I knew what it’d take for me to really like Gareth Edwards’ new iteration of Godzilla. It would have to be better than the original, which is, itself, less than stunning. Time and pop culture mythos sure has a way of inflating a film’s mystique, sight unseen. Upon finally seeing the 1954 film Gojira, it becomes clear again that it’s the kind of legend not borne of art or subtlety, but out of a perfect-storm kind of zeitgeist-blending bombast. The tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still a bright, searing international memory at the time, the monster came to represent much more than a giant prehistoric lizard. It was reminder our own flailing insignificance, a symbolic idea that didn’t persevere much through the countless Toho films, and certainly not in Roland Emmerich’s disaster film mistreatment. The original is a simple, modestly effective procedural, but it makes room for the kind of glorious spectacle the blockbuster industry’s built on nowadays.
Edwards’ new film certainly gets back to that essential core of human insignificance, and, whatever can be said against it, he sticks to it. Beginning with Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche’s scientists (on… er… something) scrambling to make sense of unusual seismic activity, one of them soon pays the price for their attempts at control. Before we know or feel what’s happened, we’re suddenly whisked away from 1999 to present day, dragged back into the conflict by their Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as vacantly everyman-ish as usual). With a little time to establish his obviously estranged relationship with his surviving parent, we’re soon introduced to a much different monster of the moment. If this were a romantic comedy, the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) would be the clingy, crazy girl in the way of our one true love.
Unfortunately there’s no time for such off-the-cuff silliness, because from there on, and even long before then, it’s strictly militaristic business. The Godzilla movies, like most monster movies, are essential man vs. nature stories, but those stories are pinned down by a more essential sense of masculinity’s incompetent arrogance. The military men aren’t the cocky, overly-assured men you’d find in Roland Emmerich’s rendition of the same story, but these rather emotionless men of action are still can’t handle the catastrophe facing them, much less stop contributing to it. David Strathairn commands orders with thoughtless efficiency. The nameless military lackeys know only how to “aim the pointy end at the monsters”, one of many ignorant stock action-movie lines delivered to stagnate the film’s natural progression. A conventional action blockbuster isn’t a bad thing to be, but as something like White House Down shows, it needs to be rooted in something certifiably human.
Though this film seemingly stresses its supposed human drama, we’re introduced to very few actual human beings, with Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins walking on merely to offer scientific explanation and a couple philosophical one-liners on nature’s power to restore balance. And just as Hawkins only plays second fiddle to Watanabe’s more essential scientist Dr. Serizawa, Elizabeth Olsen and Juliette Binoche are similarly ill-served as women – one of which is shot down without even a chance to shine – with even less to do than the unknowingly feeble men they’re married to. Admittedly, though, the female monster is the titan in its relationship. As ever, nature knows women’s agency more than humans seem to.
As for Godzilla himself, the titular force of nature whose role as an apex predator already feels like a vague excuse for implanting him in the current chaos, much dispute’s already been made over his lack of screentime. Playing coy with a monster’s presence is nothing new, and dates back to the original Gojira, but it’s the implementation that feels off. The MUTO’s, multi-limbed radioactivity fiends which look like an untraceable hybrid of bat, insect and xenomorph, aren’t as delicately teased as their mega-lizard opponent. In fact, they’re shown consistently throughout as wandering beasts devoid of motivation, which is exactly what they are. It’s hard to care about the battles of consciousness-free animals, particularly when we don’t feel much for the humans they’re endangering. When these beings are in combat, it feels like the Pokemon movie you never knew was pretty unexciting. In any case, Godzilla, we always choose you.
Godzilla is more than just an animal, but he doesn’t consistently feels that way. When he makes his first appearance, bellowing a roar which ranks as one of the most extraordinarily realized sound effects in recent memory, Edwards is well aware of the iconicism he’s endowed with, and it’s not the only moment the film takes advantage of his deceptively simple design. Edwards is wise to keep Godzilla’s key weapon tight-lipped until the key moment. It’s not the amount of time we spend with him that’s an issue. It’s how little his presence is ultimately felt, even at the end where he earns the title of The King of Monsters. He’s shown less prominently than Aaron Taylor-Johson’s consistently blank hero, and his importance is even lessened by his association to Taylor-Johnson as equals. In a story where nature will take its course in correcting its imbalances, it would’ve been nice to have humanity worry about taking out their own garbage.
The film struggles to keep its simultaneous tracks of human and monster intact, not just symbolically but structurally. From the irritatingly bland title sequence down, Bob Ducsay’s ungainly editing doesn’t know how to manage the flow of this overly procedural action film. In spite Edwards’ devotion to the human perspective, it rarely feels like this experience is slamming viscerally into that perspective. Also complicating the radioactive mixture of elements is Alexandre Desplat’s boisterous score, bellowing even when the monsters are off-screen. Ironic, then, that the film’s most elegant sound cue is free of ambient noise, though Desplat’s brashly indecipherable work does emphasize those grace notes. A call back to Akira Ifukube’s classic original theme would’ve been much appreciated, were that route wisely taken. Seamus McGarvey continues to do sparkling work in blockbuster form, setting the cities refreshingly aglow at night, but as in The Avengers, his textures go pretty flat in daylight. In spite Edwards’ to maintain the key pleasure points of the central movie monster, his well-intentioned gamble doesn’t always pay off the way he sincerely hoped.