Godzilla and America don’t mix. We’ve seen this in 1998 when Roland Emmerich did a movie starring everyone’s favourite giant lizard. But this time around, there’s a new director attached to it. A man whose one and only credit is a giant monster movie that had no monsters in it. This time, it’s Monster Master Gareth Edwards.
Godzilla is a cult figure. I’m a fan of the giant lizard myself. I remember well that, back in my younger years, the movies aired on Sunday afternoons. I sat by as Godzilla – played by a man in a rubber suit stomping around miniatures of Tokyo – levelled cities and fought monsters, aliens, robots and usually ending up saving the day and marching off back into the sea.
Over the years, there have been 27 Japanese films and now the third US-American production. They ranged from amazing such as 1954’s Godzilla to the enjoyably trashy with Invasion of Astro-Monster to the outright horrible with Emmerich’s 1997 Godzilla. The latter was so horrible that they made it a point to have the real Godzilla kill Emmerich’s incarnation in 2005’s Godzilla Final Wars.
That was the end of Godzilla’s American adventures. Until Gareth Edwards came along. And he gave us a movie that we can say the following of: The King of Monsters Has Returned!
The movie tells us the story of how humanity once more gets in over its head. After a giant-monster-induced nuclear meltdown in Japan, the mysterious Monarch group covers it up and puts half a city under quarantine. Two thirds of the Ford-family survive. Fifteen years later, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), son of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche), is estranged from his father, because the latter got obsessed with the conspiracy after his wife died.
It’s the obsession of his father that brings Ford Brody, now a Marine and expert at bomb defusing, very close to what looks like a giant egg. And it hatches. Out comes… Muto. Not Godzilla. Muto is actually M.U.T.O., a giant insect, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object. The military acts to intercept and throws whatever they got at it. But it’s useless, because the MUTO eats nuclear bombs for breakfast. Literally.
There isn’t a lot of plot in this movie, I’ll admit. But it’s a cohesive, dense and well-told story. It’s not the deepest tale of the millennium. In fact, it’s pretty much «Monsters are loose, humanity tries its best».
And that’s not the movie’s strong point. Pretty much everthing else is: Acting, casting, special effects, characterization, pacing, soundtrack. So let’s begin with the biggest question: Godzilla.
Gareth Edwards does it right. He establishes an atmosphere of dread even without Godzilla in the picture. And when Godzilla is in the picture, it’s done right. Japanese viewers have complained that he is «too fat». And it’s true: Godzilla is massive. But from everything we see from the creature that fans call The King of Monsters we realize that Godzilla is not a creature that is explicable by ration. His sheer existence makes no sense. You know like a shark has evolved to be aquadynamic, evolved to be as efficient as possible in water? Godzilla is the anti-thesis of that. He is big, he is strong, he is slow. He doesn’t need to be fast. He doesn’t need to be elegant or quick or efficient. He is Godzilla. He is beyond evolution or biological logic. He’s about a hundred meters tall – at least -, breathes radioactive blue fire and can breathe underwater.
Gareth Edwards also knows how to frame the King of the Monsters. The first time we see Godzilla in all his glory, the camera stands still for two seconds. Godzilla looks at the audience. He growls. And then… the roar. The amazing, infamous and downright epic roar.
There is no question: Godzilla is the hero of this movie. There are a-grade actors – Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston among others – but let’s be honest here: Nobody here goes to see a movie about a giant monster because they like Bryan Cranston as the equally lovable and hateable Walter White in Breaking Bad. Nobody goes to see it because they like Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Kick-Ass. And don’t get me wrong: All the actors do a good job, even during the more ridiculous moments such as the time when they explain the science behind Godzilla. It’s completely absurd, but they play it straight. But we come for the giant monster. We want to see carnage, radioactive flame-breath, hear that roar.
Another important factor is that Godzilla’s character is gotten right. By far the most ridiculous moments in the 60-year-history of the King of Monsters were the times when he was either the good or the bad guy. He was at his best when he just tore through whatever he wanted. Big. Massive. Unstoppable. Godzilla is less of a character and more of a force of nature. He’s the revenge for human’s nuclear testing without being a commentary on it. There is an explanation for his existence, but not for his being. Godzilla just is.
In the movie, various people make claims as to who Godzilla is. Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa puts humanity’s hope into the big lizard. He clearly paints Godzilla as a hero. He’s wrong. Admiral Stentz of the USS Saratoga thinks Godzilla quite possibly the biggest threat to the world ever and thus, Godzilla is evil. He’s wrong. Godzilla does as Godzilla does.
Often we see only parts of Godzilla or the camera is behind a window, adding to the feeling of dread that a giant monster rampaging in front of you would evoke. Or Godzilla in the dark and only part of him is illuminated. This makes it hard to graps the entirety of our favourite monster.
This is also where the one drawback of the movie comes in, the only thing I felt where it was generally lacking. There’s not enough Godzilla. There are longer periods where people stumble through debris and Godzilla is right around the corner. That’s pretty cool, but at the end of the second arc, there’s a part where the wait for the monster was agonizing. Not that everything else was boring or bad, but it had been established – and they did this really well – that humans are useless and they’re basically there to watch the carnage unfold. Stopping it? Yeah… no. Not going to happen. The reason why the keep on fighting this completely useless fight is pretty brilliant, though. And this is the only thing I’ll actually spoil, because it’s not essential to the plot, but shows the awareness of the characters. Thus…
Spoilers in this paragraph, starting from the next sentence on. The reason why the army, the marines and everyone keeps on fighting is because not doing anything is out of the question. They know that they can’t win this, because the monsters in this movie gain sustenance of humanity’s most destructive weapon. But yet they try. There’s something quite noble in this, I think.
All that said, I think we’re at the point where we have to wrap this up. So go see this movie. Go have fun and be carried away into a fantastical world where a giant lizard with radioactive flame-breath is not only plausible, but believable. And also, the final minute of the movie is amazing. I would not have thought it possible to do a better and more effective ending.
And, as usual, I leave you with a trailer. Enjoy. And let’s hope for more movies like this.