Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story)
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Legendary Pictures | Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 | 123 Minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2013
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”
– J. Robert Oppenheimer
In 1954, Ishirō Honda transformed the trauma of war into art with Godzilla, a science fiction film about a gigantic radioactive beast that rises from the depths of Tokyo Bay. The primordial force of nature firebombs Tokyo with its atomic breath, leveling the city and killing thousands. Honda created a walking metaphor for the nuclear devastation of World War II – a fantastic, out of this world creation that could embody the fears of an entire nation.
Godzilla is the granddaddy of kaiju cinema, but it’s also a very poignant and mournful drama – a Japanese film made at a time when the country was still reeling from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as H-bomb testing in the Pacific. Since then, Godzilla has become an international icon of devastation, spawning nearly thirty sequels. The King of Monsters endures because he is the perfect conduit through which to exorcise the predominant fears of our time.
Enter 2014’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters), a cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed blockbuster that addresses contemporary fears. At the center of this big-budget monster movie is an environmental concern – the consequence of climate change embodied in an enormous, unstoppable monster, casting a shadow over man’s industrial and technological advances. A result of man’s arrogance, Godzilla is a reminder that we are insignificant and powerless against the might of nature.
Also in play are fears of the foreign occupation of American soil, as radioactive behemoths stand in for Iran and North Korea – walking weapons of mass destruction who threaten to level cities and slaughter innocents with their nuclear capabilities. In this way Godzilla rises from the depths to bring balance as our own nuclear deterrent.
We begin in 1999. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his partner Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are in the Philippines investigating an ancient underground chamber uncovered as the result of recent seismic activity. In a scene straight out of Ridley Scott’s Alien, scientists in hazmat suits explore the sepulchral cavern and discover a nest – a dormant pod resting within the massive ribs of a long-deceased prehistoric creature. Serizawa and his team stumble upon a second, already-hatched pod, but the M.U.T.O – Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism – is long gone.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the M.U.T.O’s arrival precipitates a catastrophic accident in which Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife and the Janjira nuclear plant is destroyed. The incident, which is reminiscent of the 2011 Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster, is quickly covered up by the government and the area is turned into a forbidden zone.
15 years later, Joe is still living in Japan, obsessed with finding out what really happened. Cranston’s obsession mirroring Richard Dreyfuss’s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – one of many allusions to Spielberg in the film. Joe’s estranged son, a military bomb disposal expert named Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), arrives to bail him out of jail after Joe trespasses into the quarantine area in search of answers. After sneaking back into the forbidden zone to recover Joe’s work, father and son are apprehended by government officials and delivered to a top-secret installation.
There they meet up with Serizawa and Graham, who explain that the M.U.T.O. feeds on radiation and tunneled its way to Japan to feed on the nearest atomic energy source. Navy Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) probes Serizawa for ways to stop the creature, but the scientist insists that humanity is powerless against them. Lucky for us, another prehistoric beast has been summoned to stop the M.U.T.O.s: “We call him Godzilla.” The idea, as far as Serizawa is concerned, is simple: “Let them fight.”
In another allusion to Spielberg, Edwards applies an old-fashioned “less is more” sensibility to his monster movie, slowly building tension while revealing only glimpses of the film’s star attraction. Like the shark in Jaws, Godzilla is seen in pieces through smoke and shadow; a tail here, a foot there – but it all builds toward a jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring third act that delivers one hell of a monster fight. Edwards frames the action perfectly, with wide-angle shots of mythic monsters slugging it out – no nauseating, unintelligible shaky-cam shots (e.g Transformers).
The design of Edwards’ Godzilla is the perfect blend of Shōwa and Heisei Era inspiration – not the blasphemous overgrown iguana we saw in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 adaptation. The M.U.T.O.s, however, are sleek, modern creatures – an amalgam of crustacean, arachnid, and gorilla – similar to the extraterrestrial beings in films like Cloverfield and Super 8. It’s important to note also that these creatures are actual characters with personalities – they aren’t just mindless monsters. They are prehistoric creatures, awakened by man, attempting to survive in a world that cannot withstand their size and strength.
By painstakingly staging each reveal and action sequence, Edwards achieves enormous scale and scope – allowing the viewer to fully take in the impressive size of the creatures and the tiny, insignificant humans caught in the middle. Edwards has successfully pulled off a computer-generated Godzilla that moves like the classic man-in-a-suit monster. There is weight to the creature’s movement – and when the King of Monsters clashes with the M.U.T.Os, it feels like worlds colliding – like Jack Burton shaking the pillars of heaven.
As for the human drama, it’s serviceable – with Cranston and Watanabe turning in the best performances. Aaron Taylor-Johnson doesn’t move the needle in terms of charisma, but his character is vital is putting us in the middle of the action. The biggest disappointment, however, is the misuse of Sally Hawkins and Elizabeth Olsen – fantastic actresses that have absolutely nothing to do. Add to that Juliette Binoche and you’ve got three incredible, underused actresses whose combined presence adds up to less than a supporting role.
Of course, dispensable human characters are part of the Godzilla tradition. The human story functions as a working narrative, connecting all the pieces, but really it’s all about Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s – the lack of depth in human characters strengthens the film’s general conceit that we are nothing more than ants crawling at the feet of gods.
While Edwards’ film isn’t as somber and poignant as Honda’s 1954 film, it succeeds in exploring man’s increasingly complicated relationship with nature and what we fear most – losing control. This isn’t another soulless spectacle but rather a film by a filmmaker who respects the source material, cares about what he’s doing, and has something to say.
Godzilla is an exhilarating, compelling work of blockbuster cinema – a slow burn that builds to a stunning, stupefying conclusion. All hail the king.
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