Godzilla (2014) – Directed by Gareth Edwards – Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston.
If you’re new here – spoilers lie beyond this point. This is not a review that is going to try to convince you to go see or not see GODZILLA. I like to think you’re smart enough to make up your own mind. What follows is simply my reaction to the movie, in which I will tell you why I think it’s an outstanding movie.
“Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, “Introduction.”
Pacific Rim is rock and roll and GODZILLA is a symphony.
In my review of Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju vs, robot movie from last summer, I wrote that watching Pacific Rim was like watching a five-year old smash their toys together, but seeing it from inside the five-year old’s mind. It’s big and brash and fun and I loved it. It hits hard, then slows down, tells a few jokes, and then ramps up again. Pacific Rim is aware that it’s putting on a show.
Gareth Edwards’ reboot of the GODZILLA franchise is an altogether different approach to filmmaking. Edwards isn’t hitting with punchy numbers; instead, he washes over the audience with precise movements. GODZILLA builds slow and finishes with thunderballs, moving in great sweeps and short trills, but always building, building, building to a rousing climax. It is the cinematic equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
GODZILLA is a brilliant piece of filmmaking from Gareth Edwards, respectfully honoring Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original while acknowledging that the movies the majority of theater goers will be comparing GODZILLA to are films like Pacific Rim and Jurassic Park. The film is not without its flaws; while GODZILLA is every bit as good as del Toro and Spielberg’s films, Roberts does struggle, at times, matching Pacific Rim‘s physicality and Jurassic Park‘s emotionality.
Of course, while GODZILLA is aware of those movies, it’s not trying to be either one of them. Pacific Rim is an adult interpretation of a childhood fantasy while Jurassic Park is a corporate roller coaster cautioning us against corporate roller coasters. GODZILLA is about man’s futile attempt to not only control capital-N Nature, but to even understand it.
It is also, lest you think Gareth Edwards convinced Warner Brothers and Legendary to fork over $160 million to make a dystopian vision of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, a film about re-establishing the “king of monsters.” In Jurassic Park, characters often look up at a dinosaur as their eyes go wide and their mouths open; it’s a look that it sometimes given in awe and other times in fear, but it typically carries with it the sense of astonishment, whether it’s astonishment of dinosaurs moving in herds or eating a lawyer off a toilet. When characters in GODZILLA look up, it’s typically with an exasperated expression that says, “Fuck me.” It’s less about awe and more about terror. On multiple occasions in the movie, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) expresses his theory that Godzilla sits at the top of the food chain and his return is only occurring because of the reappearance of other kaiju.
We hear about Godzilla and we see glimpses of Godzilla, but by the time we see the entire Godzilla, Edwards has deftly crafted a moment that is, for the internal characters, a moment of true horror, but for us in the external audience, is one of joy. Godzilla, the legendary roar tells us, is in the building.
There are human characters in GODZILLA with their own story to tell, but cinematically they exist purely to enhance our understanding of Godzilla. For Serizawa and his assistant at the super secret Monarch group, Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), Godzilla is an object of mythic awe. He is the subject of their studies and they exist to assure us that yes, Zeus has come down from the mountain with a fistful of thunderbolts and bad intentions in his heart.
The Brody family is the audience stand-in. In 1999, Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are working at a nuclear power plant at the Janjira facility outside Tokyo when something strange happens and the plant is destroyed. Sandra dies and Joe is the guy who has to seal a door and condemn her to die from being exposed to too much radiation. I like the suddenness of Sandra’s death; we’ve just met her, Joe, and their son, Ford (as a kid: CJ Ford; as an adult: Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and she’s gone almost instantly. Fifteen years later, Ford is in the military and coming home for the first time in 14 months. He’s barely started catching up with his wife and son when they get a call that Joe has been arrested back in Japan for trespassing in the Quarantine Zone.
Joe has never been able to let the death of his wife go. He knows something happened to level the power plant that was strange but no one will give him answers. His old house is in the Quarantine Zone and he needs some old 3×5″ disks so he can compare his new data to his old data. He convinces Ford to go with him, discovers there is no radiation in the zone that is supposed to be completely irradiated, and they manage to recover the disks right before getting arrested.
