Review: ‘Godzilla’ is The Rare Tentpole That’s Terrifying, Hilarious, Rousing, and Artful

By May 14, 2014
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Many directors aspire to the Spielberg school of thought, but few restrain themselves enough to align with the blockbuster master. With Godzilla, Gareth Edwards bottles up the composed, slow burn energy of movies like Jaws, Close Encounters, and Jurassic Park, filters it through the legacy of an iconic monster, and delivers the grandest thrills since Spielberg’s own War of the Worlds. Godzilla roars with confidence as Edwards adapts his instincts from his sole feature credit – the 2010 microbudget sci-fi drama Monsters – to spin the rebooted property into a collective portrait of man vs. Earth. Godzilla is transportive filmmaking, stark and forceful while leaving room for Edwards’ cheeky sense of humor. It’s everything you want out of a summer blockbuster and then some.

In 1999, two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) stumble upon the fossilized remains of an enormous beast in a stretch of South Pacific caverns. A cracked slime pod screams “escaped offspring.” A few thousand miles away, a routine inspection at a Japanese nuclear plant is thrown into meltdown mode when seismic activity lays waste to the cooling towers. Embedded scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), the only one with foresight to detect the incoming tremor activity, watches as his life is laid to waste by the mysterious “natural disaster.” Edwards relies on Cranston to inject Joe with an everyman quality that makes him instantly empathetic and understood. He loves his family, he loves his work, and when it’s destroyed — a sequence that recalls the harrowing events of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster — its easy to believe he’d dedicate his life to figuring out what the hell happened.

15 years later, Joe is lost in the mystery — and getting into trouble. Meanwhile, Joe’s grown-up son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is trying to live a normal life. But after returning from military duty, police beckon the soldier to Japan to bail out his dad, incarcerated for trespassing on government property. Forced to confront the nightmares of their past and their own troubled relationship (you can’t tip a hat to Spielberg without throwing in some daddy issues), Ford convinces Joe to return to the U.S. — but not before the absent-minded professor retrieves his wedding ring. The father and son sneak into their old hood, now a radiation zone, and stumble upon the answers Joe’s been looking for: A government operation, an otherworldly beacon of radiation, and a monster dubbed M.U.T.O., a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. As one might expect from a Godzilla movie, efforts to contain the M.U.T.O last approximately zero seconds.

GODZILLA

And that’s really it on the character front. Edwards paints its main players with broad strokes to make Godzilla a movie about humanity as a whole. When the MUTO plows through manmade constructs to find its mate on the other side of the globe, high-ranking military officers like Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) stand around scratching their heads. The answer is always nuclear strike — the reason the MUTOs came up for air in the first place. It’s not until the titular beast shows his face that hope shows its face. Godzilla is Mother Earth’s security system. The legendary beast ain’t here to destroy or defend humans. His instinct tells him to wipe the planet of MUTOs. That just happens to work in our favor.

Taylor-Johnson’s Ford, proactive and a little dry, winds up in every military response situation so we can witness the global response first hand. His wife, Elle (played softly and casually by the glowing Elizabeth Olsen), races around town as a savvy nurse while succumbing to the shock of the situation. Watanabe and Hawkins return to manifest the majesty of terror as a continuous dropping of the jaw (a.k.a. The Spielberg Face). Televised coverage and FEMA responses provide an externalization of the public consciousness. Max Borenstein’s script builds momentum as the Godzilla-vs-MUTO conflict comes into focus, instilling fear and opening the door for Edward to go bonkers with the kaiju-smashing. And while it de-emphasizes the individuals, there’s enough personal strife pent up in the opening scenes to conjure gravity when Ford puts his life on the line.

Every frame of Godzilla feels precisely calculated while remaining organic. Edwards diverts from the modern tradition of noisy mayhem to bring an artful quality to even the most raucous attacks. His perspective begins out of a pair of human eyes and blossoms into the wide arena shots of Godzilla history, where body slams and outrageous displays of radioactive explosions prosper. Edwards plays with fog, shadows, and obstructed angles to turn his creatures into creeping menaces, capable of bursting out the gates at any minute. A sequence staged on the Golden Gate Bridge is spine-tingling, even amidst large-scale destruction. When Godzilla confronts the MUTOs in San Francisco, it’s no holds barred. Edwards’ Godzilla is articulate and beefy, the final showdown like an inferno-encased sumo fight.

Every element of Godzilla stirs up awe. Alexandre Desplat’s is a ferocious battle cry, hyper-percussive to avoid slipping into cacophony. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey overlays every frame with atmosphere, from the dingiest airport monorail interior to the tropical blue sky vista without a monster in sight. And Edwards brings a thoughtfulness that constantly subverts expectations; he splashes Godzilla with humor (a cutaway to network news coverage of the first Godzilla/MUTO encounter provides one of the biggest laughs of the summer), and in a moment when a new hoard of MUTO babies are in jeopardy, you actually feel bad for these skyscraper-sized hellbeasts. Godzilla ebbs and flows at the unknowable pace of Earthly chaos. Being out of control, being under the foot of Gojira, has never been so much fun.

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Matt Patches
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room. He continues to love Groundhog Day.
  • BlueberryDylancenter

    Oh come on, the movie was very poor. The characters had the personality of a box cardboard, the themes were as sluggish and heavy handed as Godzilla himself. There was zero suspense, I’ve never seen a blander protagonist. His name might as well have been protagonist. All the actors were sorely underutilized. Focusing the plot on the human drama would have been fine if they were actually relatable human beings.