If Godzilla is primarily a test of filmmaking prowess, it proves Gareth Edwards’ big budget credentials. Especially in its first and final quarters, the film borders on awe-inspiring as a work of visual and aural construction. Edwards retains the essence of the project which got him the job here, Monsters. Godzilla is a slow-burn affair – Edwards knows how to tease. We witness Godzilla in glimpses here and there for most of the film, only for Edwards to let loose with aplomb during the final 30 minutes. It avoids monster overkill by presenting the titular character and his opponents through human eyes throughout. Edwards uses POV shots and shoots images through various obscuring mirrors to reflect humanity’s dangers back upon itself. He ruthlessly shoots from low angles, his quite literally subjective camera tilted upward to capture the mass of destruction from the eyes of his puny characters. Above all, this is the Godzilla film about the big man as he exists as a force of nature, a chaotic being unable to be approached by mankind. He’s an oppressive fact, whether present or not, and Edwards absolutely nails the horror-infused imagery of the film as he moves away from violence and destruction as exciting and toward violence and destruction as fire-and-brimstone human containment.
One need only look to the titular figure’s introduction to capture the film’s essence. The first full monster fight is all build-up, ruthlessly cutting right after our first full image of the uninvited party guest. It isn’t just the director having fun with special effects. This is chaos, with people dying left and right and the camera showing no mercy. At the end of the film, the director finally gets a little playful, shifting the perspective from the humans to the monsters for the first time to mirror the structure of a film about humanity ceding itself to other greater species here once again. But most of the film is all about Godzilla as he exists to the human eye, which is to say as an un-containable being who wants nothing to do with humanity. They’re simply ants in his path. I won’t throw out the “auteur” card, but there’s a clear directorial vision here lacking in most mass-market entertainment. Visually, this is a film that knows its identity, and commits to it almost totally ( and aurally it’s not far behind, with a soundtrack that is simply terrific, evoking the original 1954 feature without mimicking it, and capturing all the terror and majesty befitting of a thunder lizard).
Now then. The film has problems, or one problem, but it’s something of a big deal: the human element. The narrative is rather basic, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson fine as a beefcake soldier, but he’s only at his best during the early scenes when his character is defined by his relationship with his father, played by Cranston, who is by far the most interesting character in the film. He’s someone who witnessed a nuclear meltdown 15 years past that took his wife and has become obsessed with discovering the realities of what happened that day, which he is convinced is being covered up. His son doesn’t believe him, initially, and then when things go wrong in a terrifically horror-infused sequence, the big beast from the sea arises to solve humanity’s problems, but not before wrecking his own havoc on the way.
Cranston is so terrific in his role that he backs some stellar direction and atmosphere to create a terrific first 40 minutes of filmmaking. His world-weary, tense eyes and anxious performance is palpable, but he’s the only human character the script treats with respect. After a terrific night-time reveal of the first MUTO (monsters humanity has been keeping alive, and which feed on humanity’s own nuclear output, and which Godzilla inevitably must fight), the film mostly falls on Johnson’s shoulders, and he’s saddled with a boring, relatively one-dimensional character, neither personable nor mundane enough to be an everyman. Elsewhere, the film’s female actresses, especially Elizabeth Olsen as Johnson’s wife, are given the short shaft. Ken Watanabe gives a visual performance of immense longing and loss, mostly through his eyes, but this isn’t backed up by the script. The film is immensely well made, echoing genre classics like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Aliens, but where those films had well-written, empathetic characters (except Jurassic Park, which could muster only Jeff Goldblum as a semi-mad something-or-other), this one mostly settles for plywood.
Thankfully, as mentioned, the visual build-up in the film is so successful that it almost masks the flatness of the main characters. Even more potently, it just about turns that flatness into a positive, the underwritten characters almost enhancing the larger feel of melancholic awe and malaise: it is in fact the very point of the film that humans are worthless and flat. Their efforts are routinely, consistently futile throughout, and every time we begin to think they might pull through, we are quickly and unceremoniously proven wrong for our rooted interest in the fate of humanity. As Edwards sees it, Godzilla is here to save Mother Nature; saving humanity is more of a necessary consequence than anything else, especially since they caused all the problems to begin with. This is, rightfully so, a film about Godzilla in which humans are bystanders, one of the few films where Godzilla isn’t specifically out to save or destroy humanity. He simply exists, and that is the most terrifying thing of all. Thus, Edwards isn’t just being haphazard here; he’s using his visual mise-en-scene, his style, to get at something about the way we under-develop human characters in these kinds of films and yet still try to have them save the day at the end. Edwards won’t allow us to have our cake and eat it too.
This is all more than a little subversive, and that’s about the last thing I expected for a big-budget tent-pole. Of course, that should make sense in light of the film this whole thing is based on, the 1954 radical Japanese critique of industrialized society brought out for war. With its own imagery, heavily influenced by German Expressionism, the film stuck out a claim as not only a critique of nuclear war but the very industrial system that begot it. Godzilla often became a metaphor for nature, but the burn-victim-like appearance of the character conveys something different: a revolution from the inside, from the downtrodden human victims of industrialized war, overthrowing the industrial centers of Tokyo that Godzilla invariably attacks in that original film.
This 2014 film not only critiques the whole military-porn sensibility of Michael Bay (basically every industrialized effort the military takes here fails, and quite miserably at that), but it has some choice images for news media as well. After the painstaking build-up to the film’s first fight, we see the monsters duking it out only via television news, and only for a few seconds, but if anything, this imagery evokes a distance and not a reality. Worse, as with the original film, there’s a sense that people become more interested in watching the news, and filming it, than escaping – living vicariously through the images of others rather than attempting to live themselves. This may be a bit strong for what is ultimately a piece of pop, but there’s something to be said for any film which implicitly connects its events with the film world’s diegetic media. The whole film is about humans flailing for sense, and scrounging for the modern tools they have to do so, the very tools which birthed the monsters to begin with, to no avail.
More simply though, Godzilla deserves credit for treating the big man with respect. We feel his impact, which above all is the film’s biggest success – he has weight and lumbers about like a force that stops for nothing and considers nothing in his path. Every step has consequences. And Edwards knows how to film him in shadow and at angles which capture his sheer concrete force and immediacy – even still, he’s an abstracted destruction, an essence of human despair and crushing force, that just happens to take the form of a giant lizard. That we can’t understand this lizard makes the character all the more hopeless and horrific; again, Edwards knows horror, and the film is at its best when Godzilla and the MUTOs are inescapable, ever-present figures so giant and all-encompassing they can’t but be enigmas that chill to the bone.