Among the many franchises at the heart of the event movie/action epic pantheon, Godzilla—the granddaddy of all movie monsters—may be the most entitled to eschewing any sense of narrative in favor of grand displays of destruction and spectacle. Therefore, it is wholly enlivening that director Gareth Edwards uses the 60-year old icon to foray into a realm not often experienced by the genre. Godzilla is a film with style and substance. Edwards, most known for his 2010 film Monsters, pays homage to past triumphs in monster movie canon, yet it’s presented in a way that remains fresh.
The film begins with a disaster at a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan, at great professional and personal cost to Joe Brody (a gloriously scene-chewing Bryan Cranston). While the accident is publicly attributed to earthquakes, Brody is not so easily convinced. Fast-forward fifteen years, and Joe’s son, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a Lieutenant and explosive ordinance disposal specialist in the U.S. Navy (a convenient title that plays out later in the film). Upon returning home to San Francisco to his wife (Elizabeth Olson) and son, he is called to bail out his estranged father from jail in Japan. Ford discovers that his father still relentlessly pursues the truth about the accident, even returning to the uninhabitable and fallout-ridden Janjira. It is this monomaniacal resilience that leads to a massive discovery in the quarantined city, propelling the story forward.
Godzilla may be a Japanese-originated character, but this installment of the kaiju saga is fully Americanized. The nuclear overtones common to the series no longer fixate on the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but instead they circle around the heightened nuclear tensions of the Cold War. U.S. nuclear tests conducted at the height of the arms race with the Soviet Union are the façade, and ultimately the culprit, for the birth of MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms), a sort of praying mantis/moth/cockroach mix. Whereas Godzilla is presented here as the sheriff tasked with bringing order and balance back to our world. Even the final monster showdown is staged like a western duel in a “this planet ‘aint big enough for the both of us” type of confrontation. The human characters are serviceable without cheesing it up too much (“Seismic activity? You mean earthquakes?”), but once the beasts enter the fray, humans are put in their rightful place—on the sidelines.
Edwards’ success in Godzilla comes most notably from a marvelous execution in perspective. Nearly every glimpse we get at the beasts comes from the would-be viewpoint of a human. This choice effectively demonstrates the futility of humanity in relation to the MUTO while simultaneously evoking a sense of intimacy with the events unfolding before us. Furthermore, Edwards consistently withholds information from the audience; a technique mastered by Steven Spielberg in his 1975 film Jaws and more recently seen in 2008’s Cloverfield and J.J. Abrams’ 2011 film Super 8. While some may be frustrated that the money shot of Godzilla does not come until an hour into the film, the decision proves successful down the stretch, a place where so many monster movies falter when they cannot sustain the momentum created by a first-reel reveal. And when we do finally see him, we cannot help but be observers to something much larger than our existence, perhaps even something divine.
It is this theme that looms large (pun intended) throughout the picture: the struggle between the forces of nature and the forces of humanity, and how they are often fundamentally at odds. Pointedly, how mankind’s proliferation of nuclear energy and weapons has disrupted a certain equilibrium established by nature. The abandoned skyscrapers of post-accident Janjira are beautifully enveloped by vines and plant life, proving even mankind’s greatest creations can be erased. And there’s plenty of destruction by the end. So much so it’s hard to shake the feeling that each man-made structure obliterated by Godzilla serves as a healthy slice of humble pie.