Purists have little reason to fear that this latest incarnation of the king of the monsters, Godzilla, will be nearly as big of a train wreck at Roland Emmerich’s wisely derided 1998 go with the giant mutated lizard from the bottom of the ocean. Similarly, people who have no idea who or what Godzilla is will be just as pleasantly surprised. Gareth Edwards, in only his second feature film, has created the finest and most emotionally intense summer blockbuster since Jurassic Park. It sounds like hype and a potential overvaluing of such a reboot, but there really isn’t a single thing on a narrative or filmmaking level that goes awry here. It’s not just better than it needs to be. It’s one of the best films to come out in this otherwise dreadful year. The one thing that I would beg and caution people to do is to just stop reading things about it or watch any more trailers and clips so they can go in completely cold. The surprises of the film aren’t enormous twists that need to be kept under wraps, but a lot of the fun comes from how Edwards is able to consistently change the direction of his film without ever once sacrificing the character or quality.
Back in 1999, a massive seismic event of unknown origin off the coast of Japan led to the crumbling of a major nuclear power plant and one of the biggest ecological disasters in world history. Today, the plant’s chief engineer (Bryan Cranston), now discredited, disgraced, disheveled, and obsessed with the truth, is trying to still get to the bottom of what actually happened. His now grown up military son (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is tasked with trying to save his father from further embarrassment, but it’s not too long before his dad is proven right and a secret that a shadowy governmental organization (spearheaded by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) comes roaring back to dangerous life.
Following an exceptionally intense opening sequence that blends modern day theatrics with quaint, subtle hints of the past (the nuclear plant looks just a few steps removed from the low budget sets of the original Toho productions), Edwards pulls back on the reigns to show just how accomplished a filmmaker he actually is. Much like his surprise (and sometimes critically divisive) indie hit Monsters, Edwards makes the audience earn their cathartic blockbuster beats in a way that shows he has learned what makes the best summer blockbusters work and how to make them resonate with an audience beyond blind, empty spectacle.
There will be the obvious comparisons to Spielberg that will arise from Edwards work here, and all of them are positive. Edwards masterfully finds ways of creating new and inventive set pieces while balancing a necessary human element to make them work. Instead of telling a story once again about the dangers of nuclear power (although the spectre of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster looms appropriately large), but a much more moving narrative about restoring balance to the environment has taken its place. It has become wondrously retrofitted to talk about climate change without ever mentioning that it’s expressly about anything more than just having a good time. That’s the sign of a smart blockbuster: simple spectacle that never treats the audience like idiots who can’t be bothered with a good story.
It’s also a story of fathers and sons, brought out perfectly by the work put in by Cranston, in one of his best and most sympathetic performances yet. Even before the events that get the movie started, he’s clearly a detail minded control freak. When everything he worked on goes to seed, it’s easy to see the transition from a mild mannered engineer that’s barely around for his family to a conspiracy nut that’s barely around for his family. His scenes with Johnson’s doubting son show both actors engaged in a moving push and pull where they’re always seconds away from a life changing conversation that neither can really find a way to start. They are playing with things that Edwards clearly notices that isn’t expressly in first time feature screenwriter Max Borenstein’s script (who it should be noted did an excellent job with this material for a first crack, and for a project that knowingly went through dozens of drafts from other sometimes more noted writers had a crack at it), and it adds a layer of sadness and pathos that carries the film through mostly to the end.
There are a few minor quibbles that people might have. Elizabeth Olsen is somewhat underutilized as Johnson’s spouse, but at least her scenes make perfect dramatic sense and she’s given more to chew on than most films of this type might give an actress. Ditto, Hawkins who really only has to react stunned at the events transpiring (and doing a bang up job of that). Watanabe gets the sort of Raymond Burr role here, and he’s clearly relishing the chance to play an Asian character in a North American reboot of a Japanese film that’s taking the place of an American actor who got shoehorned into a Japanese film in post-production. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a summer blockbuster about the rampant destruction of three major cities without a few moments of sometimes corny dialogue and a few moments of convenience that are thankfully not dwelled upon for too long.
But overall this is the film that audiences have been craving for decades. An all out extravaganza of twisted metal and monster carnage with just enough substance to keep people involved. Also, if it sounds like I’m being coy with regards to the monster design or the visuals in the film, that’s because I wouldn’t dream of spoiling a single one of them. Godzilla is a film where twists and turns keep happening that should be kept secret for the best enjoyment of the film. It’s a stunning film to look at – shot assuredly without a lot of shaky-cam designed to trick the audience into thinking these events are actually happening and with a surprising amount of large scale special effects sequences taking place in well lit locations instead of always happening at night – and the early and wholly ludicrous criticisms that the film takes its sweet time actually getting to the big lizard are true. But do not listen to them. Those people are missing the point of the film 10,000%. Maybe a spoiler post after the film’s opening weekend will clarify further why I think the film is brilliant, but for now I hold my tongue.
This is best case scenario summer blockbuster filmmaking. It joins the pantheon of the greats in terms of showing just what these types of films should accomplish, which means there probably won’t be another film quite like this for a very long time. See it now. Do not wait. It’s as astonishing as it is satisfying.