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Film Review: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014; Directed by Gareth Edwards)

The latest Godzilla is a large-scale movie canvas for remarkable images, mostly of destruction. Urban evacuation traffic snarled on a rural highway by the burning fuselage of a crashed jetliner. Paths of disturbed terrain trailing away from womb-like underground nests. Towering, primordial creatures crashing clumsily through cities and toppling skyscrapers as they battle each other, appearing as roaring, smashing embodiments of prehistoric terrors and lingering atomic-age anxieties of mass devastation.

But the images and sequences that stay with the awestruck viewer are the ones of quieter, tenser anticipation. Director Gareth Edwards tantrically holds off on a full frontal of his titular iconic reptilian monster for nearly an hour (let’s have an irresponsible Jaws reference here and get it over with, but this is not that sort of movie, really), and even this reveal is tantalizing brief (if also so powerfully iconic as to merit actual in-theater applause and conclusively prove his adoration for the material). Much of his film is vivid rising action and subtle, realist, almost zen-like enormity leading to spikes of even greater enormity. A little girl on a Hawaiian beach watches the tide recede alarmingly far and quickly. Red-glowing Chinese lanterns quiver and dance on suspended lines as something huge moves behind them in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Small, fragile, diminished human beings hold their collective breath in terrified awe as mountainous monsters pass with eerie grace beneath aircraft carriers or railroad trestle bridges, their skill at evading the feats of human construction no less impressive than their casual demolition of said edifices. Most profoundly evocative is a sequence of a HALO paratrooper drop above San Francisco, ankle-attached flares trailing scarlet tails behind the jumpers as they descend through cloud, fog, open air, and smoke into what seems like the writhing pit of sulfurous Hades itself.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a more particular vision of similarly-scaled metropolis-leveling blockbuster action, was greeted by many as a bold and exciting new big-budget computer-generated variant on the classic kaiju genre (though a lot of people hated it, too). Edwards’ Godzilla may not be as good, but it’s got the considerable wallop and heavy, inevitable tread of its titular King of All Movie Monsters (as much as I love King Kong, Godzilla’s got him licked). Alexandre Desplat’s weighty, brassy score (very much inspired by the music for the 1954 Godzilla by Akira Ifukube) greatly amplifies this feeling of crushing dread.

The film is also erected on the metaphoric bedrock of the mass existential anxieties of its age like Toho Studios’ original, beloved 1954 film, a pulpy but elegiac synthesis of the radioactive ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as a sharp warning to the duelling superpowers precipitating a nuclear arms race with the potential to make Godzilla’s catastrophic destruction seem quaint in comparison. The 2014 Godzilla hearkens back not only to the Hiroshima bomb and nuke tests on remote Pacific atolls but to more historically proximal disasters like the South Asian tsunami of 2004 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. This is to say nothing of the usual 9/11 echoes of toppling skyscrapers and dusty panic in city streets that increasingly suffuse blockbuster Hollywood spectacles, a symbolic thumbing of the nose to the sniffing “Too Soon” crowd. It may be a tangential point, but what a curiously evocative accident of history it is that the development and improvement of filmmaking technology making it much more possible to convincingly produce images of stunning mass destruction coincided so closely with a real-world event that made such images so culturally indelible to the American public.

Anyway, Godzilla has a plot and characters in the same way that the human body has less-interesting but vital parts like lymph nodes and thyroid glands. It’s a bit of a family history, really. In 1999, a nuclear engineer (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Juliette Binoche) are tragically parted forever by a mysterious seismic disaster at the Japanese nuclear power facility that employs them both. 15 years later, their son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a US Navy explosive ordnance disposal officer (some Freudian transference of his childhood trauma that will also prove to be a useful plot element) with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) of his own that his work keeps him away from more than he’d like. He’s pulled away from them again after a brief return home by his estranged father; haunted by having been forced to leave his wife to die in the quarantined reactor, the elder Brody is on a paranoid quest for the truth about the disaster, which he insists he can prove was not the earthquake it was officially claimed to be.

Dragging Ford along with him, the crazy-obsessed doomsaying stock character crosses paths with the monstrous cause of his pain: a gigantic, EMP-emitting insectoid creature dubbed a MUTO, which escapes from a high-security research and containment facility and begins seeking out any and every source of nuclear radiation it can find so that it can feed on them (it snaps into nuclear warheads like they’re carrot sticks). Something large, spiky and reptilian is also hunting the MUTO, which soon has a potential mate as well. The three monsters promise to converge on the San Francisco Bay Area, where Ford’s wife and son dwell. And they aren’t planning to have a demure wine and cheese soirée there, I can tell you that much.

Cranston and Binoche are barely in this film, and you might wish that they were the focus rather than the thick-necked toy soldier that Taylor-Johnson plays with stiff-lipped commitment but precious little personality, or than Olsen’s big-eyed, concerned nurse and mother, for that matter. The more experienced actors play their big emotional parting scene at the lockdown doors exquisitely; it’s the most powerful human beat in a film that consistently privileges those of a scale much greater than the human. The cast also includes David Strathairn as a serious but thoughtful Navy Admiral who does not relish any of his options for ending the monstrous threat to civilization and Ken Watanabe as the head scientist at the MUTO containment facility. Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa is something of a Gojira whisperer (in that he often whispers about the creature, not that he can stroke its nose and make it do things for him). He’s also more than a bit of a Japanese kaiju film stereotype, carrying serene Eastern wisdom about the ancient order of the natural world to gruff, “nuke it from orbit” American military brass. “Let them fight,” he urges the Admiral as Godzilla and the MUTOs approach San Fran, and even the doubtful Armed Forces vet can’t help but admit that it’s as good an idea as any other.

Fight it out they do, and the Big G’s cold-blue radioactive breath makes a couple of astounding appearances that should give the franchise’s nerdiest acolytes seizures of uncontrollable delight in the cineplex aisles. Edwards and his team make these sequences huge and loud and impressive, and they cultivate a humbling sense of scale that also served del Toro’s city-smashing behemoths well. Most vitally, however, they recognize that Godzilla is not exactly a villain to be targetted and destroyed, which was perhaps the central failure of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 Godzilla (well, that and Matthew Broderick).

This Godzilla is an alpha predator, roused from a deep-ocean hibernation not to terrorize humanity but to track his gargantuan insectoid prey (although, to contravene this theory, not to eat them; I guess he just evolved to kill other monsters in a badass way for the pleasure of it). And like King Kong, he’s a tired old warrior with a lonely sadness deep in his lizard eyes. For so long the cinematic embodiment of man’s planet-threatening technological hubris, Godzilla must suffer sacrifices to save humanity from what the savant Serizawa calls our own arrogance, ie. our reliance on technology exposed by the MUTOs’ society-crippling EMP attacks and appetite for radioactive cores. Destructive streak aside, he’s the angel of our better natures. With radioactive breath. Are we sure we really deserve him?

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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