Gareth Edwards just sucker-punched Guillermo del Toro in his Chewbacca face, punted him right in his spectacle-pushing schnoz, and gave him a big old titty-twister for the whole world to see. To return to 1995 lingo, Godzilla rules. Pacific Rim – the asthmatic cousin panting to keep up, the ADHD-striken, Ridilin child who can’t keep his stories straight – you can go back to your rift where you belong. Godzilla is the alpha predator, the white whale, the great reckoner.
While my throwing down the gauntlet and continued pointed admonishment of Pacific Rim might not be the best means to celebrate Godzilla, I think the two films are wholly representative of where I – and collectively we – should draw the line on monster movies. It’s the triumphant versus the trash; what works and what doesn’t.
Evan’s story begins with a fascinating opening credit sequence setting 1940s-era footage of nuclear testing, and a water-cloaked Godzilla, behind the names and titles of those involved with the production. This is usually a time to tune out but here the names are intersected with brief easter eggs and exposition that are hastily redacted by quick-draw movie ink; it’s Evans’ look at government sanitization meant to keep us “safe”. Peering from one portion of the massive IMAX screen to another to try to take it all in, from the very get go, we’re racing to keep up. Even in the short context of these opening moments, Alexandre Desplat‘s brooding score quickly sinks its hooks in, his foreboding strings painting immediately iconic soundscapes. The stage is set. Let the mayhem begin.
We soon meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) a seismologist working at a nuclear reactor site in Japan. It’s his birthday but he’s too wound up in a phone conversation with a co-worker to notice the happy birthday banner his son Ford proudly set up. Sad face. “We gotta shut it down,” Joe barks. Without much spurning, we know trouble is a brewing. Cue an “unnatural” geographical anomaly that knocks out the plant, smothers Joe’s wife in a cloud of toxic waste and makes for some heart-rending Craston tears while effectively turning the city the Brody clan occupies into a cordoned-off, toxic wasteland.
15 years later, Ford Brody (now Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an army man – an elite soldier specializing in bomb disposal. He’s Sergeant First Class William James without as deep a chip on his shoulder and the boob-padding spacesuit. “How’s the bomb business?” his father tiredly, maybe scornfully, asks. “I diffuse them, not drop them.” Like the portended atomic bombs of Godzilla yore, Edwards squeezes ample allusions to Ishirō Honda‘s 1954 original. But they find their place naturally, settling into this modernization without feeling tacky or copy-pasted in.
And while the original is an exercise in metaphorical philosophizing that so happens to feature a man in a rubber suit stomping model cities, Evan’s Godzilla is about magical realism: what if a gigantic monster surfaced from the depths of the sea to wreck havoc on the world’s biggest cities? While lesser movies skimp on exploring the implications of destruction to shower FX-heavy candy a la wanton carnage – think Rampage World Tour: The Movie – Godzilla is all about implications. Before he emerges from the ocean, the tides ominously draw back, whipping into a tsunami that pummels the mainland. Before Godzilla even arrives on the scene, his wake is already collecting a body count. Like Honda’s film, Godzilla is no malevolent presence but a force of nature. In his notes, Evans has likened Godzilla to a God. Part the seas, for He is coming.
While Guillermo’s Rim job is happy to service you at the beginning – hell you paid for it, you’re getting the goods upfront – Edwards makes you wait. He’s like the girl you want to marry: he doesn’t put out on the first date. But he’s not above flirting.
Our first sneaking glances at the behemoth are shrouded by scale; a whipping tail, those imposing, prehistoric scales cutting through the waves; but it doesn’t take long for Evans to yank up on the scope and offer halting panoramas of the God lizard in his towering enormity. So what if Godzilla is a little fat, because good lord is he epic.
Bringing to life a towering deity of this size, Edwards cranks everything to 11. The sights, sounds and theater-shaking signature roar are the product of diligent planning and fiercely ambitious blueprints. With the support of Toho Co. (responsible for 28 Godzilla features) Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures – which first teamed up with Batman Begins – have taken a great risk on Godzilla. They’re betting audiences will be patient, that they don’t need each bite spoon fed to them robot-punch by robot-punch. For critics, the gambit has mostly paid off. Hopefully, general audiences feel the same. All I know is that I was won over. Hook, line and sinker. And even though the characters never transform into the complex people we hope to populate this otherwise consummate spectacle, Edwards is still a saintly architect.
Now with Monsters and Godzilla under his belt, Edwards is here to usher in a new era of monster movie. Long may he rein. He borrows heavily from his earlier work with creeping shots in the jungle essentially replicating the same sights and feel from his inaugural film. He’s a man who knows his talents, who’s confident enough to homage himself. But with so much more to play with from a budgetary stance, his sandbox is that much more fun and the result that much more jaw-dropping. But while he’s able to crank up the dial in terms of special effects, the intimate character study that characterized Monsters withers to something far more flat.
Taylor-Johnson is sufficient as the “hero” type but he has very little to work with outside of running around or looking scared. Playing the role of Asian scientist, Ken Watanbe is equally ineffective, more a stereotyped homage than a character in his own right. He’s having fun chewing through these lines but he’s no Cranston, who, for his limited role, is able to milk most. But no one gets the shaft more than Elizabeth Olsen who is relegated to a shamelessly customary wife in distress role. It’s tired characterizations like these that remind us that we’re watching a blockbuster but those complaints ought to be laid at screenwriter Max Borenstein‘s feet. His characters are archetypes; Army men with young wives and younger children. Anything else just wouldn’t do, would it?
Though the performances are often showed up by the 150-foot beast stomping through the midst of Evans’ film, it is still a certifiable triumph, an idol of what studio films should – and can – do. If Pacific Rim made you feel like a kid again, all the more power to you and your dated nostalgia. I’m quite happy watching Godzilla and cherishing my adulthood, marveling at modern technology. Thankfully, Godzilla is the rare sort of big-scale entertainment that doesn’t dumb down to middle schoolers.