By Simon Miraudo
May 15, 2014
Less is more, except when it comes to Godzilla, when more is perceived to be the whole damn point. That’s the conventional thinking, anyway, and there might not be a more conventional cinematic thinker than Roland Emmerich, whose 1998 attempt to bring the Japanese icon to the screen substituted subtlety, wit, and pathos, with bloat, bombast, broad humour, and a bastardised Bowie cover. (Emmerich may be a conventionally boring director, but his ability to look at Matthew Broderick and see a star suggests he’s gifted with incredibly perceptive foresight beyond our human comprehension, or, at the very least, face blindness.)
Its monstrous failure, critically and commercially, is a godsend for Gareth Edwards‘ 2014 do-over, which, cushioned by Emmerich’s debacle, can now be considered the best English-language adaptation to date. Admittedly, that’s faint praise. How’s this, then: Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is enormously entertaining, emotionally engaging, and as electrifying as any ‘take-no-prisoners’ disaster movie should be. Future reboots, be wary: this one will be tough to top. That’s not something we said after exiting Emmerich’s version.
Edwards – coming off his $500,000 indie Monsters, for which he crafted the special effects in his bedroom – reveals himself to be more than ready for his first big studio venture. Though the hiring of a green talent usually suggests the studio wanted someone malleable – and cheap! – to do their bidding, Godzilla is very much a spiritual sequel to his thoughtful, melancholy Monsters. Just as in his debut, the camera seems to arrive at sites of ruin just a minute or two after the cause has bolted. The giddy kid within wishes we could see more of the titular beast causing some carnage, but then that’s precisely what was granted in Guillermo del Toro‘s Pacific Rim, and the result was … eh. There remains some limit to what can be achieved with CGI technology, and literally no limit to our imagination. Edwards manipulates that boundless reservoir of potential to great effect.
No film with ‘zilla’ in the title deserves to boast as impressive a cast as this one does. Edwards has all-stars Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, and the especially beguiling Elizabeth Olsen in his charge here; toys even more exciting to play with than Godzilla himself. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the lead, and even he does the best work of his career as returned war veteran Ford Brody in this, a $160 million remake of a cult classic and not some small-scale, kitchen-sink passion project.
Only home one day from his 14-month stint disposing of bombs in the Middle East, Brody receives a call his conspiracy-theorist father (Cranston) has been arrested after breaking into a contaminated zone of a past nuclear accident in Tokyo. Leaving behind his wife (Olsen) and child in San Francisco, Brody goes to pick up pops, eventually finding himself somewhat convinced of his dad’s nutty theory about mysterious subterranean activity being responsible for Tokyo’s devastation. Scientists Ishiro (Watanabe) and Vivienne (Hawkins) confirm it. They reveal to the duo their long history of tracking an apex predator called the Godzilla, except it’s not him they’re worried about emerging once again. It’s another set of ancient M.U.T.U.’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) who, of course, eventually explode from beneath the Earth, raring to start breeding with impunity.
As Ford attempts to head back to San Fran and reunite with his family one final time, anticipating the military’s nuking of the monsters and most of America, Ishiro keeps pushing for them to allow Godzilla a chance to bring down the beasties himself, leading to the uttering of the film’s – and perhaps the year’s – most dizzily exhilarating line: “Let them fight.” (See, Edwards can still have fun with a B-movie premise no matter the A-level cast and class he brings to it.)
The weight of a nuclear winter looms large over this Max Borenstein-scripted, 21st century update, and yet, it is one aspect that will always be lacking in an American telling of the tale, as opposed to a Japanese one. (It was Hiroshima that ultimately inspired Godzilla’s invention in 1954.) So, if he can’t make as culturally incisive a comment as the original, the least Edwards can do is make his feature a profound character drama instead, and on that front, he succeeds. Pacific Rim, for all its no holds barred, kaiju on jaeger action, is little more than a VFX-reel compared to Godzilla, an honest-to-goodness motion picture in all the ways that really matter.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey manages to meld that wide-eyed, Jurassic Park feeling of new, awed discovery with gritty, Modern Warfare-style battle sequences. There’s artistry in the scenes of military skydivers descending amongst the rubble of a decimated city and Godzilla’s epic reveal (a full hour into proceedings), alike; the kind rarely seen in the functional, ‘just-point-it-at-the-money’ Transformers flicks. Godzilla – from its Americans-style opening credit sequence to its heart-swelling, shiver-inducing final shot (and all the bellowing Bryan Cranston monologues in between) – gets pretty much everything right.
Godzilla is now showing in cinemas.