear power plant in Japan, and there was this guy in charge (Cranston), and he had to make a really tough choice: die with his wife or live without his wife. This choice haunts him, and it seems to make his grown up son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) fairly bored.
Nutty father, bored son. Recipe for disaster-based reconciliation. The father remains obsessed with what happened at Fukushima, sorry, I mean Janjira. He is so obsessed that he doesn’t change his wig for fifteen long, itchy years. He keeps getting caught sneaking back into the place where the reactor was, searching, striving for answers.
What I was hoping he would find is a two-hundred metre tall Juliette Binoche attacking Japanese people, shooting radiation beams out of her eyes and eating people out of busses the way people eat Tim Tams. Instead there is a something there that does surprising things that no-one could have predicted except when they did.
For reasons never revealed, serious people in positions of authority don’t take the crazy scientist guy seriously at all until they do, and they reveal to him that everything the world thought about the ‘accident’ that happened fifteen years ago killing his wife and presumably thousands of other Japanese people was a lie.
You see, there’s a dude called Godzilla, and a group called Monarch has been trying to find a way to kill him or her since the 1950s. All those atomic tests on Pacific Islands? They weren’t testing bombs just for the hell of it. Think about it: they already knew these bombs worked. They weren’t just detonating these hellishly destructive weapons for kicks and to say “Whaddaya know, it went boom!”
No, they were trying to kill this massive, majestic beast that eats radiation for breakfast and picks its teeth with skyscrapers. Because that’s what you do when you’re a scientist, whether British or Japanese. At least all races can unite on that one topic.
In their further pursuit of killing Godzilla, they stupidly engage in trying to resurrect or at least birth some other ancient organism/parasite in the hopes of finishing him/her off. Does that kind of thing ever go well?
Pretty soon, there are these giant creatures the military call MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, and they are so very very big themselves. So very big that it should lead to some great city-destroying brawls, you’d think or you’d hope.
The clod at the centre of the flick is not a guy in a Godzilla suit (who we never actually see until exactly an hour into the movie, trust me, I checked) but the emotionally shut down Ford. I can’t begin to tell you how little he brings to the story, he or his drippy wife (Elizabeth Olsen) or their very ugly child. There are so many millions of other people in peril that I found it surprising that we were meant to see Ford’s survival as being of far more importance than anyone else’s.
The action is surprisingly sparing. But what they want to do is strongly give you a continual sense of the scale that these creatures are on. The director is keenly focussed on putting not just buildings in frame in relation to the creatures to give us a sense of scale, but humans, too. Shot after shot will have people in them standing usually in awe of the magnitude of the monstrosities brawling in their midst. These creatures are far too ancient and huge to want to eat people: that’d be like an elephant trying to eat a sardine, but that doesn’t make it any safer for the people in the cities they are inevitably drawn to.
And what these creatures are drawn to is radioactive material. They hunger for it. They crave it. Either that or they keep being attracted to Ford, the seeming protagonist, because it just so happens that everywhere he goes, the monsters follow.
It’s a nice way to make a guy feel needed. He has a plot-convenient military skill set to keep putting him in the midst of the action, but the titans who tussle way, way above him and all the other ants don’t care one whit for anything they might do. It’s like watching three hurricanes fight, or three tsunamis slam into each other, levelling everything around them.
And when Godzilla howled like an angry hurricane for the first time, I am not ashamed to say it scared the shit out of me. At few times during its running time does the film ever try to make us feel comfortable. The pulverising soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, and a choice use of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem managed to render me, an already tense viewer, a gibbering jabbering wreck.
The Ligeti bit is the special one. It’s a piece I recognise but never knew the name of until today, because it’s used to great effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey during the bit where the monolith is uncovered on the moon. I found it horribly unsettling and disturbing then, and I find it deeply unsettling to this day to hear it. It’s used in a strange but beautiful scene where some military types are forced to do a high altitude parachute jump into San Francisco. It’s a surreal visual moment, an impressive attempt to give us something other than an ancient god-lizard and insectoid horrors to look at, if only briefly.
I can’t say that the earlier half of the film worked that well for me, or that I cared about any of the humans at all, but from a visual and monster movie perspective, it felt right. Godzilla as humanity’s unlikely saviour is not an entirely new idea, since I recall some of the earlier dubbed Japanese movies they showed on the telly many, many Saturday afternoons ago, had Godzilla saving ‘us’ from some of the other giant monsters threatening our fair lands. At the very least I enjoyed this far more than Pacific Rim, but that’s not saying much, since I didn’t like Pacific Rim. At the even very leaster, it made me see that monster movies on this scale can still work if they’re done right.
There’s no problem with how long they took to reveal Godzilla in all his/her glory: it was worth the wait. All that anticipation worked fine, especially with the reveal that the thunder lizard was even bigger than we’d ever imagined. If science was used and abused along the way, it hardly matters, since we got to see Godzilla again, and it was a good thing.
8 times the next one should be Godzilla Versus Mecha-Streisand out of 10
“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in his control, and not the other way around. Let them fight.” – the arrogance of directors who think they can tell Godzilla what to do! – Godzilla 2014