“You’re hiding something out there … and it is going to send us back to the Stone Age!”…
How do you tackle Godzilla if you’re planning to remake it? The Japanese studio Toho have actually done themselves. After setting up the rules in the Showa Era films, they rebooted the unvierse for The Return of Godzilla (1984). The US have already tried it once in 1998 and failed both in terms of fan reaction and in terms of legacy issues. So when Legendary Pictures (Inception, 300, Watchmen, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) and Warner Bros. announced they were going to breath life into the Toho veteran, the fan base particularly in the West, scoffed. Then things started happening rapidly: Frank Darabont had a pass at the script, Monsters Gareth Edwards was attached as director, Toho were excited about the project and the film made a successful debut of the creature at the San Diego Comic Con in 2010. But would it be enough to A) wash the fetid stench of the first US remake and B) would it be faithful to the original series? For me the film took some huge risks in terms of script and execution but ultimately came through by staying rigidly to the ideals of the very first film and by taking inspiration from the more famous fights between the big lizard and its foes. Is it all plain sailing? No, but let’s get started, shall we?
Starting in 1999 (I am not spoiling the opening credits for you), the film introduces us to Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) who work for something called Project Monarch. They find a cave in a mine in the Philippines which has a massive skeleton in it. Evidence shows something recently escaped from the cave and into the sea. At the same time in Japan, the Janjira Nuclear Plant is having some problems that plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) can’t accept as seismic activity. He sends his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and her team into the reactor. While there, there is a breach and Sandra and her team do not survive. Joe and his young son Ford are forced to evacuate along with the rest of the prefecture’s population because of radiation leakage. Fifteen years later, Ford is married to Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and has a young son of his own, Sam (Carson Bolde). Working as a US Army Bomb disposal engineer, he finds himself dragged back to Japan where his father, after being arrested trying to sneak back into Janjira, convinces him to come with him back to the plant to get the proof that something is being covered up there. While there, they are captured by Project Monarch forces and Joe is brought to see Dr. Serizawa. There is something alive in the hulk of the plant and soon after the two Brody men arrive, it breaks out, destroys what’s left of the base, kills some of the Monarch staff and heads out to sea. After Ford pulls himself together, he finds out that the US military is now being assigned to the case and that something very large and inhuman, designated MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), is heading out across the Pacific Ocean. What nobody expects is that something equally large and inhuman is following the first creature. In the way of these creatures is the West Coast of the US and that’s where Elle and Sam are located.
Using the slow burn of the original film, Godzilla takes its time building to the creature’s big reveal. The US Army doesn’t know what to make of Godzilla but it’s never quite fully explained their interest in the MUTO either. Edwards leaves you to make up your own mind whether the military are culpable in the carnage or whether they could have done anything really. I like that instead of using the nuclear testing in the Pacific as its excuse for the creatures creation, the film posits that Godzilla already existed as an Apex Predator, one that fed on other predators. The nuclear testing in the 1950’s just made it meaner and stronger. In time honoured tradition, the US military tried to keep a lid on the whole thing but only delayed the inevitable. He could have gotten by with a glimpse of our favourite reptile but Edwards shows more of the MUTO than he does of Godzilla. Instead we get an explanation of what Godzilla is rather than shown what it is. After teasing of its existence, the film then shifts gears and goes for drama. Bryan Cranston does a wonderful job shifting from loving husband and father to a edgy, paranoid and driven man who just wants to put right what he thinks he did wrong and in doing so, failed his wife. In many ways, Cranston exemplifies the lot of humans in this movie. When the MUTO rampages through Japan or the US, people can only stare at it as it destroys every vestige of normalcy they thought they had. Joe Brody was a man who worked at a power plant and then it all went to hell and he doesn’t know why. Never for a second did I think he blamed anyone human for the loss of his wife. This makes his anger at the authorities apparent callousness in the aftermath of the Janjira accident really palpable. When he rages at the Monarch guard interviewing him, you feel for the man and his plight. Again and again, his pleas for help or explanations from the authorities went unanswered and now humanity has to deal with the result. A lot of emotional energy is transferred from him to Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ford takes up the task of keeping his family safe and honouring his father’s love of him, Elle and Sam. As the film makes its way toward the US coast, Ford is spurred into action to stop more people from being hurt and where others might say that he doesn’t look very emotional, I would hold as an explanation that he has been holding in a lot of anger, hurt and loss at the death of his mother and the emotional loss of his father. He has a line in the film where he berates his father for not letting go