One of the main talking points surrounding Gareth Edwards’s 2010 creature feature Monsters was the fact that the young director had delivered the kind of humans-in-peril blockbuster story – along with some sporadic blockbuster-level special effects – for an impressively small budget of $500,000. That was indeed remarkable, and despite the overall takings coming in at less than $5,000,000 – small change in modern Hollywood – no studio would ever ignore a 900% return on an initial outlay.
It’s therefore unsurprising that Edwards has been entrusted with a big blockbuster like Godzilla, or even actors as well-respected as David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, and despite it being a very rapid rise to the big leagues he has adapted well. The director wisely retains one of the basic ideas that served him well in that earlier film out of necessity – that less is more – and he has produced an adequate Saturday night popcorn movie that is, overall, an entertaining spectacle.
The Toho Studios / Ishirō Honda film Gojira first appeared half a century ago. Featuring a giant creature that fed off nuclear radiation and laid waste to Japan, it was a transparently allegorical tale concerned with the atom bomb destruction experienced by the country at the end of World War II and warned of the dangers of the H-bomb tests in the Pacific in the early 1950s. This 2014 version of the monster is faithful in terms of appearance, but it seemingly has a kinship of sorts with the human race, and Edwards uses its vast presence to recall more recent and varied environmental threats to humanity.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as soldier Ford Brody (the Hollywood Random Name Generator hasn’t thrown that one up since the rarely-seen 1957 John Wayne western Spank ‘Em Hard), an explosive ordinance expert whose mother Sandy (Juliette Binoche) and father Joe (Cranston) were high-ranking nuclear physicists in Japan before a Fukushima-style meltdown in the late 1990s ended their comfortable life abroad and turned Joe into a conspiracy theorist. That incident was caused by an earthquake with suspicious seismic activity, but despite the area remaining in quarantine ever since, Joe is convinced today that it’s actually radiation-free and the authorities and scientists are covering something up. Indeed they are, in both senses of the phrase: a giant chrysalis has appeared underneath the plant, and eventually it hatches into a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or ‘MUTO’ (although I much prefer my own name ‘Sizeable Leathery Alien Bastard Heading East At Dawn’, or ‘SLAB-HEAD’).
The appearance of the MUTO appears to have woken Godzilla from some kind of million-year deep sea slumber, and Ford and the US Army (Merica!) must track both as they head for a monumental dust-up in San Francisco, with a brief stopover in Honolulu along the way. While monster-on-monster destruction is taking place Ford must – predictably – try and get back to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son Sam (Carson Bolde). He is aided in his quest by Navy Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn, attempting to be authoritative but somewhat mis-cast) and scientists Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, an unlikely blockbusterer to say the least) and Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, who spends 40 minutes of the film’s running time staring intently into the middle distance with a confused look on his face, although I’m thankful that at least one character acknowledges the fact that the sight of giant monsters scrapping in the middle of a city is somewhat mental).
Unfortunately none of these characters are developed adequately, and they’re all fairly dull, typical blockbuster types. There’s little to differentiate these scientists and high-ranking military men from their equivalents in two dozen other big budget moneyspinners, and it’s disappointing to be asked yet again to care a jot about one good-looking nuclear (arf) family in particular when apparently tens of thousands of other people (less photogenic, presumably) are perishing under destroyed skyscrapers and falling planes. The Brodies are your typical disaster film brood: he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse, the kid’s a little innocent Spielbergian mop-head in peril on a yellow school bus: we’ve seen it all so many times I just want one director to come along and say “You know what? The main characters are going to be an ugly, self-serving tax inspector and his hateful wife who bothers old grannies with telesales calls. Let’s kill em. Let’s let them die in the final act, along with their spoiled little kid, and you can all sit there in your expensive seats in your 3D glasses and be completely bummed out or massively entertained by the experience. I don’t care either way.”
At times it feels that Godzilla adheres too closely to a post-2010 blockbuster code of conduct. There are other children in peril, not just Brody Jr, but they too are cute and uniformly mop-headed: sullen teenagers and porkers and little brats with snot noses and wonky eyes have no place here. Predictably none of the kids who appear will actually die, anyway. In fact very few people die on screen, except for the occasional soldier. Just like Man Of Steel and The Avengers (and I dare say a few other movies I’ve either forgotten about or haven’t bothered to see) we witness the destruction of entire cities here without seeing an actual civilian perish. Naturally the huge death toll is implied, but Godzilla irritates just as much as those superhero movies in the way it tip-toes around the issue of catastrophe: we see panic, we see TV news reports that oddly mention ‘thousands are still missing’ but fail to reveal death tolls, and we even see fleeting glimpses of people being rescued from the rubble, but yet again there are no bodies and no shots of hysterical crying mourners. I’m not saying I want to sit there reveling in imagined misery – sadly there’s enough of that in real life on the news – but my take on it is this: if you’re going to make a film about the destruction of a city, then show the effects of the destruction of a city. If you’re going to up the stakes to such an extent as a filmmaker (or, more specifically, as a studio) then don’t patronize and mollycoddle the audience.
