A modern day Godzilla film was always going to be a risky venture. Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla film left a bad taste in many mouths and between then and now the only Godzilla movies to be released have been Japanese productions. In those sixteen years, however, the monster film has come somewhat back into fashion. Peter Jackson remade King Kong in 2005, Matt Reeves and J.J. Abrams incorporated found footage techniques with the traditional monster movie in Cloverfield and, most recently, Guillermo Del Toro released Pacific Rim last year. Each film in a way set the stage, paving the way for the return of the King of the Monsters.
Yet, even with the re-emergence of the monster film, Warner Bros new Godzilla had a lot to live up to. Pacific Rim, despite only grossing $100 million in its domestic box office, wowed audiences globally and received a lot of praise from critics for its actions scenes and use of spectacle. Furthermore, audiences were already preparing themselves for another Emmerich version. The new Godzilla film therefore had to not only cast off the shadow of its predecessor but also contend with new entries into the genre. The only question left to ask is ‘did it succeed?’
Critics across the world and on the internet will have their own opinions but I enjoyed it. Thankfully, the film doesn’t attempt to reboot the series. Instead it is more of spiritual successor to the 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters import and the Japanese series of Godzilla films than it is a retelling or sequel to the 1998 version. Perhaps this was a conscious decision given how outraged fans of the traditional films were at Emmerich’s changes to the franchise but it is clear that director Garth Edwards derived inspiration from the original films.
One of the most notable ways that this shows up is how Godzilla is like a force of nature, reacting to human actions. Godzilla isn’t a storm that might descend on humanity at any given time regardless of what they do. It has always been implied that if humans kept messing with nature, specifically in regards to nuclear weapons, that Godzilla would keep returning. The argument that, as a monster movie, that human characters should have little part in it ignores the fact that without the human characters, Godzilla would probably still be resting peacefully at the bottom of the ocean.
As such, most of the drama is generated by the human characters. The story goes that in 1999 one day at the Janjira nuclear plant where Bryan Cranston’s character Joe Brody and his wife Sandra work, the sensors begin to pick up seismic activity. Sandra dies whilst at the lab trying to figure out what went wrong. The whole disaster is covered up but Joe refuses to believe it. Fifteen years later, Joe’s son, Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson comes home from active service as part of the explosive ordnance disposal squad in the United States Navy, but is immediately forced to leave his wife and child to bail his father out of jail in Japan. While there, they enter the quarantined area and discover the nuclear plant is being used to monitor a large chrysalis which gives birth to a large winged creature, dubbed a massive unidentified terrestrial organism, or MUTO.
If it sounds like there is a lot going on without Godzilla necessarily being around that’s because there is and that actually isn’t to the film’s detriment. Edwards takes the time to set up the characters, their motivations and gives them purpose for the rest of the film. One early scene when Ford returns home from the Navy has him putting his son to bed. His son inquires whether his dad will still be there in the morning and Ford insists that he will. Moments later he receives a phone call about his father in Japan. Nothing is mentioned about the exchange between Ford and his son but it informs all the scenes from then on. Ford’s anger at leaving and his desperation to get home after the initial attack in Japan all stem from that one scene because in that one little scene, with one subtle line, we understand Ford’s motivation and love of family.
Critics might decry how little Godzilla there is in this Godzilla film but this isn’t like Michael Bay’s Transformers where the alien robots can speak and explain themselves. All Godzilla can do is roar and without the existence of Ken Watanabe’s Ishiro Serizawa, the audience wouldn’t understand Godzilla’s actions at all. Without Watanabe, Godzilla would appear as a kind of deus ex machina that shows up to fight the MUTO at pivotal moments. Again, Godzilla doesn’t exist in a bubble, the lives and actions of human characters give light to Godzilla’s own purpose and motivations. He is a force of balance against humans as much as he is against the MUTOs.
Though it’s not like Godzilla shows up and the Earth is saved. Edwards employs suspense 101 and teases the audiences throughout the film, baiting viewers with glimpses of Godzilla himself first and then of little moments of a big battle about to begin, only to cut away to the devastation the morning after. This is not a blockbuster full of big bangs and noise; it is a film that demands patience. It will entertain you, and trust me the final battle is well worth the wait, but the movie expects something in return. Let the film wine and dine you and you won’t be disappointed on the doorstep later.
As good as the film is, it does have its drawbacks. As fine an actor as Aaron Taylor-Johnson is, a stronger performance was needed here. Maybe it’s because the character is in the navy but at times his acting felt a little detached. Furthermore, while the design of Godzilla was similar to the original, it still looked a little chunky at times. At this point though, those issues are merely nitpicking. Edwards’ Godzilla is a great addition to the franchise and a film well worth watching.