(Gareth Edwards, 2014)
Though it does finally reveal itself to be a movie about an enormous dinosaur fighting with a pair of colossal monsters in the middle of a city, Godzilla is an uncommonly intelligent, even poetic movie about an enormous dinosaur fighting with a pair of colossal monsters in the middle of a city.
Director Edwards brought a sense of haunting stillness and surprising beauty to his low-budget debut, Monsters, and he manages to replicate some of that here too, despite the massive budget and epic scope of this undertaking. What is perhaps most impressive however, is the way he is able to stay true to some of the spirit of the many Japanese iterations of Godzilla while making a film which is decidedly his own. That isn't to say that this Godzilla is entirely satisfying. Instead, for all its accomplishment, it is an oddly flat film, told at a curious remove.
Edwards borrows a lot from Steven Spielberg, introducing his creatures in stages, hinting and teasing, giving us a series of glimpses of Godzilla long before we see him proper. There is a a great deal of exposition early on, and Edwards handles it well, skilfully introducing scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, part of an organisation devoted to tracking Godzilla. In the opening scene, they find something else; evidence of the emergence of a prehistoric giant creature which has come from deep underground in the Phillipines. That creature heads for the nearest source of Nuclear radiation , which happens to be a Japanese reactor. Its arrival there causes a meltdown, and is covered up by the Government. A decade later, Edwards introduces a family drama to add a little human interest. The family are whats left of the Brodys. After his wife (Juliette Binoche) dies in the meltdown, and executive at the plant (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the cover-up. His son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is dragged into this when he travels back to Japan to get his Dad out of jail. Together they discover that the creature, named a MUTO by the organisation, has survived the meltdown and has been feeding on the radiation until, fully grown, it is ready to mate.
It escapes a containment facility and heads across the Pacific towards a female MUTO somewhere in North America, creating havoc in Hawaii and summoning what the scientists believe is an alpha predator. Thus the scene is set as Godzilla sets about tracking and killing the two MUTOs while various human characters attempt to get out of his way or stop him entirely.
Those human characters are a definite weak point here. After the terrific early meltdown scene establishing the tragedy that defines the two Brody men, the stakes never seem quite so high. Instead the film seems to quietly work a theme of nature's absolute indifference to humanity, and it is as if the film itself shares some of that indifference. Edwards focuses, Terrence Malick style, on insects in the background, dogs and wolves in Godzilla's path, the seagulls that cloud around him as he moves.
The people tend to stare dumbly at his enormity when he appears.
While the plot works overtime to allow Ford Brody to trail Godzilla across the pacific, he is never an interesting or compelling character. Part of that is down to Taylor-Johnson, a dull performer, but much of it is because the script gives him nothing but reactions to the situations he finds himself in. His wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is even less corporeal, a faint sketch of a character.
But Edwards still works some magic, engineering a handful of excellent set-pieces, imbuing some of them with that odd poetry he created in Monsters. The sequence where a squad of paratroopers HALO jump into a blacked-out San Francisco, trailing red smoke, is startlingly beautiful.
But soon after, the film focuses, as it must, on that enormous dinosaur, breathing blue flame at the two colossal monsters. And thats fine, and this is probably as good as any film about that could be, in one regard. But it is lacking something. For all that it is commendably devoted to shooting its monsters from a human-eye ground level, it seems to be lacking any humanity.