Thursday, May 22, 2014


It's common for Godzilla movies to overestimate our interest in their human characters. It's an honest miscalculation, after all cinema is about human concerns and heartbreak and we extend this to our monsters as well who are often anthropomorphized, but it is in this respect that Godzilla is different from all other kinds of movies. Even in the 1954 original, which heartbreakingly dealt with the Japanese psyche after WWII, the actual characters are mostly bland as to not steal focus and the appeal of much of the series is not in watching humans doing human things, or even in political allegory, but in watching Godzilla smash things and the beast has no human qualities except for those of a 5 year old smashing the giant Lego towers he just built.

Yet it's interesting that no film in the franchise has circumvented humanity completely, we're needed not just as filler but to give context to the destruction. In his new American reboot of the series, director Gareth Edwards has taken this series convention and run with it as an existential idea. He doesn't give us deep and nuanced characters, but highly sentimental ones to drive home the point that we, in a cosmic way, simply do not matter.

The human story, such as it is, is an inter-generational tale involving Joe (Bryan Cranston), an American living in Japan as a nuclear technician when a mysterious earthquake causes a meltdown that destroys the whole town and kills, among many other people, his wife. Joe doesn't believe it was a natural event and years later is still trying to find answers and looks to all the world like he's joined the tinfoil hat brigade. His now grown son Ford(Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tired of him but reluctantly sets out to try and bring him back to reality.

In the background there's a lot of clever reconfiguration of the Godzilla mythos. We get Ken Wantanabe as a scientist who explains that Godzilla wasn't created by U.S. atomic tests but was simply awakened by them and later tests were really attempts to kill the beast. This doesn't shift responsibility for the monster away from America so much as reposition him as being an allegory not just for nuclear energy but for all attempts by mankind to tame nature.

The bursts of sentiment work wonderfully up to a point. It helps that Cranston is an actor of such electric intensity that I partly expect him to fight Godzilla. But the focus eventually shifts to Ford in a way that inadvertently also closes off his story and new goal the film gives him, simply isn't as strong and our investment wains somewhat to the detriment of the third act. But that's okay to a degree because none of this matters and for once the answer is deeper than "because it's a Godzilla movie." It doesn't matter if Joe is vindicated or reconnects with his son because these creatures are here to, in the words of the film, "send us back to the Stone Age." The humans are irrelevant but the film knows this and instead of just rushing past them, Edwards and screenwriter Max Brenstien pause to underline the futility and insignificance of humanity. After Godzilla and the other monsters show up and start smashing, NATO quickly drafts a plan to destroy them but we know that no matter what they do, they're essentially rearranging deckchairs. Humanity is basically impotent and all we can do is run and cower as these ancient titans do battle above us.

The fights themselves are beautifully done. They have everything we want out of large scale monster-smashing and there's a joyous element of this being a wrestling match but Edwards stages them with a canny mix of a Spielbergian wonder and Lovecraftian revulsion that gives everything in the film a unique flavor. He also manages to avoid many of the traps of large scale destruction by always sincerely emphasizing the humanity of the situation. The film isn't entirely successful, but it's rare to see a blockbuster with this clear an idea told with any kind of distinct voice, but Gareth Edwards is clearly onto something here. Finally after all these years, someone did something with the humans.

Grade: B+

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