May 21st, 2014


Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a big stick of dynamite on a very long fuse. Pulling a complete 180 on the joshing and obviousness of the gormless 1998 flop served up by one-note landmark trasher Roland Emmerich, this steel-toecapped reboot dares to address the issue of a mountainous lizard in a tone so po-faced it makes Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy look like The Naked Gun.

Even more remarkably, in hauling Edwards to the next stage of what is bound to be a vertiginous career after the classy debut of Monsters, the film confirms him as a kind of young filmmaker we haven’t seen in Hollywood for quite some time: an astonishing camera mover. In a blockbuster landscape choked with the functional visuals of Marvel Studios, the self-conscious lens flare of JJ Abrams and Michael Bay’s obsession with splicing his films together only after the negatives have been fed through a lawnmower, this is a glad tiding indeed – someone who understands how the fundamental, cinematic tool of the camera can convincingly place viewers in the direst jeopardy, or seduce their imaginations during quieter moments.

Of which there are many.

Interestingly for a film that is not just any old monster mash, but the latest gala luncheon for the king of monsters, Godzilla bends over backwards to be taken seriously by exercising copious restraint for more than half its running time. It’s a bold step that will automatically set the film at odds with the Church of the Lousy Attention Span, but its patient and graceful crawl to a whopping endgame on the Californian coast ensures that the mile-wide footprints it stomps across the psyche will linger long after the credits have rolled.

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The film’s jaws open in 1999 on the sight of a giant crater at an open-cast mine in rural Japan. An expedition led by researchers Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) and Dr Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) treks into the bowels of the crater to see what’s what. Something big has clearly stirred, and the discovery of outsized biological remains suggests that the mess at hand was no standard sinkhole. An ominous trail of devastation leading away from the site would seem to agree. Cut to the coastal city of Jinjara, and a fucking horrendous day in the office for one Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). As part of a multinational team working in the city’s nuclear power plant, Brody fears that a spell of seismic activity flagged up by an unusual waveform could spell mushroom doom for the facility if the crew doesn’t batten down the radioactive hatches.In a moment of tragic poignancy, Brody’s warning proves to be too late, and we look on aghast as he seals his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a leak-infested tunnel that she couldn’t escape from in time. It’s absolutely gutting, and gets you right in what are increasingly known as the ‘feels’. Slowly, though, your mind pieces together the evidence. Could the tremor at the plant perhaps be linked to the crater?

Answers are forthcoming when the story leaps on 15 years to the present, and Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – all grown up and working as a bomb-disposal tech in the Navy – comes into focus as Main Human. No sooner do we find him copping some shore leave after a tour of duty, thereby introducing us to his pretty, young family, than we are spirited all the way back to Japan so Brody Jr can bail Brody Snr out of jail. Joe, you see, has been trespassing on the hallowed turf of Jinjara, barricaded around the edges since The Nasty Incident, to take further readings and generally make a nuisance of himself to the authorities. Here, Cranston really comes into his own. While it may be slightly off-putting to see the man responsible for one of the greatest male-lead performances in living memory* tag along in a third-banana stint on a summer tentpole, he never sinks to the occasion. Instead, he wisely plays the certitude of the dogged conspiracy theorist, not the whacko, errant side that so many other actors pick. (You know Nick Nolte in Ang Lee’s Hulk? Well, he’s not like that.)

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It takes about five minutes for Brody Snr to piss all over his bail terms and drag Brody Jr off to Jinjara, where they revisit the house they were forced to leave after the tremor. At this point, Edwards flexes his symbolism muscles and shows us a home reclaimed by nature – his deft camera prowling over a weed-smothered carpet where beetles scuttle over Ford’s old toy tanks. It is just one of many occasions where the director plays around with notions of scale, and foreshadows the larger upsets of civilisation he has up his sleeve. Before long, Brody Jr and Snr are arrested, but instead of heading to the clink, they are ordered to the site of the old plant – now home to an extremely large something that crawled out of a crater 15 years ago. And that something wakes up, with devastating results.

It would no doubt come as a surprise to learn that none of the above has anything to do with Godzilla himself. In fact, the early part of the story sets up a monster-based plotline that the Lizard King eventually muscles in on, with the aim of fending off pretenders to his throne – presenting mankind with an even bigger headache than the one it already had. It’s a mischievous setup that allows Godzilla to creep into the picture in a deliberately ambiguous fashion, with his true character motivation carefully encrypted – just as his body is hurled into abstraction by the flurry of glimpses we are rationed. This turns him into a giant jigsaw puzzle that we gradually put together in our minds, and when the reveals happen, they are all the more powerful for it. By the time the big-beast skirmish heads Stateside and Godzilla makes landfall in San Francisco, his awesome aura is fully fired up, and an overhead shot of his mighty form swimming under the Golden Gate Bridge is a stunning piece of effects work.

At this stage in Pacific Rim’s running time, there had already been about five or six major smackdowns with enormous creatures seen in full-length shots and awash with psychedelic neon. But Edwards keeps it all inside until his final reel – a smoky, dusty, cloudy, dingy sequence of disorienting menace in which Ford and a team of Navy grunts must parachute into the city to retrieve a missing nuke that the government wants to wipe out the monsters with. All while those monsters are still beating the living shit out of each other. It’s a climactic stretch so extraordinary that we almost don’t notice Edwards completely ripping off the ticking-clock device from The Dark Knight Rises. No matter, though: when the dust finally settles, the director delivers a triumphant finale that has us questioning much of what has gone before – not through anything as glib as a plot twist, but more like a fresh sense of understanding. It’s an audacious, celebratory moment conveyed with such wry, sardonic wit that it made me want to start watching again right from the top.

Godzilla posterThere are noticeable shortcomings. Edwards may well have a handle on depicting scenes from numerous, human points of view – but there are more to humans than just their points of view. While the story structure is fine, the dialogue it contains is by and large flat, functional and unquotable. As well chosen and sincere in their delivery as they are, the cast don’t really get much to tuck into, vis-à-vis the poetry of language, and too many scenes are bogged down in tech-manual exposition. You won’t be going home with a head full of zingers to bother your colleagues with, that’s for sure. On that basis, the script could have done with being rinsed through someone like Shane Black, who would have sprayed a touch of personality about the place. Again on a script level, the film also struggles to find a touchstone contemporary fear to hang the monsters on, and settles for throwing the legacy of the atomic age into a blender with some amorphous hand-wringing over natural disasters.

As for whether the film’s overall approach to Godzilla works, that all depends on what kind of moviegoer you are, and what level of reverence you have for the classic Toho series. There has already been an outpouring of internet gripes about Edwards’ vision from throwback fanboys who appear to have wanted a movie in which MC Zilla spends the whole time tuxedoed up in the spotlight, cracking one-liners about his ex-wives and film career while casually flicking skyscrapers over with the back of his hand. That would have been crap, and I wouldn’t have paid to see it. Edwards must be commended for having the integrity and stamina to take the conceal-and-reveal high road, which has led him to create one of the most purely suspenseful blockbusters of recent times.

And when we do get to see him, the star of the show looks fantastic.

Godzilla is out now in UK cinemas

Words > Matt Packer

*At no point does Cranston teach Godzilla how to cook meth.


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