The Brodys are here to deliver the high cost of personal tragedy. Sandra dies, Joe becomes an obsessive recluse, and Ford joins the United States military. After Joe’s arrest, he and Ford are taken back to the site of the destroyed Janjira plant to discover the government is, in fact, hiding something: a gigantic chrysalis that’s feeding off radiation. Joe is proven right, but he dies before he can take any kind of “I told you” so, victory lap.
With Serizawa present to build the myth and the Brodys around to demonstrate personal tragedy, all that’s left is the military to build up Godzilla’s physical prowess. Rear Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) is the man in charge, and I like how he is no-nonsense without lacking in compassion. We’ve been conditioned by the movies to expect there to be territorial conflict between the military men and the scientists that populate their command, but I like how Serizawa and Stenz go about their business without engaging in a pissing contest. When they finally do have a disagreement, it feels more organic and packs a greater punch.
Godzilla is not the only kaiju walking around. There are a pair of male and female MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) doing their part to destroy parts of Japan, Hawaii, California, and Nevada.
I live in Nevada but I’m from Massachusetts, and of the handful of states I’ve lived in, I’ve never seen a state so happy to get name dropped in a movie than Nevada. When Fozzie Bear was revealed to be living in Reno in The Muppets, the crowd in my theater first went, “Yay! That’s us!” and then when it became apparent that Fozzie was only living in Reno because Reno is supposed to represent the bottom of the barrel, people chuckled knowingly. In GODZILLA, Nevada gets used because that’s where the United States government is storing all the nuclear waste. You might think a Nevadan crowd would be angry at the use of their state, but you’d be wrong. All around me in the theater, people were whooping their approval. “Yes!” they seemed to be saying, “We’re the place where the government dumps all its radioactive goop!”
Once the two MUTOs have hit the screen, the Godzillian Symphony amps up, with physical violence taking the place of emotional damage. Serizawa realizes there’s a male and female creature and they’re looking to mate and make babies. Stenz wants to lead the kaiju out to see by detonating a nuclear bomb off the coast of San Francisco, but Serizawa is convinced their best plan of action is to simply let the monsters fight – since Godzilla is here to restore the balance and remind people he’s the big walking lizard in this yard.
The fight scenes are incredibly well done, but Roberts washes his screen in grays to reinforce we’re supposed to be treating these fights like serious confrontations and not just as background for our oral destruction of popped corn.
The ace up Roberts’ sleeve is Serizawa’s assertion they should let the monsters fight because it turns Godzilla from just another kaiju to one whose interests align with ours. The MUTOs serve as the bad guys, though even they are motivated not by a hatred of humanity but a desire to mate and reproduce. Yes, they destroy parts of Japan, Hawaii, Nevada, and California in order to attempt to accomplish this goal, but that’s just because we are ants that are all but inconsequential to them except for our production of radiation for the kaiju to feed on.
The fight scenes between the kaiju are exactly what I wanted – violent and massively destructive. They slam each other into buildings and onto the ground. The male MUTO can fly and does so with great force. Through it all, the military fires their weapons at the monsters with all the success of a henchman in a James Bond movie. When Godzilla pulls open the MUTOs jaw and fires a hot blast of icy blue fire down its throat, the whole audience erupted with cheers to serenade its awesomeness. Edwards had successfully turned the titular creature into exactly the heroic force of destruction that the audience had wanted. Through the movie, there’s more MUTO than Godzilla and while that was a bit jarring (I kept thinking how much I’d like the film more if it was Godzilla doing all the destroying), the pay-off in the end of the movie put all those doubts to rest. GODZILLA is exactly what it needs to be, when it needs to be it.
For a director who’s only made one feature film previous to this, Gareth Edwards has created an exceedingly confident movie. The humans are perhaps more function than emotion, but Edwards uses this to the film’s benefit – this film isn’t called THE BRODYS, after all – to show the folly of man in the face of Nature.
