Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

Defiantly awe-inspiring against its campy up-bringing, Gareth Edwards’ reverent take on Godzilla is like a handheld view of something real that up until now we had only drawn in crayon after dreaming about. And as you would view most things from the ground, the action is shot from below, sometimes out of frame. The pay-off is stalled beyond normal human tolerance, as though Godzilla were a nervous groom who simply won’t commit to being on screen until he has enough buildup. Even advertising the closeted meanings of such idioms native to the giant monster bash as nature vs man and the brutalities of war, the dialogue in Godzilla asserts itself to such meaning like a crowbar asserts itself to a jammed service door. This is when it remembers to have dialogue at all.

However, Godzilla is a blockbuster on a different scale. It harnesses a theme and subjects its characters to it, exploiting their blank-eyed wonderment at the things happening around them as a symptom of being a person on planet earth. We are tiny in this film. Every shot of giant things angles itself from the ground to give it weight and scale; watching this in the theater is an exhilarating, frightening experience. But it requires that you don't yearn for the instant satisfaction of the modern superhero blockbusters. Godzilla is more in tune with Jaws this way, waiting fifty minutes to show us the title monster. It doesn't have interesting characters or dialogue but also doesn't need any: it is an experience told entirely through visuals, a true spectacle film in the way that Transformers is only a pretender. Some people would say these are both "style over substance," but what is substantial about having no style? What's stylistic about visuals that don't themselves communicate a theme?

Godzilla, like many of the films in its series before it, is about our relationship with the natural world. The insectoid MUTOs are a product of our careless desire to weaponize nature and Godzilla is the earth one-upping our hubris with a godlike equalizer. These beings seem ancient and Godzilla’s timelessness appears in this film not just in design but in essence: he is a response to ancient ambitions, to war, to destruction. He is indifferent where people are cruel. The notion that no humans in the film would catch our attention, or make us feel anything more than for action figures thrown around a playset, may be a byproduct of an empty imagination, but it fits into the theme. If we liked these folks too much, we might miss the bigger picture.

Unfortunately, the film’s first major flaw is that the first act is more conventional. It undermines the general understanding of how this film subverts major blockbusters because it feels more like the movie “as it should be.” What I mean is that the motivations are clear, and average: nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) becomes conspiratorial after losing his wife (played for a heartbreaking three seconds by Juliette Binoche). He spends his life afterwards getting arrested by national authorities who, like his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), accuse him of being insane. He believes something unknown caused the nuclear plant to melt down, and from the mysterious opening credits and throughout the first 45 minutes, Edwards uses Cranston to put us in hearing distance of something mythically significant. But we’re so attached to this character that when he leaves the film, Godzilla gapes with his absence. The film rearranges itself from an enthusiastic monster hunt to what feels at times like nothing more than a well-filmed military movie. The grieving widower’s plight, the suspicions of conspiracy, the arc of a failed father, seem to be nothing more than a long trick on our senses. The end of the first act makes Godzilla feel like a big sister that punches you after saying, “Close your eyes and get your surprise.”

But none of this plotting is important to Godzilla. Should it have been? It would be easy to demand that Edwards make something more conventional, with a relatable plot acted out by a cast of likable characters (which today means “spunky”). I shudder to imagine the meeting of the "Godzilla-hunting team" (which would be called G-Force), comprised of a sassy black guy who’s good with computers, a white uber-masculine jughead, a Japanese tough girl biology nerd, and on and on. Any film made today would have broken the mythic, pondering shots with quippy scared people peeing their pants, or sassy control room people saying we’re all gonna die. Edwards had to stand brave, and firm, and let the shots stand. He had to let the humans lie, which may not always be to the film’s credit, but the big picture remains unscathed. Godzilla is a poem to the way the character feels to us, leaving him standing in the rubble as a visual anthem to his own themes and to the reasons we come back to his films over and over. What else could be in that debris, except Man of Steel, and The Avengers, and Transformers: Age of Extinction?

Edwards crafts a Godzilla that is no nuclear iguana but an ancient and weathered samurai, bleeding history in every sad grimace and epic gesture. He films him as though we’ve never seen him before, and never believed we would. He announces him not with trumpet fare but with the twang of a shamisen and whistle of a reed pipe. The actual computer model of the monster simmers with small emotions: a tiny bit of anger, or weariness, or even pride. He is every Godzilla in one (even, buried somewhere deep down, the one who fist-bumped his fellow monster mates ever so often).

In Godzilla’s presence, or just his aftershock on the riptide of his spines, he seems as omnipotent as Edwards imagines we believe him to be. He doesn’t seem like someone who would go on to fight King Kong (Legendary pictures has their own idea of him, it seems). Small details amount to so much immersive visual storytelling: how Godzilla displaces water, drawing out the tide and moving it back in like a tsunami, how weight and momentum direct the objects around him, and send people to their death. So many people die on-screen in Godzilla, another instance where it elevates itself with fearless filmmaking. It portrays a destructive force, like the Hulk or Optimus Prime or Superman, but one whose destruction is palpable. The Avengers and Man of Steel both nervously shied away from letting people die on screen because of the hero’s actions; in Godzilla, civilians are easily swept away by tides, and crumble with their homes. Edwards may have made the bravest blockbuster I’ve ever seen.

