A mostly pleasant surprise in a year that has produced a lack of stellar animated outings.
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.
That said, the film is inclined to see them as representatives of an endangered species rather than complex individuals—by which I mean that it's not a good idea to get too attached to any of them, and that for all their sincere distress, they're about as deep as characters in a Toho film. None have the melodramatic spark of life you'll find in last summer's robots-vs.-kaiju action thriller "Pacific Rim," a grandly silly adventure so invested in its characters that it spawned a useful dramaturgical test. I'd give the movie serious demerits if it weren't so brilliantly directed, and if this aspect weren't characteristic of giant monster films as a whole, and if the filmmakers didn't go out of their way to make the humans' marginal status part of the movie's world view, which is something along the lines of: We're guests here, and we can be snuffed out or kicked out at any moment. Unlike "Star Trek Into Darkness," "Man of Steel" and other recent blockbusters, this one's aware of the devastation and death that would occur if its scenarios were real. Lots of people die in this movie, onscreen, screaming.
While "Godzilla" is less a satisfying drama than an immense, sometimes terrifying sound-and-light show, it's got a good heart. It's tough but never glib or cruel. Even when its titular amphibian is rising from the sea to flood and crush major cities, the film never becomes a mere display of special effects prowess. We're aware that Godzilla and his foes are animals—parts of a long gone, pre-prehistoric ecosystem, like the real creatures that dot the movie's margins: bats, birds, iguanas, dogs, wolves, beetles. There's a bit of H.P. Lovecraft in how the script (credited to Max Borenstein) turns the kaiju into mythic reminders of humanity's arrogance and youth, and an unexpected (but delightful) touch of Terrence Malick's Transcendentalist humility in how the director lavishes attention on meadows and forests and rolling waves. (The movie's final shot evokes "The Thin Red Line." Yes, really.) There's surreal humor, too, as when two kaiju seem about to share a warhead like the "Lady and the Tramp" dogs sharing a meatball.
"Godzilla" represents some sort of high water mark (pun intended) in Hollywood's nearly forty year crusade to turn once-disreputable genre films into pop art that demands our contemplation, if only because of the wit and skill that its army of technicians lavished on each frame. The long shots of kaiju grappling in ruined cities are gloomily magnificent, like oil paintings of Biblical miracles. The ships, trains, jets, skyscrapers, highways and railways might as well be elements in a diorama, a notion teased out in many shots of children playing with toys.
After a while the sight of soldiers shooting machine guns and grenade launchers at giant beasts becomes tragic, then hilarious. They might as well be setting off firecrackers. Someone should cut a video mash-up that weds "Godzilla" disaster footage—bridges snapping, skyscrapers crumbling, jets falling from the sky—to George Carlin's "Save the Planet" rant: "We’re going away....and we won’t leave much of a trace, either...The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas."
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