It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
My favorite scene in any Godzilla movie occurs in 1964's "Mothra vs. Godzilla." Two men fight over money in a house as Godzilla approaches. One gets the better of the other, then looks up and sees Godzilla closing in. It doesn't matter that the men and the house are full sized while Godzilla is a guy in a monster suit trampling a miniature landscape. The shots are joined by cuts and by the expression of terror on the man's face. Godzilla's advance is partly obscured by tree branches in the middleground of the shot. You're in that moment, in that house, in the path of a monster.
Gareth Edwards' 2014 "Godzilla" takes its cues from that great sequence, and from the 1954 original's Hiroshima-and-Nagasaki inspired tracking shot past a row of bloodied hospital patients, and the camcordered immediacy of "Cloverfield," and the gas station sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," and the Do Lung Bridge sequence of "Apocalypse Now," in which American soldiers' enemies were portrayed as faraway shadows, shooting flares and yelling obscenities. These movie moments are all about perspective and point-of-view—not just what you're seeing but how much, and under what circumstances. "Godzilla" is about those things, too. It's less interested in a giant monster's rampage than in what it might feel like to be a tiny human watching it close up, or far away, or on TV. It is not about Godzilla or the beasts he fights (and I feel safe not putting a spoiler warning in front of that sentence because the trailers make it clear that the big guy's not on a solo rampage). Like the 1954 original, it's a combination epic horror film and parable of nature in revolt, filled with odd ellipses and surprising but appropriate storytelling choices, such as an early monster duel that plays out mainly on CNN.
The sheer filmmaking craft on display here shames almost any comparably budgeted superhero picture you can name. The movie borrows from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "War of the Worlds," as well as from earlier popcorn classics that shaped Spielberg. (The Cranston/Binoche/Taylor-Johnson family has the surname Brody, like the family in "Jaws," and Cranston's traumatized seeker is basically Roy Neary from "Close Encounters.") "Godzilla" doesn't just show, it unveils. It builds sequences gradually, withholding important information until the end of a scene or sequence. It's so confident that it tosses off shots that lesser films would save for their climaxes or showcase on their posters. A newborn creature's progress from a subterranean egg chamber to the ocean is conveyed in a gradual tilt-up that reveals a zigzag ditch joining mountains to sea. An impending fight between nuke-eating, electrically charged kaiju is foretold by a rolling blackout. Commandos on an urban rooftop fire flares into darkness and the camera traces them as they arc through smoky air to reveal Godzilla's armored torso, framed from neck to solar plexus.
In these moments and others, Edwards contrasts the smallness of the humans against the hugeness of the beasts. "Godzilla" is a mural movie, and it's a good idea to remember that as you watch it. It has a likable international cast, including Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as scientists who've devoted their lives to searching for Godzilla, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche as nuclear experts, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as their war veteran son, and Elizabeth Olsen as his wife, a nurse. All the characters have simple goals and strong emotions, and they never feel awkwardly shoehorned in, as humans in monster flicks often do.