The first time we saw Godzilla was in 1954, where it was used as a metaphor for the traumas Japan had experienced since America dropped two atomic bombs on it almost a decade prior. The monster was a force of nature that not only served as a warning against further nuclear activity, but also, over the course of countless sequels, became developed as a not-necessarily-malevolent entity that was prescribed not to destroy humanity, but to protect the world’s natural balance from being tampered with.
This omnipotent behemoth later became utterly debased by Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake, where the monster attacks Manhattan for no real reason whatsoever. Godzilla ’98 could be tenuously linked to fears of the Y2K bug at the very most, but other than that, it was an act of sheer arrogance to translate Japanese pains into such a shameful display of cold-hearted greed. And yet, here’s another Godzilla movie, once again set in America although this time with a step back from human characters; here what we have is a contest between the natural and the nuclear, with a load of humans running around in circles feebly attempting to tame them both.
In the wake of renewed nuclear fears with the North Korean test missiles, the crisis in Ukraine as well as the threats that continue to pour out of the middle east, there was context available for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla that the ’90s edition sorely lacked. But Edwards also returns to some of the points made by Ishiro Honda’s original, especially in the idea that humanity has created something it can’t really control, and as such every effort to subdue the battle between Godzilla and the Mutos is rebuked as laughably pathetic; furthermore, the movie also extends to ridicule the American war ethic, whose first collective suggestion is to go after the monster with nuclear weapons.
It’s worth noting, however, that Godzilla itself is more colossal than ever before, and its very sight is part of this movie’s key thrill – quite an achievement amongst the CGI-saturated blockbuster landscape. One reason for this is that Edwards keeps the monster out of sight until roughly sixty minutes have passed, at which point it’s revealed in a stunning tracking shot. It’s one of many moments where Edwards proves his strong eye for direction, often shooting from positions that disorientate and inspire panic, or restricting our view of the monsters during fight sequences to instill a sense of claustrophobia. Even during the more dialogue-led sequences, DP Seamus McGarvey will stray between shooting in close-up and then to long distance shots of expansive, sublime environments so as to optimise the effect of the two extremes.
What lets it down, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson; the once-rising star who previously thrived on weedy performances appears here in a stoic lead role which hampers the film’s dynamics, failing to bounce off the excellence of the supporting cast. That Juliet Binoche, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins feel underused is mainly the fault of Taylor-Johnson, who doesn’t do enough to carry the movie or create much of a mood in their absence. The real star is Bryan Cranston, who delivers a raw, emotional performance rarely seen in a movie such as this and brings a strong sense of pathos to every scene in which he appears. But then again, a lot of aspects of Godzilla make it unusual for its genre, such as the use (but not overuse) of handheld camera and the relatively limited screen-time of the eponymous monster. This is why the movie is anomalous as a summer blockbuster, as it strays from normal conventions and taps into proper overkill only once it’s teased you long enough, which only works to its surprising benefit.
Godzilla was directed by Gareth Edwards, written by Max Borenstein (based on the original Gojira by Ishiro Honda) and stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Bryan Cranston. It lasts for 123 minutes and is a production of Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Distributed in the UK by Warner Bros.