GODZILLA speaks less to Emerson’s first chapter of Nature as it does the fifth. “Nature never wears a mean appearance,” Emerson insists in the first chapter, and while GODZILLA doesn’t dispute this (the “meanness” of the MUTOs and Godzilla is our interpretation of their actions more than a desire from the kaiju to cause us harm; we are simply, as I touched on previously, beneath them), there is a greater harmony between film and poet in Chapter V, “Discipline.”
“Nature is a discipline of the understanding in intellectual truths,” Emerson writes, adding:
“The whole character and fortune of the individual are affected by the least inequalities in the culture of the understanding; for example, in the perception of differences. Therefore is Space, and therefore Time, that man may know that things are not huddled and lumped, but sundered and individual. A bell and a plough have each their use, and neither can do the office of the other. Water is good to drink, coal to burn, wool to wear; but wool cannot be drunk, nor water spun, nor coal eaten. The wise man shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits is as wide as nature. The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man. What is not good they call the worst, and what is not hateful they call the best.”
It is this realization that Serizawa must convince Stenz to achieve. The scientist (or perhaps the circumstance of running out of better ideas) eventually convinces the military man to let Godzilla attempt to kill the MUTOs for them, but while Godzilla’s interests become aligned with our interests, we are still those inconsequential ants to him. He’s labeled the “Savior of Our City – King of Monsters” by the media, but he shows no interest in the city or its people. Here’s here to take out the MUTOs and then return to the deep of the ocean. Stenz looks at Godzilla and the MUTOs as different appearances of the same destructive monster, but Serizawa sees the gradations between the two species and determines the best outcome is for us to let Nature take its course.
For a military man like Stenz, this runs counter to his entire, trained being. Action, he’s been taught, is better than inaction. It’s understandable. Serizawa’s plan allows for cities to be destroyed, after all, and that means lives lost. Stenz can never quite embrace Serizawa’s plan but to his credit, he recognizes that we have experts for a reason and while he won’t sit idly by, he’s willing to give the scientist his due.
There is a complexity in GODZILLA’s message that I adore. This is a movie where humans are celebrated for their desire to create, protect, and return to family, but it’s these same desires that cast the MUTOs as the villains of the piece. When Ford burns the nest containing the hundreds of MUTO fetuses, the pain that emanates from the female MUTO is real and heartbreaking. There is a real flash of sympathy for her, even if the birth of her children would help to overrun the world.
The original Godzilla films gave birth, in varying ways, to movies like Pacific Rim, Jurassic Park, and Cloverfield, and now here comes the generative kaiju back to reclaim his cinematic dominance, just as he restores his dominance over the MUTOs in the film. Gareth Edwards’ film doesn’t try to reinvent the genre or cater wholly to contemporary tastes; GODZILLA plays it straight and plays it hard. This is a monster movie where the main character is always slightly beyond our ability to understand and wholly beyond our ability to control. All of the partial shots of Godzilla’s spiny back as he swims across the ocean or of his massive feet on the land are no different than how Godzilla has informed all of those other films. Toni Morrison has written of the “Africanist presence” in American literature, and how the presence and history of black people in America informs even stories that have no black characters or confront black history. The same can be said of Godzilla’s role in del Toro, Spielberg, and Matt Reeves’ films.
The same can be said for the first hour of Edwards’ film. The film’s twist that Godzilla wasn’t created by atomic testing, but that atomic testing was a cover for an attempt to kill the kaiju subtly turns Godzilla from the price we have to pay for our destructive nature to one of reverence for the power of the natural world. Edwards gives us the history, but makes us wait for the face, for the full body, for the legendary, unmistakable roar. He makes us remember what it was like to watch our first kaiju movie, or, if this is your first experience, he makes you anticipate the power of the coming storm. We feel his importance through Serizawa’s historical knowledge, through the pain caused the Brodys and other humans by the MUTOs, by the impotence of the American military to do anything but throw spitballs at the gods. When Godzilla does arrive fully formed and unleash his primal rage, the world is filled with both sides of the same coin of hope: hope that he can stop the MUTOs and hope that he does not turn on us. The characters go from wishing they had agency to stop the kaiju to desiring to remain as ants unworthy of the kaiju’s attention.
Godzilla has returned and left us, again.
GODZILLA has reset the genre by taking it back to its roots.
King of Monsters, indeed.