NB: While the below is spoiler-free, do avoid reading further if you’d prefer to see the final film absolutely cold.
You’d expect a modern, new Godzilla movie to be a widescreen spectacle, but the first thing that strikes us about director Gareth Edwards’ forthcoming reboot is its new take on the beast’s iconic roar: deafening, blood-curdling, ferocious.
Den Of Geek was lucky enough to be invited to a 20-minute preview of this summer’s Godzilla, and there was a palpable, almost gleeful air of excitement in the room as the lights went down. Although we won’t go into spoiler-filled detail here, we can report that what we saw was promising. Very promising indeed.
First, there’s the reassuring presence of Bryan Cranston. Fans of Breaking Bad will know how powerful an actor he is, and we were encouraged to note just how much passion he puts into his performance here. A nuclear physicist named Joe Brody, his character has a personal and tragic connection to the title monster, and in one superbly-acted scene, we see how determined he is to uncover the true nature of its origins.
Then there’s Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a soldier in the US army. As we’ve seen from the trailer, he’s another key character in the ensemble, helping to ground this global disaster from the street level. Initially stationed in East Asia, his goal is to get back to America as the monster-hastened catastrophe begins to spread across the planet.
The true star of the piece, of course, is Godzilla himself. In a later Q&A, Edwards revealed the time and effort spent on getting the look and size of the creature just right. Make him too small, and he doesn’t pose the mountainous threat the plot requires. Make him too big, and he’s simply too ungainly to hide himself in seas or among the thicket of buildings in a city. This Godzilla, the director informed us, is 350 feet tall – the biggest incarnation we’ve yet seen, but still nimble enough to pop up at inopportune times.
While Godzilla’s the main draw, we get the impression that Edwards will be careful not to over-expose the prized creature until he absolutely has to. The flashes we saw of Godzilla were largely partial – the crags of his huge back looming up out ocean spray, or his scaled back as he lumbers through a benighted city. These shots recall Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original, where Godzilla was repeatedly seen at night, lit up by the burning fires of buildings or the crackle of falling electrical pylons.
Edwards appears to have a similar eye for atmosphere and invoking a sense of awe. Like Spielberg, Edwards repeatedly shoots his action scenes from the perspective of the smallest and most vulnerable – the wide eyes of a child in one superb shot, or a fleeing stray dog in another.
Destruction’s a given in a Godzilla movie, but the devastation we saw doesn’t appear to be akin to the lingering revelry we see in so many summer movies. The havoc Godzilla causes is akin to the aftermath of an earthquake or tsunami – a tragedy, with a real human cost. This is as it should be, since Honda’s first film was a serious, perfectly haunting meditation on the power of nuclear weapons, and how the don’t – and can’t – discriminate between soldiers or civilians.
Edwards’ Godzilla still has something of a nuclear theme – it’s said that the creature is attracted by nuclear radiation – but the underlying meditation in his film is about humanity versus nature. We’d hesitate to say that it has an environmental theme as such, but it’s easy to draw a parallel between the events of the modern Godzilla and the sad aftermath of recent natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the ongoing crisis in Fukushima.
Although some of the effects shots clearly weren’t finished, the ones that were looked exceptional. Not just because of the quality of the CGI, which it’s easy to become numbed to each summer, but in the way the effects shots are executed. From the striking, sinister use of red against grey (a refreshing change from Hollywood cinema’s ever-present teal and orange) to the harsh use of light and shade, Godzilla appears to retain some of the arthouse sensibility that enriched Edwards’ breakthrough film, Monsters.
Like Monsters, Godzilla uses contrasting sequences of loud and quiet and intimate and colossal to create its drama. There’s a superb moment where Taylor-Johnson’s soldier stands at the mouth of a railway tunnel with the rest of his detachment, listening. It’s night time, and the silence is eerie. But then a dreadful noises emerges from the depths of the tunnel, signalling the start of a sequence that’s all the more effective because of the suspense that came before it.
What we’ve seen is, of course, only a fraction of the finished film. We can’t possibly tell whether the suspense mentioned earlier is sustained effectively across the whole film, or whether the acting in general is as powerful as the performances we saw from Bryan Cranston and Taylor-Johnson. But what we can say is that the preview gave us the impression that Edwards understands what’s required of a great Godzilla movie – not just stuff blowing up, not just a big growling monster stomping through a city, but also drama and a palpable air of menace. The 20 minutes we saw showed plenty of evidence of this.
It presents Godzilla as he should be: big; terrifying; that iconic bellow signalling the presence of a true force of nature.