That’s not to say watching the carnage unfold isn’t enjoyable. My approach to Godzilla was to accept its flaws as they appeared and just go with the flow. Guess what? If you forget about the poor characterization and the usual decision to feed cinemagoers of all ages with the storyline requirements of 13-year-old boys then it’s a pretty good sci-fi monster movie; one of the better ones I have seen in recent years, in fact. Edwards lets the action build in a traditional way – slowly, to a crescendo, rather than trying to cram in a series of set pieces – a method which is comfortably familiar (or uncomfortably unfamiliar if, y’know, your frame of reference only stretches back three years) and which raises the tension well. He exercises restraint by holding the monsters back for as long as possible, and even teases the audience repeatedly by concentrating on Godzilla’s fins cutting through the water before we see the entire torso (I’m sure I’ve seen that before somewhere…) or by closing doors in front of the camera at the point you think you are finally going to witness beast-on-beast fighting.
When the action comes it’s refreshing in that it is quieter, and less disorientating, than in recent blockbusters. Cities may get smashed to pieces but it’s eerily silent at times, which allows for the strange noises and roars of the creatures to come to the fore. When Edwards knows he has a good shot – and there are many, particularly in the second half – he lets the camera linger a little longer than some of his contemporaries would, which is something to be appreciated in this day and age. Despite the amount of destruction on screen it’s all far easier to take in than has been the case with other recent releases.
The special effects are as impressive as you’d expect given a) that’s the director’s background and b) the budget of $160 million, although I’d recommend the 2D; the 3D simply blurs most of the background on occasion and fails to let you appreciate the finer details of the sets or the effects. Some have suggested that the monster looks like papier-mache; a nod to the old Harryhausen days, perhaps, but it seemed realistic to me (well, as realistic as a 90-foot high lizard can be). The ever-versatile Andy Serkis apparently helped to inform some of the creature’s movements, and the director and his team studied bears, dogs and even eagles in order to copy their facial expressions (though thankfully not the 1980s cartoon series featuring Godzuki). As for MUTO, it’s an impressive amalgam of Godzilla’s previous cinematic enemies, with a dash of Alien and a sprinkling of Starship Troopers thrown in for good measure. (Just when you think Godzilla is going down the Alien mother / eggs path a little too conveniently, it suddenly remembers that it has a legacy of its own to respect. I liked this. There are a number of clear references to high-suspense films such as Alien, Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.)
It may not be subtle – the references to Fukushima, Hiroshima and the Indian Ocean tsunami are clear, and the dramatic scenes between Johnson and Cranston’s characters contain laughable levels of pent-up emotion, to the point where every line of dialogue requires the actors to engage in a bizarre anguished-face contest – but hey: it’s a monster film and it’s a decent monster film. Any more would be a bonus, but unfortunately that’s all there is to feast on.
I’m picturing Edwards being welcomed into a shadowy cabal of blockbuster directors now that Godzilla has been released. “Welcome in kid, you did great,” says Michael Bay, pinning a membership badge on the young Brit. “Excellent work,” nods Zack Snyder approvingly. “The way you levelled the entire city without showing a single lost limb or even a drop of spilled blood is quite spectacular,” opines Joss Whedon, sitting in a chair while menacingly stroking a fluffy white cat. “And best of all,” smiles Brett Ratner “is the way you incorporated such an array of dull and generic characters”.
Sneering aside, the experience of directing a movie like this must be phenomenal, particularly when your last feature was made for a fraction of the cost. Edwards must still be pinching himself, and once he has finished doing so he can relax, safe in the knowledge that he has successfully wiped the slate clean after the disappointing Roland Emmerich effort of the late 1990s. Having missed last year’s Pacific Rim I was quite pleased to see the sight of a giant havoc-wreaking creature wading through the ocean towards a petrified line of humans on the shoreline, even though Godzilla is yet another blockbuster that slavishly follows the rulebook rather than ripping it up and starting again. I may be a little less charitable toward the inevitable sequel, but despite the flaws this is worth seeing on the big screen.
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Written by: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olson, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins
Running Time: 123 minutes