A king’s arrival is never silent
After Roland Emmerich’s 1998 rebirth of Godzilla, which was slammed by critics and much of the general public, with fans blaming Emmerich for single handily destroying the franchise or any hope for future installments — though personally not minding the take myself, seeing it as more of a campy, over-blown Dinosaur attack on New York rather than a Godzilla picture — worldwide moviegoers assumed they had seen the last of the gargantuan Goliath. Alas, marking the 60th Anniversary of Godzilla — with Gojira debuting in Japan back in 1954 — everyone’s favorite atomic-sea creature is back, making his big screen return in this franchise reboot, under careful direction of Gareth Edwards, helming his first major Hollywood production after gaining widespread recognition for Monsters (2010), an independent film for which Edwards acted as writer, director, cinematographer and visual effects artist.
Godzilla opens in Japan 1999, where we find a dedicated nuclear power plant supervisor by the name of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) so caught up in his work that he forgets it’s his young son, Ford’s, birthday. Sending his son off to school on birthday morning before reporting to the nuclear plant with his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) — who works her husband — Joe begins to suspect that some suspiciously patterned seismic activity may be somewhat more sinister than shifting tectonic plates. Unfortunately for Joe, when the plant suddenly goes into meltdown mode — an explosion occurs, threatening to release radiation outside — he soon realizes that his theories were indeed correct. During the devastating incident, his wife Sandra — who was sent into the plant’s core by Joe as part of a team to look for damage caused by the irregular tremor activity — gets caught on the wrong side of some containment doors and tragically loses her life. As the plant collapses into ruin, the disaster — attributed to an earthquake — results in the evacuation and quarantine of the Janjira area. Following the occurrence a massive cover-up ensues and the truth behind the calamity is hidden away.
Fifteen years on, a grown up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has become a bomb-disposal expert working for the U.S. military. Returning home to San Francisco, and reuniting with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son Sam (Carson Bolde), Ford gets word that his estranged father Joe — who was written off as a conspiracy theorist for his failed efforts to prove the Japanese government were concealing the truth about the earlier disaster — had been arrested in Japan. Ford reluctantly travels to the east to bail his father out of prison, and unwillingly agrees to join him in venturing to their old home — situated in the quarantined zone — to retrieve some floppy disks that could prove his fanatical theories correct. While visiting their old residence, the pair is subsequently taken into custody and end up in the very same plant where Joe once worked. There, they meet scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) who are studying an enormous cocoon-like organism that appears to feed on radiation. The situation soon turns critical when the events of the present begin to mirror those of the past, and a terrifying winged-beast dubbed a ‘MUTO’ (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is unleashed. Meanwhile, as the military attempt to devise a plan to destroy the winged threat, signals indicate that it had, in fact, called out to something before it had broken free. The scientists rapidly discover that the MUTO had also awoken a towering, godlike leviathan — which had been lying dormant for centuries — who may now be mankind’s only hope for restoring the balance of nature — a monster Dr. Ichiro identifies as Gojira.
Gareth Edwards certainly proves his worth as a major Hollywood heavyweight as everything in Godzilla screams with excellence; from Edwards’ meticulous direction, to the astounding special effects and the beautiful militaristic cinematography — this picture is the Godzilla film worldwide audiences have been crying out for. It’s clear Edwards fully identifies with the character of Godzilla and treats the beast with the splendor and majesty it deserves. But the film isn’t without its shortcomings, as for everything Edwards does correct there is a missed opportunity alongside it, offsetting his efforts and therefore never truly allowing the picture to reach its full potential.
The first thing Edwards does right is hire impressive performers who manage to turn this far-fetched, improbable story into something that feels real, a believable nightmare of sorts — gone are the comedic stars from Emmerich’s vision, The Simpson voice actors Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer are thankfully no where to be seen in this retelling. Bryan Cranston, Argo (2012), is remarkable as the grief-stricken husband Joe Brody, barley holding on to his sanity — his intensity and presence is almost as dominant as the creature Godzilla itself — but Joe is unfortunately not used to his full potential, as the character eventually gets pushed aside to make way for the enormous god-like creatures once they arise. Aaron Taylor-Johnson — barely recognizable from his nerdy-looking Kick-Ass (2010) days — as Ford Brody and Elizabeth Olsen, Oldboy (2013) — the younger, and in my opinion, more talented sister of Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen — as Elle Brody, Ford’s wife — who works as a nurse at the city hospital — both give credible performances, as their powerful facial expressions and large emotive eyes really do all the talking. Sadly though, both are quite flat and forgetful as characters and even though they help save lives throughout the film — Ford in one instance saves a young Asian boy at Honolulu International Airport when disaster strikes — their acts of heroism feel somewhat underwhelming, insignificant and almost go unnoticed given the colossal size of the creatures wreaking havoc.
