One of the geeky good things about Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ take on the Japanese legend, is that the people in the movie are insignificant.
Now, normally this is a problem. Monster movies are often criticized for their cardboard characters. And while the characters here aren’t exactly the stuff of great literature (no, not even the tortured nuclear engineer played by Bryan Cranston), that’s not quite what I’m talking about. In its emphasis on the size, power and animal instincts of its gargantuan creatures, Godzilla amusingly shoves humanity in the background. For all our military might, technological ingenuity and inspirational resilience, we might as well be ants scurrying around on a tiny hill that’s destined to be squashed. Watching this Godzilla is a bit like getting caught in a staggering windstorm – it’s a humbling experience.
There’s a lasting image from the movie that nicely encapsulates this. As Godzilla swims through the Pacific Ocean toward the American coast, looking mostly like a rocky island on the move, a fleet of United States warships helplessly chugs alongside, dwarfed by the creature’s spines and struggling to keep up. When Godzilla decides to dive, there’s nothing they can do except hold on as the monster leaves a tsunami in its wake.
Godzilla is full of such awe-inducing moments, all built around the enormous size of its title character. (Edwards and his animators manage a sense of scale much more impressively than both the 1998 Godzilla and 2013’s monsters-versus-robots extravaganza Pacific Rim.) It isn’t only the size, however. With choice details – especially a shot of Godzilla emerging from a vast cloud of dust – the filmmakers manage to give the beast the mythic mystique it deserves.
Godzilla is a bit like getting caught in a staggering windstorm – it’s a humbling experience.
I don’t want to completely discount the movie’s attention to its human characters. After all, this was something Edwards emphasized in his previous film, Monsters, to a fault. He achieves a better balance here. The movie grounds itself in real loss, opening with a devastating accident at a Japanese nuclear facility that proves personally disastrous for Joe Brody, the engineer played by Cranston. (If the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the touchstones for the 1954 original, Gojira, the 2011 accident at Fukushima serves a somewhat similar role this time around.) Joe’s young son, Ford, grows up to be a Navy lieutenant when the movie eventually jumps forward in time. Now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ford has a young son of his own, and there’s a nice callback scene bridging the two time periods involving boys making homemade signs for their distracted dads.
The cast – which also includes Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn – gave the human moments just enough heft to keep me engaged in between the monster set pieces. And oh, what set pieces. Godzilla also features two other rampaging behemoths – something like giant spider cockroaches that can fly – and one of them has a great scene in which it scoops up a submarine, perches on a jungle hillside and proceeds to munch on nuclear missiles as if they were Tic Tacs. Later, one of these beasts dive bombs a ship in San Francisco Bay like a bird of prey.
As for Godzilla itself, the monster is purposefully held back until the final third of the film, when wanton chaos is finally unleashed. As Ford and an elite military team sky dive past the creature with flares in hand – an evocative image that makes them seem like forlorn fireflies – the city crumbles around them. In the process, Godzilla delivers a terrific tail whomp and gets a triumphant final gesture that I won’t spoil here.
During this climax, the people once again prove fairly useless. They mostly watch as these fantasy visions of forceful nature wallop everything around. It’s Godzilla’s world. We’re just unwisely messing with nuclear energy in it.