Although the last couple of years has seen a rise in adaptations, remakes and reboots, few come with the sheer legacy and pedigree of this one. With this year being it’s 60th anniversary, and all previously attempts at making a ‘western’ version trampling a line between somewhat lazy and outright insulting, this particular Godzilla film very much harbors the hopes and dreams of kaiju film fans and film nerds in general. Boasting Toho sponsorship and a myriad cast of up-and-comers and trusted stars, Gareth Evans’ blockbuster is expected to be respectful to the character, a modern powerhouse that will wash the taste of the 1998 disaster out of our mouths and give us something big budget to celebrate.
Completing two out of those three would have been impressive, but the full house was something I’m not sure anyone could have truly anticipated.
Beginning auspiciously with the destruction of a nuclear plant in mysterious circumstances, this version of the big G wears it’s new history on it’s sleeve. Before the film’s release, director Gareth Evans’ made a point of explaining how they spent a year developing a new lore for this movie to explore and a new origin from which to set this new beginning. While previous outings, and other previous big monster films, have made a point to show the power of their special effects and character design, this Godzilla prefers to take a leaf out of the book of the original from 1954 and showcase a more minimalistic approach. Instead of relying on the beast attacking somewhere, the storyline here is much more human based, even going so far as to create a plot where the human protagonists meet the creature, dubbed M.U.T.Os by the film’s parlance, antagonists halfway in a match of circumstance. The idea, in theory, being to create a sense that we are as much the bad guys as the big monsters are and that, in truth, nothing is truly evil in what conspires. It works, and very well, because although there are both human and creature storylines, neither feels like they spend too long on-screen to become tedious.
That’s not to say that the stories sculpted aren’t a touch light on their feet. The human contingent, led by good guy despite a tragic past Aaron-Taylor Johnson and philosophically inclined scientist Ken Watanabe, are simply out to survive the mayhem and learn about the MUTOs. Johnson wants to get home to his wife, played by Oldboy and In Secret starlet Elizabeth Olsen, but has to go through the battling beasts to do it, and Watanabe wants to prevent the American military doing anything too stupid in trying to stop the widespread destruction of our cities and landscapes. Nothing feels particularly clever, but nothing feels particularly stupid either. Being a big budget monster film, there will always be an aspect of B-movie ridiculousness involved, whether you want it there or not, and writing a plot that allows for that silliness while still anchoring the audience down to caring for the outcome is a balance hard-gotten, but one that’s thankfully present.
Of course, waxing lyrical about the human story-lines is all well and good, but we all know why anyone is seeing this feature – Godzilla, and monsters and Godzilla fighting those monsters and did I mention Godzilla?
The big guy needs to be commanding and excitable on screen. His enemies need to be formidable and almost over-bearing, and if all of that is done right, the fight scenes should be a great catharsis. The MUTOs actually prove to be the unsung heroes of the film as they not only get the most screen-time, but also get a pretty decent development, culminating in a short-lived nuzzle between two of differing sexes in the middle of a wrecked city. Humanizing huge beasts can easily be contrived or frankly just unbelievable, but with good pacing and a bit of a delicate touch on timing, Evans manages to give them some depth while still not making us want to root for them any more, or less. All that pales in comparison to the star attraction though, as once Godzilla is on screen, nothing else really matters.
This incarnation’s relative size has been of much discussion as, frankly, he is gigantic. That doesn’t stop Gareth from managing to keep him under wraps, however. For much of the film, all we get are glimpses and skewed footage of the monolith as he deals with the MUTOs the only way he knows how and, while this does prove a touch irritating at times as the tension mounts, it only makes the final act all the sweeter. Minimalism is a practice tragically under-utilized in the big budget genre, with many films preferring to showcase their budget and sacrifice heart for flash. Godzilla prefers the opposite, waiting to deliver and giving us more striking moments on-screen as well as a greater sense of release as a result.
While not perfect, Godzilla is one large step towards getting the blockbuster formula right. Some odd narrative set-pieces, such as an emphasis on the ‘God’ in his title, and a lack of history for the new mythos does leave you asking some questions at the end. At two hours long though, this feels like a complete experience, and more importantly, feels exactly like the kind of film you always wished Godzilla would be.
The King still reigns.
Gareth Evans has created a blockbuster with bark to it’s bite. Perfect fun in the theatre.