Anytime there’s a particularly anticipated blockbuster, especially one based on a property that people love but hasn’t been served well in recent memory, there tends to be a collective holding of breath, which can often be released as a disappointed groan. This year’s runaway favorite in the “I Hope It’s Good, I Hope It’s Good” category is almost certainly Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, which fans have been excited and worried about since a teaser was first shown at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. The trailer and footage we’d gotten to see recently made us even more excited, but the sting of the 1998 pseudo-comic travesty still required bi-monthly ointment. As the movie began to play and the doctored footage of 1940s and 50s nuclear blasts flickered across the screen, I let out a sigh of relief. We can begin.
Godzilla is exactly what you’ll want from a movie bearing that title, and it actually puts in a lot of allegory to the problem of man fighting against nature and nature fighting back. However, those expecting to see the titular lizard king (not Jim Morrison) throughout the movie will find themselves clenching their fists for a good portion of the proceedings. Edwards, whose sole prior feature directing credit is his 2010 low-budget Monsters, is quite adept at holding back on showing you everything you want right away. There’s plenty of Godzilla, yet he’s not omnipresent. But giant monsters do abound.
The film begins in 1999 Japan, where an American scientist (Bryan Cranston), his scientist wife (Juliette Binoche), and their young son Ford live near to the nuclear power station at which both parents work. There are strange and troubling rumbles and energy spikes happening all around the site, and the team are desperate to figure out what’s causing it before bad things happen. Unfortunately, bad things do happen, and the entire area has to be evacuated and quarantined.
15 years later, Ford is now grown (and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and is coming home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan as a bomb disposal expert for the Navy. He’s married to a nurse, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and they have a son. Just as he gets back, he’s told that his father has been arrested in Japan for yet again trying to go into the quarantine zone, and that he has to come bail his dad out. Ford is eventually convinced by his father that the zone is completely clear of nuclear fallout and that there’s a larger cover-up at play. They go there and find that to be absolutely true. The U.S. military, headed up by David Strathairn, and a research team headed up by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins have found something huge buried deep below the nuclear site, something that’s about to hatch.
Just like the original Godzilla from 1954, this movie is a disaster movie with monsters in it, though you get a lot more of authorities dealing with the situation than you do people on the ground running from it. In that film, you also get scientists and military people talking in a room about the big problem at hand, roles which Watanabe and Strathairn certainly fulfill in this movie. The difference here is that, certainly in the case of Taylor-Johnson, Olsen, and Cranston, there is an active presence of the main characters in the thick of the action getting right up close to the massive energy-sucking monsters which the giant reptile is attempting to catch and fight.
The visuals are nothing short of stunning. Edwards, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, and the whole visual effects team seamlessly blend the real people and backgrounds with the CGI giant beasts, especially during the night sequences. There are moments where we just barely see something coming out of the night or fog, and then all of a sudden we realize we’re seeing something’s knee or whatever. It really illustrates the scale of the beasts, being legitimately larger than any building or object onscreen, and certainly larger than any character. The scene we see in the amazing teaser of the paratroopers is expanded for the film (naturally), and it’s one of the most visually impressive in the whole movie.
If there are any downsides to the movie, it would be that the story is very straightforward. There’s nothing complicated narratively here at all. The good guys know where the monsters are headed and that they have to stop them, and that doesn’t change from the inciting incident forward. As such, the characters don’t get a whole lot of development since they’re mostly traveling from point A to point B along with the action. We know nothing about anybody, really, save little hints about Watanabe’s character’s father. This wouldn’t normally be much of a problem, but there are so few main characters for this scale of a movie, you’d expect to learn something about them. I’m not even sure I know why Sally Hawkins is in the film, aside from her ability to look on in awe.
These are minor quibbles, of course, because when the film delivers on what it promises, Godzilla fighting against other giant monsters, it delivers massively. There are moments we in the press screening couldn’t help but cheer and chuckle in excitement as things happened onscreen. It’s very clear the filmmakers have a definite love for the source material and the whole universe of Godzilla and that makes all the difference in the world. Being fans, they wanted to do right by fans, and they’ve easily made the most to-be-taken-seriously Godzilla movie since the 1954 original, and there’s really no better 60th Anniversary gift than that.