As English-language versions of Godzilla went, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version didn’t exactly set a high watermark. A movie that felt as though it was cobbled together in the wake of Jurassic Park’s success, it fell far from the thought-provoking and poignant original, directed by Ishiro Honda in 1954, or even the increasingly goofy yet adorable sequels which followed.
Happily, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla, released in time for the kaiju king’s 60th birthday, is a far more fitting tribute to Japan’s most famous giant monster. Viewing the movie again on its home release, it’s interesting to note just how different it is from Guillermo del Toro’s own kaiju movie Pacific Rim, which came out last year. Where Pacific Rim was a knowingly broad, camp sci-fi action film, with del Toro clearly revelling in childlike glee with every brutal punch from its colossal robots and equally humongous beasts, Godzilla is more sombre and introspective. They’re two complementing and equally entertaining takes on the kaiju genre.
There’s a playful and humanistic undercurrent in this incarnation of Godzilla; its camera moves recall the classic 70s and 80s films of Steven Spielberg, with scenes shot from the point of view of wide-eyed children and little dogs. In short, Godzilla is a fusion of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking and Edwards’ own decidedly British, reserved style, first showcased in his debut feature Monsters.
The plot is refreshingly straightforward. Scientist Joseph Brody (Bryan Cranston) is intent on discovering the truth behind a disastrous incident that occurred at a Japanese nuclear power station in 1999; officially, an earthquake was to blame. Brody’s convinced that something much bigger and scarier was the culprit. But as Brody’s military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) shows up in Tokyo, so too does a giant and decidedly angry monster…
By modern standards, Edwards’ approach to Godzilla is restrained, to say the least. Its title beast is kept tantalisingly – perhaps even maddeningly – out of reach for much of the film’s first half, its presence instead marked by a brief glimpse through dust and falling masonry, the crash of its stomping feat, or the sound of its trademark roar. It’s a brave move in retrospect, because it places more pressure on Edwards’ ability to build suspense; as Spielberg did with Jaws, Edwards deftly uses distinctive cinematography (courtesy of Seamus Garvey) and an imposing score (composed by Alexandre Desplat) to build up the anticipation and unease.
If there’s a weak link in Godzilla, it’s in the superficiality of its characterisation. Despite some great casting and solid performances, characters like Ken Watanabe’s Dr Ishiro Serizawa, David Strathairn’s grave Rear Admiral Stenz, Sally Hawkins’ Dr Vivienne Graham or Taylor-Johnson’s leading man, Ford don’t exactly leap from the screen – a flaw more glaring on a second or third viewing. It’s also curious to see an actress as talented as Elizabeth Olsen given such short shrift; as Ford wife Elle, she has little to do other than look at the top of a skyscraper and occasionally run from chunks of falling building. In one scene, we hear Ford say to his wife, “Elle, where are my pants?”
In the story’s defence, it’s at least a relief to see a film that doesn’t throw in conflict for the sake of it. Most screenwriters would probably have made Dr Serizawa a cruel scientist, Rear Admiral Stenz a hawkish maniac intent on firing nuclear missiles all over the place, and then thrown in a conniving corporate villain for good measure. Instead, Godzilla is careful to emphasise that none of the characters are evil, whether they’re human or outsized beast – they’re all simply living things, doomed by fate to either trample or be trampled.
Everything in the film is seemingly designed to emphasise how small and weak humanity is in the face of nature – nature represented here by a certain giant monster. And appropriately, it’s Godzilla himself who makes the strongest impression, as he lunges out of the shadows in the film’s second half. Even away from the huge screen of a local multiplex, Godzilla’s action sequences have a real zing to them, largely thanks to the way they’re designed and shot; we’ve seen a huge monster attack a bridge before many times in these kinds of movies, but Edwards’ street-level approach gives these sequences a sense of weight, danger, and atmosphere: there’s a great shot of Godzilla looming down out of the darkness, his face lit up by the glow of red Chinese lanterns.
Godzilla feels like a film made with care and affection rather than corporate cynicism. It serves not only as a respectful yet gripping tribute to Toho’s creature, but also a satisfying reintroduction for a new generation who may never have even seen a Godzilla movie before.
The main feature is complemented by a few extra features, among them four making-of documentaries. We get a glimpse of the location shooting, the set building and effects work, with particular emphasis on Godzilla’s design and the execution of the aeroplane jump sequence that formed a major part of the film’s marketing. It’s all quite brief, though, and there’s nothing as revealing here as the extra feature on another recent Warner home release, Edge Of Tomorrow. That film’s behind-the-scenes look at Doug Liman’s approach was both candid and very funny, and it’s a shame that Godzilla couldn’t have been given a similar treatment.
The Monarch Declassified extras are, however, well worth watching. A set of three short films that tell an alternate history of Godzilla’s discovery in the 20th century, and record the world’s reaction after his latest appearance, bits of them are familiar from the movie’s opening title sequence. They’re nicely put together, and give more insight into how much thought went into Godzilla 2014‘s backstory, from the global effort to conceal the giant monster’s emergence after the Second World War to the present-day realisation that the King of the Monsters might return at any moment. “If we don’t learn from our mistakes,” a voice-over grimly tells us, “it’s only a matter of time before we see him again…”
Godzilla is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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