of the past but in truth, Joe did let go of the past by trying to make sure that no one else had to go through what he went through. Ford hasn’t been put in the position that Joe was when he lost his wife but now because his family is in the middle of a coming fight between humanity, MUTO and Godzilla, he has to keep it together until he can get back to them. His father’s fate threatens to engulf him. Lots of film websites and blogs have criticized the cast’s performances as being dead and lifeless but I think that it is the film’s best strength with its cast. Ford and Elle are our best eyes into the situation. Ford can only stare in absolute horror and amazement as events unfold around him. He can’t do anything to help except make it back to his family and carry out a request of his father. So as to the charge that it is convenient that he is always in the right place when Godzilla or the MUTO appears, he is hopping from the only points he can use to make it home, points that the creatures are also using. Another charge laid at the film is that as a lowly army bomb disposal engineer, he shouldn’t be involved with operation to stop Godzilla and the MUTO, he is the only military officer with prior knowledge of the Janjira incident and was present for the MUTO’s escape and has come in contact, briefly, with Godzilla. This, coupled with the fact that the operations commander Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) needs every man and woman to help, means Ford is the best chance the military has of stopping further carnage. Time and again, he states what he thinks and is usually proved right. Elle is the face of the people who don’t have military training and who can only run away from the coming clash. As the crisis gets bigger and bigger, she goes from being mildly worried about her husband to being worried for her son and we watch as she hopes Ford is safe but gets on with the business of getting ready for the worst. The best scenes for me with Elle are with Sam as she tries to explain what is going on or what might happen. Elisabeth Olsen does a good job playing a woman who is panicking but isn’t losing her mind doing so.
The film’s only main sticking point comes from the military’s blindness to the fact that Godzilla is lumped in with the MUTO. Dr. Serizawa tries to plead with them not to destroy Godzilla as it has made no hostile move against humanity but Admiral Stenz is not taking any chances. This is kind of weird since Monarch and the Army have studied Godzilla and know that it is only interested in the MUTO. Humanity simply isn’t an attractive target to the giant lizard. So after all that, they just decided to throw their research and information out the window. Doesn’t make sense to me and I’ve seen the Japanese military throw their lives away firing Mazers at Godzilla. Whatever the failings of the army, Ken Watanabe might be named after the character who created the Oxygen Destroyer from the first film, but his performance is far more like Dr Yamane who just like his 1954 version, just wants to study Godzilla without antagonising it. If I had a gripe about the cast, it’s that Watanabe and Sally Hawkins simply disappear for most of the third act, only reappearing at the end. When the fight in the third act between Godzilla and the MUTO starts to dawn, I thought that San Francisco might get part of it destroyed as Godzilla and the MUTO come ashore. But here the film reminds me that this is not going to waste a hundred million dollars without something to show for it. Edwards harks back to the 1954 film by showing that for all of the military’s plans, all their projections, all of it turned out to be utterly inadequate. San Francisco takes an almighty beating as creatures several hundred tons in weight slam into each other and the city. Despite planning for the MUTO, the creatures manage to pull the wool from under the armed forces and put them in a corner. We watch in an almost documentary way at news broadcasts as the MUTO’s walk across the desert in Las Vegas and destroy familiar landmarks knowing we are not in control anymore. Ironically, it is Godzilla that becomes humanity’s defender. Nodding to the later Showa and Heisei era films, Godzilla is not actively trying to save humanity but is often forced to get between MUTO and the humans. The Godzilla in 2014 has more in common with a natural disaster than a Shinto God of Destruction but not all of its original elements are lost. It doesn’t see the people it is stepping on when it clashes with MUTO and frequently wrecks havoc and mayhem wherever it is. It rolls into humanity like a Tsunami, sending waves of water, debris, clouds of smoke and ash everywhere and setting the very air on fire with some of its trademark secret weapons. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a little of the helplessness of September 11th was being used in the battle scenes. People see the MUTO flying overhead or landing nearby and go blank for a second before screaming and running away from the danger. Godzilla passes overhead and suddenly everyone freezes. Watching buildings being smashed like lego sets might look impressive until you see the little streams of people sprinting away and realise that some of them won’t survive. If the MUTO is the Earth’s way of punishing Godzilla for having the arrogance from being an apex predator, Godzilla is the Earth’s way of punishing humanity for thinking it was above being stalked by apex predators. Edwards constantly works in ways of reminding the audience that all of this, the MUTO reawakening, Godzilla being wary and angry with humanity, the reasons the MUTO was heading for America, these were all because humanity can’t live in harmony with itself or its planet. Serizawa’s helplessness is how we should feel if things do go wrong but Ford and Joe Brody are how we should act when they threaten to go wrong.
