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Film of the Week: Godzilla

By Jonathan Romney on May 14, 2014 in Film Comment, Jonathan Romney's Film of the Week

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I have a vague—possibly imagined—memory of a Marvel Comics monster story from the early Sixties, the premise going something like this. Civilization is threatened by the menace of a gigantic ant, rampaging through cities, crushing buildings in its path. The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Forces combined are powerless to stop it, and humanity seems doomed—until the scientists step in. There’s one last drastic recourse, they propose, and in the final frame we see what it is—a colossal anteater.

Poetic justice notwithstanding, this might seem a rather reckless secret weapon to unleash—just imagine the damage its huge elongated snout could do—but the logic of the premise is essentially sentimental. An anteater, however gargantuan, is something that we humans can relate to. It’s cute, and—as a mammal—it’s one of us, sort of.

Godzilla 2014

The same logic governs the new attempt by Legendary Pictures/Warner Brothers to relaunch a Western version of Toho’s Godzilla franchise, after the damp squib of the 1998 Roland Emmerich version. Godzilla is the most powerful creature on Earth, a lumbering saurian monolith capable of reducing buildings to dust with one flick of his (here, alarmingly phallic) tail. But in this film, he’s our saurian monolith—he’s our friend and savior.

The man chosen to revive the beast is British SFX specialist turned director Gareth Edwards, who made his name with the inventive Monsters (2010). Essentially a jungle-peril drama about a couple on the run, that film used its Central American locations and its very modest budget to economical effect—and was astutely sparing with shots of its titular creatures, eerie rather than frightening phenomena that resembled ethereal stilt-walking jellyfish.

On the strength of Monsters, Edwards—who, among genre fans, has a one-of-us reputation—was entrusted with this $160 million epic. Pardon me for rolling out yet again the old Orson Welles kid-with-a-train-set comparison for what it’s like to make your first studio movie, but that’s what Godzilla feels like: Edwards takes to his playroom’s fancy new upgrade with glee, and like many creative kids with snazzy toys, he’s more interested in smashing things up than he is in carefully constructing. And given the sort of movie this is, that’s fine.

Godzilla 2014

The plot is functional, and Max Borenstein (script) and Dave Callaham (story) bring little to it that’s unorthodox. Two behemoths from time immemorial have risen from the abyss, and are feeding themselves on sources of nuclear power—guzzling reactors, Russian subs, warheads, whatever they can lay their insectoid feelers on. They are not referred to as monsters, by the way, but as MUTOs, or Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organisms—and if this film earns any kind of place in history, it will surely be for coining this handy new acronym.

Fortunately, another creature has risen too, and as the MUTOs’ natural predator, is coming their way to engage them in battle—this planet ain’t big enough, as it were. Sure, tidal waves will be unleashed, metropolises laid waste, and the odd child will be temporarily separated from its parents. But because the third creature, none other than Godzilla, has a glimmer of lizardly charisma, and is basically—as humanity quickly works out—our friend, we can forgive him anything.

Edwards has fashioned something resembling a Seventies-style disaster movie here, in which a handful of prestigious familiar faces are tossed into the action to convince us that we’re watching a drama on something like a human level. The hero is an intrepid but more or less inanimate soldier played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who has bulked up manfully since his skinny jeune premier days. His wife is played by Elizabeth Olsen, and her presence largely serves to motivate the traditional “interrupted kiss” structure; in other words, the film is really about the couple getting to carry on where they left off when their cozy evening listening to Dusty Springfield was interrupted by an inopportune phone call.

Ken Watanabe Sally Hawkins Godzilla

That call comes from ATJ’s scientist dad, a nuclear techie turned wild-eyed “what are they hiding?” theorist. He’s played by Bryan Cranston, while Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe are the scientists who can be relied on to turn up at any crisis zone, looking very concerned indeed. David Strathairn does impeccably what he’s so masterful at these days—playing an unflappable, taut-jawed army commander (you wish they’d given him a cigar to chew tersely, but still).