Though, Ken Watanabe, Inception (2010), as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa — named after Gojira (1954) director Ishirô Honda and one of its main characters Dr. Daisuke Serizawa — adds a nice touch to the film, linking the monster with its Japanese lineage and enforcing the film’s thematics. When looking at the entire picture, the human elements in Godzilla fail to capture our emotional connection — bar Joe who was severed early on in the film to attain the magnificence of the monsters — as it’s made evident that Godzilla’s presence renders mankind meaningless — the creatures wanders through the city completely oblivious to the human plights below.
The beasts themselves — the MUTO and Godzilla — are vastly impressive, wonderfully designed and are loaded with detail; without a doubt they are the true stars of this motion picture. While conceiving the look of Godzilla, Edwards and the design team reviewed all previous incarnations of the creature for influence. When coming up with Godzilla’s final look, it was vital for Edwards that this Godzilla felt like the original, with Edwards stating, ‘Imagine Godzilla was a real creature and someone from Toho saw him in the 1950s and ran back to the studio to make a movie about the creature and was trying their best to remember and draw it … and in our film you get to see him for real;’ the creature presented in the film truly comes off as feeling authentic, remaining true to the original in all aspects.
Godzilla is at its finest when the creatures take centre stage and ferociously battle it out in the heart of San Francisco, with certain scenes being so iconic to the Godzilla franchise that it’s almost surreal watching a realistic account of these events — witnessing a full-scale Godzilla verses MUTO clash is honestly something to behold, an image normally portrayed by men in silly rubber suits or cheap looking puppets with little to no expression, knocking down cardboard type buildings as they brawl. Regrettably though, these epic moments — such as the breathtaking scene that ensues at Honolulu International Airport, where Godzilla first arrives, causing a tsunami that devastates Waikiki — are few-and-far-between, as the titular Godzilla is scarcely seen and the beasts are mostly shown through windows, television screens, character perspectives or other distracting devices which take away from the grandeur of what’s occurring; we find ourselves constantly shadowing the military as they attempt to disarm a warhead — something we’ve all seen many times before — and to be honest, I for one, found myself more invested and interested in Godzilla, wanting to observe the creature in all its splendor, as Godzilla is the star of the film after all.
Edwards has taken a less-is-more type approach with the monsters — as a means of building tension and anticipation — and tries to keep the beasts hidden for the majority of the film — similar to what director Spielberg did with the lethal great-white-shark in Jaws (1975) — and while in theory the idea sounds commendable, it doesn’t play out half as credible as it sounds, causing frustration more than anything else. There are certain scenes where this type of approach works well, Godzilla’s confrontation with the U.S. military at the Golden Gate Bridge for instance, plays out brilliantly, where Godzilla is seen in glimpses as soldiers attempt to take down the beast, but in scenes where Godzilla should be the focal point, such as the brief battle at Honolulu International Airport with the MUTO, audiences, like myself, clearly want to get up-close-and-personal, right in on the action; here, this style of filmmaking fails.
With stunning visuals by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, The Avengers (2012) — who is no stranger to working on big screen cataclysmic disaster films — Godzilla looks spectacular, as there is something almost beautifully glum in the way the fire, smoke and crumbling buildings gratifyingly light up the screen. Several scenes stand out for their uniqueness, style and use of color, one such moment is the high-altitude military parachuting sequence, where soldiers enter a smoke-filled San Francisco via HALO jump, slowly revealing the god-like-lizard in hints as they fall into the flaming devastated city.
While being a major improvement over Emmerich’s lazy Godzilla attempt — this actually looks and feels as though you’re watching a Godzilla picture, not just a bunch of Dinosaurs on a vendetta — it disposes of the much needed human element — the Joe Brody character — too early on and tells the story through empty blank-slate protagonists instead. The creatures, however, are remarkable, with Edwards’ Godzilla being the largest presented on screen thus far — towering over a hundred meters tall — while the effects and action all reach, with some exceeding, blockbuster heights. Ultimately though, Gareth Edwards has created a Godzilla film that comes so close to hitting the mark, with all elements in the production outrivaling any Godzilla picture produced to date. It’s just a shame the film never truly reaches the greatness it deserves and so almost achieves.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
Godzilla is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia