Godzilla is all about tone. It instantly establishes this with a great opening credit sequence that shows just why main titles are so important; they're a brilliant way to get the audience in the mood and prepare them for what's coming, to summarise the tone and the themes of the film in one short sequence. Godzilla does this perfectly and then immediately launches into building up what we've all come to see: monsters. A prologue set fifteen years earlier shows scientist Ken Watanabe (named Sherizawa as a homage to the 1954 original) discovering monstrous egg sacs, and following this we're introduced to the human drama as nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a heartbreaking scene where the plant goes into meltdown.
Much of the film is shown from the eyes of children, and this sequence nails it down with a wonderful shot of Joe's son Ford watching from the school window as the plant is destroyed. Flash forward to present day, and a grown up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has to leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco to go and rescue his father from prison in Japan. It turns out Joe has been researching all kinds of things since the disaster, and believes the meltdown was a cover up for something else.
The "something else" is not what you think it is - in fact, it's the main antagonists of the film, a pair of gigantic monsters determined to mate and unleash their hellspawn upon the earth. Called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), they're pretty badass, and while the male has wings and the ability to fly, the female of the species is as expected much bigger and badder. Enter Godzilla.
Godzilla here is presented as a force of nature, a creature to restore its balance, and while the film still portrays him as something that can do a great deal of damage to us and our civilisation, it's clear that this picture sees G as the hero - which is brilliantly satisfying. There's a an interesting theme of control here - Sherizawa gives the usual speeches about the arrogance of man versus nature, and he knows Godzilla is the key to saving the world, while the military try and do everything they can to stop the monsters, mainly around nuclear warheads (the MUTOs are attracted to radiation), nothing goes their way at all, and in the end there's no choice but to leave it to Godzilla to save us all.
Speaking of Godzilla, Edwards expertly teases his appearance all the way through the film. We see parts of him - his back plates piercing the water like a shark fin as he swims is one of many homages to the cinema of Steven Spielberg - but it's like the title character in Alien, we don't know exactly what he looks like and how big he is, so it's down to our imagination to fill out the blanks. And once he appears in his full glory, we're not let down. He is immense, wonderfully designed, and has actual character. There's a nobility in this Godzilla that comes straight from Tokyo; he's an animal for sure, but there are other things going on. And once his mind is made about restoring balance, nothing is going to get in his way.
To be honest, the thrill of seeing Godzilla is something I haven't experienced for a long time. My wife and I found it hard to keep still and not fistpump when the fighting started, and the initial moment when he uses his radioactive breath is an utter crowdpleaser, and if I were not a reserved British gentlemen I would have been whooping and hollering at that moment. The fight scenes are crazy and brutal, but while there is as much collateral damage as you'd imagine, the film goes to great pains to show people being evacuated from the area.
A lot has been said about the human characters in the film, and really, I had no problem with any of them. Another nod towards Spielberg is the importance of family, with the non-monster plot based around Ford trying to get home to his family. But seeing as this is a Godzilla film and not a David Mamet drama, they're given just about the requisite amount of character needed. The actors do well with the material (and the expected crazy lines that come with these kind of movies), and provide the right amount of emotion to give you that hook to keep with Ford. There's also an interesting use of "found footage" here while the human stuff is going on - we see images of the MUTOs and Godzilla on all kinds of CCTV cameras and military images, which again, is a good tease for the final fight.
The sound is incredible, especially where the monsters are concerned. Godzilla's roar has been updated just enough, and the way it reverberates is nothing short of stunning. The MUTOs have great sound design, and the constant destruction is mixed well enough that it doesn't give you a headache, but it doesn't fade into the background either. Alexandre Desplat's fantastic score fares well amongst the effects, and his driving theme for Godzilla gives the character a nice dramatic weight. However, if you're looking for any music by Akira Ifukube, you'll be sadly disappointed.
It's not a perfect film. Ford's story does feel like it's over-extended at times to allow for more time to wait before the big fight, and I could have done without the constant big-eyed shots of Elizabeth Olsen while she's in the shelter. I'm also undecided about Godzilla's post-fight nap, but I suppose he deserves it.
One of the overwhelming feelings I felt after seeing Godzilla was an immense sense of respect for Gareth Edwards. As a longtime Godzilla fan, I felt he did us and Toho proud, and most of all, he did the Big G proud. Godzilla has been through a lot over the years, especially by the West, and for Edwards to bring him back this way, and to get the character like this - well it makes me a very happy G-fan. Visually spectacular, but with a visceral feel that strikes at the core of the character, Godzilla really is the blockbuster to beat this year. And I have a feeling he'll still be kicking everyone else's ass at the end of the year. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Smaug.
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