And, of all people, Juliette Binoche shows up for a mere few minutes—hell, she’s worked with Depardieu, she knew the other Big G would be a pushover. As Cranston’s doomed wife, she mainly earns her fee by peering compassionately through a porthole before she’s engulfed in smoke. There’s something almost heroic about the film’s cavalier use of her—so extravagantly wasteful it’s practically on the level of potlatch.

These days, we’re blasé about world destruction on screen, greeting every new apocalypse with a weary “OK, what have you got?”; we know that the most any film-maker can bring to the catastrophe game is a slightly different inflection. This film at least feels coherent: it’s all about build-up, about the protracted tease for something bigger to follow. A nuclear reactor meltdown paves the way for a tidal wave, which builds things up for a monster skirmish or two, and only then for a proper showdown. The trick is cleverly done for the most part, and Edwards has clearly studied Spielberg for developing tension: there’s a nice sequence involving soldiers doing recon on a railway line, that builds up some real suspense and mystery. And the biggest scare is flat-out Hitchcockian: a seagull flaps against a bus window.

Godzilla 2014

Edwards is good at the extended tease. No sooner does Godzilla first engage with his adversaries than steel doors slam shut, obscuring the action—which continues to come in dribs and drabs, before the big smackdown. The approach works, so that every now and then you feel a little thrill, as if the film is rewarding you for your patience: when Godzilla is at last properly seen and gives a full roar, he’s really saying to us, “Didja miss me?” Later, he suddenly breathes blue fire. In itself, it’s no big deal. Because we’ve been kept waiting for this little morsel of spectacle, his modest little oral ray-gun burst is more arresting than the splashier son et lumière that Electro laid on in the recent Spider-Man film.  

As for the script, though, you almost suspect the film of playing arch games with the flatness of disaster movie dialogue, daring us to yawn or giggle:

“I’ve been digging mines for 30 years, but I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Sandra, listen to me! You need to get out of there—run!”

“This alpha predator of yours, Doctor—do you really think he has a chance?”

There’s plenty more like this, and possibly, given the generally earnest tone of the film, the filmmakers felt that manifestly stale dialogue was the only way to work humor into a piece in which they’d otherwise foresworn flippancy. How else, indeed, do you explain a line like this? “There is an electromagnetic pulse—and it’s going to send us back to the Stone Age. You have no idea what’s coming.”

Godzilla 2014

Oh but we do. We know exactly what’s coming. That’s the fun of it—that we’re being nudged into playing along with the supposed “mystery” anyway, the actual generic familiarity of all these leviathans being, as it were, the elephant in the room. When Watanabe and Hawkins’s scientists explain that they’ve been tracking this new creature—in which they strangely have great faith as an embodiment of the natural balance of nature—they reveal that they’ve named him “Godzilla.” Why? Because “he’s a God, to all intents and purposes.”  So they say—but you sort of suspect that Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa just borrowed the name from the Gojira reruns that he must have grown up watching on Japanese TV.

Overall, there’s a sometimes doggedly to-the-point quality to the film that you can’t help admiring in contrast to the breathlessness of so much CGI cinema. If it’s possible to exercise a less-is-more aesthetic within this field of XXL maximalism, then Edwards does it, dealing out the thrills in short sharp bursts. And if you don’t believe this film is sparing, look what it gives us—just three monsters and a few anxious humans, compared with the bloated tournament of mega-colossi in the preposterous Pacific Rim. Next to that movie, Godzilla has the quiet dignity of a Lisandro Alonso movie.

The monsters aren’t bad, either, with a touch of rubberiness that’s presumably a nod to the old Toho aesthetic. The MUTOs are genuinely unpleasant to behold—as if someone had attempted to craft origami versions of praying mantises out of flint and leather (their folded-over insect legs are somehow unspeakably nasty). By comparison to their creepy otherness—they also have eyes like slashes stuffed with embers—Godzilla himself is indeed one of us, a short-headed, squat, barroom brawler of a lizard, with a pissed-off scowl as he lumbers into battle that reminded me somehow of Ray Winstone. When he finally teaches the MUTOs what’s what, and bellows in triumph, he’s really saying “Who’s the daddy?” And—if only for as long as this film dominates the box office, before lumbering off into the mists of blockbuster oblivion—he’s the daddy, the baddest MUTO on the block.

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