When director Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla on an unsuspecting Tokyo in 1954, the result was so much more than just another monster movie – even if it did spark a wave of sequels and imitators. Honda’s Godzilla captured the anguish of a nation reeling from the impact of the atom bomb. His giant monster was a walking, roaring psychic wound.
If subsequent Godzilla films portrayed the beast as an increasingly affable Toho mascot, wrestling a procession of other colossal kaiju to the ground as the world looked on in admiration, then Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla film entirely failed to evoke either the nightmare chill of Honda’s original creation or the charm of the legion sequels which followed. 16 years on, and British director Gareth Edwards brings his own American version of Godzilla to the screen. And thankfully, it’s far closer in style and tone to the 1954 version than Emmerich’s outsized, egg-laying lizard from the 1990s.
A nuclear disaster at a Tokyo power station in 1999 leaves scientist Joseph Brody (Bryan Cranston) convinced that the Japanese government is hiding the truth behind what happened. Official records state that the incident was due to an earthquake; Ford’s data and gut instinct suggest otherwise. With Brody now predicting a new wave of imminent destruction, his estranged son, military bomb disposal expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), heads to Japan in an attempt to convince his father to put the past behind him. But an unearthly howl and the crash of masonry proves that Brody was right all along – as something nasty marches onto the streets of Tokyo once again, even the government can’t cover up the unfolding mayhem.
Edwards got the Godzilla directing job following his low-budget debut, Monsters. A romantic road-trip drama which had giant intergalactic creatures as its backdrop, Monsters was an unusually measured, meditative take on the monster B-picture, and Edwards takes a similarly restrained approach with Godzilla. For long stretches, the title monster is heard and its teacup-rattling presence felt, but only briefly glimpsed, building up a sense of anticipation where most filmmakers would go for a dervish of special effects. Edwards’ direction, aided by Seamus McGarvey’s meticulous cinematography and Owen Patterson’s distinctive production design, is almost Spielberg-like in approach.
There are nods to the father of summer blockbusters everywhere, from the Jaws-like build-up of suspense to Close Encounters-style government conspiracies to battle scenes vaguely reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. Like Spielberg, Edwards follows the action through the eyes of the people witnessing it, whether they’re awestruck children, panic-stricken family pets or the haunted stare of Taylor-Johnson.
There’s a real artistry to the way the scenes are composed, with unusual camera angles and captivating shifts in perspective. The sequence often repeated in trailers, where a group of soldiers leaps from an aeroplane to the ghostly howls of Gy Ligeti’s Requiem, is one example of this, and there are dozens of others throughout the film: here, what looks like a part of the landscape could just as easily be a giant monster.
Godzilla’s imagery is matched by Alexandre Desplat’s thunderous cacophony of horns and primal drums. Reminiscent of the blaring theme tunes of 50s and 60s creature features and Gustav Holst’s Mars, it’s distinctive and perfectly suited to the larger-than-life action.
Visually and aurally, Godzilla is among the most creative and striking summer blockbusters we’ve seen in years. We’re all used to seeing buildings flattened and bridges rent asunder in such films, but Godzilla has a tone and pace that sets it apart from either the gloomy, militaristic city levelling of Man Of Steel or the cheerful Saturday afternoon kaiju smackdowns of Pacific Rim. Godzilla is very much a fun B-movie, but Edwards takes his inherently daft subject matter seriously. What if a giant monster really did awake from its slumber and start stomping around the world’s cities? The director makes that premise feel believable, even as planes and tanks are being thrown around like leaves in a hurricane.
This isn’t to say that Godzilla is flawless. Although superbly cast, the dialogue rarely sparkles as it does in something like Jurassic Park – another Spielberg touchstone. It’s a problem common to many monster movies aside from Godzilla: the human characters have a tendency to provide little more than a sense of scale for the colossal star of the show. Taylor-Johnson is entirely likeable as one of the leading characters, but what can be said of him other than that he’s a brave and big-hearted family man? The same could be said of his wife of Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), Ken Watanabe’s scientist Dr Serizawa, or even Bryan Cranston’s crusading father. They all turn in superb performances, yet there’s little in the script to make them stand out as much more than action archetypes.
That’s a drawback, for sure, but it’s our one major criticism in an otherwise gripping and exciting film. What Godzilla does get absolutely right is the majestic sense of power emanating from its central monster. For some, Godzilla 2014 might seem a little too coy, with initial sightings repeatedly relayed through crackling television sets or reflected in the windscreens of cars. But Godzilla’s subtlety through its first half has a thrilling pay-off in the second, where the action bursts into dazzling life.
This new Godzilla lacks the sense of despair present in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original. But in its place is something relatively fresh in films such as this: an absence of cynicism. There’s an underlying theme in here about parents protecting children, and of people simply trying to do the right thing in the face of disaster. In Edwards’ reading of Godzilla, there isn’t necessarily any such thing as good or evil. There’s merely humanity and nature, with the former standing awe-struck in the destructive presence of the latter. Most importantly, Godzilla himself emerges just as he should: a bellowing, powerful force; a true king of the monsters.
Godzilla is out in UK cinemas on the 15th May.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.