Backing up the cast and their director are an amazing team of visual and computer effects artists who make Godzilla seem heavy for the first time in its career. When we see Godzilla, every step it takes looks like it is destroying land as it walks. The prehistoric dinosaur rumbles along with a menace that feels like a prizefighter biding its time, all coiled up and tense. When Godzilla springs into action against the MUTO’s, it releases a burst of energy that feels like a lion or a shark. It moves quickly and efficiently because it only has limited energy reserves and no action is taken unnecessarily. Man alive, when Godzilla roared, the cinema shook with the sound. Keeping the original Toho sound effect, Godzilla finally speaks and sounds like a one hundred foot tall, nuclear powered lizard. The MUTO incorporate elements from Megalon, King Ghidorah and MechaGodzilla in their design. They look otherworldly and wicked and every time they are onscreen you know it is not going to go well for our heroes. Their need for nuclear material drew them into conflict with Godzilla but humanity has this stuff coming out of the ceiling so the MUTO pick on humankind instead. While Godzilla doesn’t notice when it destroys stuff, the MUTO almost look like they know what they are doing. The final fight is legendary (pardon the pun) and goes all out with music, tension and excellent animation. Any one blow from either combatants looks like it could knocking over skyscrapers and truth be told, that does happen a lot. All the while, Edwards keeps us going with the chase to stop the MUTO’s from breeding. Yes, Ford is in there too but now, at least, he actually has a reason for being there that is part of his job description. Watching the creatures fight, you feel numb watching the fate of the planet being decided by two massively primal forces.
No beating about the bush. I love this film. Having nearly missed it at the cinema due to a bout of illness, I had high hopes for it. Usually Hollywood disappoints with its slick marketing machine where it can’t deliver on an amazing teaser (Superman Returns, I am looking at you) but if you watched the teaser trailer, you couldn’t help but be impressed. Now that I’ve seen the film, I must praise director Gareth Edwards for using the seldom used trick of using footage and dialogue from the film but rearranging them without it looking like it wasn’t part of the scene. Put simply, anything you assume from the trailer is false but in a good way. I deliberately didn’t read any spoilers and so when the surprises happen, they did take me by surprise. The cast, action and direction are all helped by a relentless score from Alexandre Desplat which is one part Dark Knight, one part Danny Elfman. Neither operatic, nor weird, it helps sell itself by being in the background in all the right moments, coming to the fore only when needed. The film revels in disappointing the attention span deprived cinema goer of today by not showing the title character properly until at least halfway through the film and even then we only get a few moments. The real money comes when the final act roles around and we know that the curtain is being pulled away. Just as Japan was terrorised by Godzilla in Tokyo Bay, we finally have the spectacle of the titanic animal doing it to somewhere else and having a good reason for doing it. If Legendary pull off their trilogy, I will die a happy Godzilla fan.