Up from the depths, thirty storeys high...
Warning: This review reveals the fate of a main character.
In the week palaeontologists discovered the fossilised remains of a dinosaur, the largest ever found, in Argentina, it’s perhaps appropriate that cinemas should be showing the latest revival of Godzilla; the Japanese monster metaphor for the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons, suspiciously reminiscent of a man in a reptile suit. Previous American attempts at turning the giant slayer of more vindictive beasts, awoken from their eon-long slumbers by atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, have fallen flat. Movie lovers with long memories and short tempers will recall Roland Emmerich’s 1998 abomination: a movie that inflicted the double whammy of a malevolent lizard and Matthew Broderick on unsuspecting crowds. 16 years on Gareth Edwards tries again, and the result is something far closer to the beast of old: not a threat to human kind but a threat to the threats to human kind. In short, it’s a Godzilla flick that understands the appeal of the character.
In some respects Edwards is a left field choice to front this blockbuster. His debut, Monsters, might have marked him as an obvious choice, but that movie was predicated on its low-key approach; a film with an intimate human story, in which the characters were always catching up with the social and material devastation wrought by the visitors. In part that was an artistic decision imposed by budgetary constraints, but it was also an attempt to document a threat to civilisation from the perspective of those on the ground, not the God’s eye, multi-angle setpieces beloved of your Emmerichs and the better filmmakers he copied.
Edwards has imported that method to Godzilla, and the effect is a big-budget studio movie with an indie sensibility. The perspective is that of the human characters, most of whom get a fair shake. More often than not, except when an aerial drop from a military plane permits it, the camera stays on terra firma, looking skyward for a fevered glimpse of the prowling monster or titanic battle raging close by. It’s an approach that will frustrate those wilfully mislead by mischievous marketing into expecting a full-blooded disaster movie, but everyone else, not least those signed up to being amongst the crowd the day Godzilla’s enemies came to town, should be delighted: you always wondered what it would be like to be a real world witness to a monster fight and now you’ve the chance to find out.
Detractors will question whether Edwards has been wise in looking to early Spielberg for guidance on keeping a big adventure focused on a family of characters, then channelling Hitchcock, killing off the star of the show early. Bryan Cranston’s premature exit is both a shock and a risk. Imagine Close Encounters had Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary been killed when he reached Devil’s Tower, only for Truffaut to move front and centre. But the decision, though robbing the film of some nervous energy, does underline its ruthlessness. Cranston’s Joe Brody has completed his arc, he’s nothing left to do, and no character is safe just because we’ve come to like them and wish them well. A lesser blockbuster might have not have bothered to wrong foot an audience this way, but Edwards is trying harder than most. Sure, the film ultimately falls back on the tried and tested crowd pleaser of a family restoration – Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Brody the younger, wife Elizabeth Olsen and generic child destined to be reunited – but this is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary summer movie, that reminds us that big budget blow outs come with their own unique set of limitations.
It’s hard to imagine that Godzilla purists will have cause for complaint. Edwards’ film has a strong Japanese flavour and the effects are shrewdly designed to both provide the scale and destructive realism we’ve come to expect from modern technology, while retaining the aesthetic we associate with two men, dressed as monsters, grabbing each other above a city made from miniatures. That’s typical of how this Godzilla is finely tuned to meet the standards demanded by very different audiences. Edwards deserves a lot of credit; he’s grounded the absurd, quite literally in many instances, while retaining the simple pleasure of watching two giant monsters topple skyscrapers. Not for nothing are there many shots of young children looking up in trepidation: they’re our proxies and we successfully inhabit them for two hours. No mean feat in this era of seen-it-all-before visual effects.