This is also the reason Godzilla divides its viewers. Even those that relish the slow boil to the monster via Cloverfield, savoring the news flashes and cutaways building up to the finale, must admit that without a character to support it, the film’s middle hour drags. This dissatisfaction is given the name “boring” or “slow,” and I get that, especially in reference to Godzilla’s rowdier norm. Even when faced with such sparkling cinematography as the titanic anti-protagonist scoured by lightning and glistening in the surf, it’s easy to miss those campy Saturday morning Godzillas. No one looking at these new age wonders seems to know why they care, taking “awe” as a cue to look like they forgot their lines.

Ford Brody (Johnson) is a problem because of how much time we spend with him: his presence is convenient in the way that any blockbuster would be when it puts its uninteresting lead right next to the monster over and over again. This guy draws the film’s events to him like a main character, even though Edwards conceives the film as a true disaster film where the events have global significance only viewed from ground level. So even after cutting his dramatic tethers by eliminating Cranston, Edwards assigns himself the additional labor of reattaching everything to a character that is not given a single interesting thing to do, or one emotion to call his own. Johnson has a single face in every scene, whether he’s looking through the windshield of a car at the undulating pregnant belly of a towering origami spider monster or asking a sergeant for directions. The most miraculous thing about him is that Johnson is in every scene, and yet Ford Brody is truly a nothing part.

Ken Watanabe, perfectly cast as a stand-in for a dramatic stare, is a visual aid for how movies like this think of themselves. He leads a supporting cast of likable leads on the sideline, including Sally Hawkins and David Straithairn. They are not important, but they fill the edges of the frame with competent grandstanding. Only late in the film when Watanabe gets misty-eyed with a speech about nature does Godzilla start to break its own oath to be a visual narrative only. The film’s best scene has parachuters dropping through the clouds, lit only by flares and streaks of lightning, drifting into the buildings against a backdrop of the smoke-shrouded monsters to the sound of their own heavy breathing and the miasmic choral theme of the discovery of the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Times like this, we don’t even need characters.

By abandoning its protagonist and its plight, for the rest of the 123-minute runtime Godzilla is cinematography and effects only. In the Ishirō Honda films, the story earnestly wallowed in its overacted badness and crunchy spectacle, never drowning itself with the unfulfilled tease of an Oscar-worthy dramatic arc – that tease, of Walter White vs Godzilla, was the film’s big misstep, not its reliance on visual cues to tell a compelling effects narrative. The only corollary I can think of in the movies to this bait and switch is the one in Psycho, which was still better prepared for it with a protagonist as dubious to the audience as to everyone else: it did not feel like the film was over when Leigh left the set because she was so worthless. She represented the kind of people who make the wrong decisions, who are so average that they can die and not affect anything. Can you imagine the wife character being the one to go out on the boat with Dreyfuss and Shaw to kill the shark, an hour into Jaws? That’s what Godzilla feels like when you’re not prepared for it.

These sorts of movies have always been earnestly bad in the accident of their drama. They didn’t care about development and traded it for suspense, for an operatic monster battle as a prelude to mumbling about the environment.  They were made more with pyrotechnics and robot terrorists in mind, with the model sets and sweaty suits and Godzilla teaming up with a pterodactyl to fight a three-headed alien dragon on the moon. Edwards almost elevates them to mythic proportions, trading out those pretentions for pondering, wide visuals and Spielbergian details. But those old creature features didn’t tease an Oscar-worthy performance beforehand. That’s where Godzilla lost its audience forever.

But beyond that desire to see spunky characters elevated to invincibility by the power of quips, there is a different kind of blockbuster in Godzilla, one that allows its images to linger and emote without interference. I don’t know if it’s possible to make this film perfect in Hollywood. As soon as we say the characters need to be more relatable, they become incessant and sparky, the girls become badass ninjas, the guys become cocksure billionaires. Edwards ignores the noises in the soundstages all around him and builds a film that deserves tired terms like “epic.” It earns the long wait to see a disaster from the corner of your eye, or one small part of a god. The craft on display is worthy of its awe, though it offers no instant satisfaction for taking part. You have to take it home with you and bury it, and roll it around in your fingers, and recall its images again later like a half-remembered dream. The characters fade and maybe they should have faded from the editing room too. But the weight of its vision survives. Long live the king.

Cast & Crew

Gareth Edwards

Max Borenstein (screenplay)
Dave Callaham (story) (as David Callaham)
Ishirō Honda (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.) &
Takeo Murata (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.) &
Shigeru Kayama (based on the character created by) (as Toho Co. Ltd.)
Frank Darabont (additional writing) (uncredited)
David S. Goyer (additional writing) (uncredited)
Ford Brody Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Young Ford CJ Adams
Dr. Ishiro Serizawa Ken Watanabe
Joe Brody Bryan Cranston
Elle Brody Elizabeth Olsen
Sam Brody Carson Bolde
Vivienne Graham Sally Hawkins
Sandra Brody Juliette Binoche
Admiral William Stenz David Strathairn
Captain Russell Hampton Richard T. Jones
Sergeant Tre Morales Victor Rasuk
Lieutenant Commander Marcus Waltz Patrick Sabongui

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