Review by Jim Reed
This new Godzilla is pretty awesome. And not in a “ha ha” sort of way like the Broderick vehicle back in ’98. This movie knows exactly what it is, and it delivers. This update on the classic post-war monster flick is able to stick to its roots while still giving modern audiences a decent enough reason for there to be a 40-story reptile walking around San Francisco.
That reason, we find out early in the film, is because of the increased levels of radiation on the surface of the earth. Giant creatures, like our Gojira (the Japanese term, of course), traveled down toward the core of the earth over time. Turns out they feed on radiation, so any nuclear attempt to stop either Godzilla, or the Mothra foes, would be foolish. Sound ridiculous? Of course! But a lot of movies aren’t about the reality of what’s happening, they’re about the, “what if this happened?” I digress.
For the most part, the actors are just sort of there. This certainly isn’t David Strathairn’s best performance (as the Navy admiral), nor is it Ken Watanabe’s, who takes over the token role of the brilliant, humane, and devastated (or befuddled, not sure) Japanese scientist from legendary actor Takashi Shimura. Bryan Cranston, however, is particularly tremendous in the first ten minutes of the film. Those first ten minutes are really strong, set the tone, and get the film moving in the right direction. The scene where several members of a select military crew jump from an airplane into the heart of downtown San Francisco during the middle of the climactic battle is pretty spectacular, as is much of the final fight between Godzilla and Mothra. I only have two complaints about the film: not enough Bryan Cranston, and not enough fighting/destroying. Sometimes I just wanna see stuff fall apart.
In its most basic form, the movie is about destroying the monster before it destroys us and all of our stuff. In its less basic form, the movie is about Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young man conquering the monster known as the pain of a shattered family. Ford has distanced himself from his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), and because he is lieutenant in the armed forces, he has been away from his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen—yes, the third Olsen sister), and their son. In the larger sense, Ford’s mission is to be with Elle, for reasons we find out relatively early in the film. To this end, there are some relatively effective moments and character dynamics. Elle encourages Ford to reconcile with his father, and when the *ish hits the fan, there is a definite sense of tension that Elle and Ford will not be reunited.
Ultimately, on an ideological level, the film is about human hubris; man’s belief that it can control nature. Man must loosen its grip, and allow nature to take its course. We must allow nature to restore balance to itself, which means we need to stop trying to kill it. Of course, this message is a weird mixed bag when considering that the Mothra were essentially trying to birth a Mothra army to take over the planet. The funny thing is, the filmmakers actually make the Mothra somewhat sympathetic characters. I wondered: how much more right to life humans have than those flying monsters, or Godzilla?
This brings me to the original Godzilla films. Okay, so imagine this: it’s the end of World War II, and your proud nation is not willing to surrender. Then, something happens that no one had ever seen before: two cities, and the thousands of people in them, are obliterated by the dropping of just two bombs. In the blink of an eye, 80,000 people are dead, and a city is gone. Livelihoods are gone. Hope is gone. And there’s nothing you can do about it. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the fire-bombing of Tokyo, would have seared into the collective memory and conscience of the Japanese people. It is no wonder that when the Japanese started making movies again, the destruction brought about by the Americans would have played a significant role in their storytelling. The first Godzilla was released in 1954. In it, the Godzilla monster was the result of American nuclear weapons testing. The movie is about a giant radioactive monster destroying Tokyo… like a bomb… like a big American bomb. Check out the linked clip from Godzilla: King of the Monsters, released just two years later in 1956.
The previous clip features the first three minutes of the movie! If you didn’t know it was a Godzilla movie you might think it’s the beginning of narrative documentary made about the Tokyo firebombing. Did you notice the doctor test the kid for radioactivity and shake his head like the kid’s got no chance? Yeah. This series was never a crazy “what if” kind of movie. These are movies that started, seemingly, as spectacle style responses to something the nation couldn’t shake.
It’s kind of like America’s obsession with cop shows over the last decade. After 9/11 we had such a thirst for vengeance, and “justice” and our collective outlet has been to see justice served over and over and over and over again for the last decade. It’s why we love shows like 24, and Homeland. In this same/similar way, Godzilla, when done well, continues to act as a barometer for our collective fear, and sense of hopelessness. In this case, we, vicariously through the characters, have to hope that one monster can save us from another, because the monsters we’ve created are too big for us to solve ourselves.
Directed by Gareth Edwards.
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, with Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche.