Hey, look! Spielberg’s back – late 70’s/ early 80’s Spielberg. I thought he was gone forever! Wait, what? You mean he’s not? Well, call him and tell we don’t need him anymore. Director Gareth Edwards’ sophomore effort is visually spectacular, cleverly constructed and expertly paced throwback to the great action adventure films of the 70’s and 80’s where slow burn suspense and anticipation was favoured over instant gratification and GCI gluttony.
The film starts in 1999 where scientists Daisuke Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) discover an enormous skeleton and two monstrous chrysalides, one of which has hatched, in a quarry in the Philippines. Mere days later, the Janjira Nuclear Plant is destroyed in what appears to be an earthquake, killing the wife of engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). In the present day, Joe has spent the past fifteen years obsessively investigating the incident believing it was not a natural disaster and has become estranged from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) , daughter-in-law Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) and grandson (Carson Bolde). When the seismic disturbances start up again as Joe and Ford are investigating the wreckage of the power plant site, they are airlifted out by the military who inform Joe that he was right: the damage was caused by a Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) a primordial monster who feeds on radioactivity. As the Muto hatches, Admiral Stenz of the US Navy is made aware of another, larger creature which has been moving through the Pacific chasing the Muto. The US Navy believe they now have to kill both creatures but Serizawa is convinced that the new creature is the apex predator Godzilla, thought destroyed in the 1950s, returning to restore the balance of the natural world.
I watched this in IMAX 3D and while the 3D is decent, it doesn’t add much to the film, although the bigger the screen the better for this most monstrous of monster movies. It’s an incredible achievement for Gareth Edwards to go from the brilliantly minimalist micro budget creature feature “Monsters” (well worth a watch) to this. In “Godzilla”, he has created a triumphant, enormously satisfying B-movie with A-movie styling and budget. In a move that might frustrate some viewers, Edwards teases the audience with glimpses of the monsters, and even the initial skirmishes are devilishly cut away from or shown in the background on TVs. For me, it felt exciting and tantalising, rather than exasperating and reminded me of the patient, intoxicating build-up of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial” and especially “Jaws” where the technical problems that limited the shark’s appearances forced Spielberg to be more creative in building the tension and created a modern masterpiece. Even the hero’s family name is a nod to Spielberg’s shark movie.
As well as mischievously toying with the audience while showing the creatures, Evans also playfully sprinkles the signature motifs of disaster movies throughout the action but never lets the main story get bogged down in some manufactured melodrama to pad it out. The story is pretty straightforward and Evans uses this as a virtue, making a streamlined tale of a race against time to stop the monsters before things get a whole lot worse. Refreshingly, there’s no ridiculous superfluous subplot about some evil rich tycoon seeking to profit from all the chaos (“Transformers” – I’m looking at you!) and the military forces involved aren’t stupid or aggressively gung-ho.
The performances are top notch, and it’s a sign of just how far Bryan Cranston’s star has risen on the back of “Breaking Bad” that he’s received all the focus in the marketing and promotion despite the fact he’s not in it very much – he plays the hero’s father, not the hero. The great Ken Watanabe is immense as the reverential Japanese scientist who is simultaneously fascinated and awestruck by the enormous kaiju emerging into the world. He plays it very stoically and with great dignity but when he sees Godzilla (he calls it Gojira, everyone ignores him) there’s a twinkle in his eye that shows while he may be cool and composed on the outside, he’s fan-girling hard on the inside. David Strathairn brings a reasoned, calm authority to his role as the commanding officer of the forces tasked with eliminating the kaiju menace. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen do well with what they are given but their roles are essentially cyphers, there to add a little human interest to the real star of the show: Godzilla himself.
The production design is fantastic and while the MUTOs may look a little bit like a cross-breeding programme between “Starship Troopers” and “Pacific Rim”, Godzilla himself is magnificent – banishing all bad memories of the Jimmy Hill-chinned Iguanazilla of 1998’s movie. With creatures 110m tall, the battle scenes are epic in both scale, ambition and destruction but even here, there are clever touches of heroism in Godzilla’s action, underlining his status as an anti-hero at worst and a saviour at best. While the military forces are treating every monster as a target, there are several moments where Godzilla ‘accidentally’ shields or saves hundreds of lives from friendly fire, especially during the battle of San Francisco Bay. It’s also sobering to note that at a rough estimate, Godzilla causes far less damage and actually saves more innocent lives than Superman managed to do in “Man Of Steel”. There’s a cute, whimsical moment where, during a pause in the final battle, Godzilla and Taylor-Johnson’s character share a ‘moment’, and it feels like an earned reward rather than a fourth-wall busting bit of gimmickry. There are complaints that Godzilla is a little bit tubby in this instalment, but give the guy a break – he’s been semi-retired for sixty years.
My own background with Godzilla is firmly rooted in the Showa and Heisei series of movies and, of course, the weird 1970’s cartoon with Godzuki so after the terrible Roland Emmerich “Godzilla”, I was rooting for this to succeed but concerned about what we’d get. I needn’t have worried: it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of the beloved source material which Manages to bring the central themes of the Godzilla series through its 50+ years of history into the present day and find ways to make them topical again. This is brawny but deceptively brainy, building smashing entertainment. Although it incorporates the iconography of our collective memories of recent disasters (9/11, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Plant), it does so in service of the story and without being sensationalist. It’s a movie that rewards patience with spectacle, thrills, action and giant monsters and marks Gareth Edwards as a Director to watch. The only thing that could possibly have made it better would have been a post-credits appearance by Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost telling Ken Watanabe that he was ‘putting together a team…’.