The summer season is full upon us, and that means movies where stuff gets destroyed and superheroes and so on. While this writer isn't planning on ceasing his embargo of superhero movies (I am currently writing a discourse thereon that will be available soon) I do enjoy a good monster romp now and then (check out Pacific Rim from last summer.) Of course this week we all saw the other Pacific menace, Godzilla, as brought to us by Gareth Edwards. While I did have some qualms with some elements that we'll get into later, I found the movie to be largely a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by adolescent mediocrity.
Godzilla is the story of (spoiler alert) a giant monster that causes havoc for humans. The humans involved, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and others, are caught in the crossfire as the military tries to subdue the prehistoric beast.
The film's greatest strength, by far, is the artistic quality Edwards and his team bring to the story. The film is often artwork first, then action movie, a work of a cool kind of terrifying beauty. One of the advantages of a largely CG environment is perfect control over shot composition, and the shots in the movie, be they full-on destruction or a only fleeting glimpse of Zilla's razor back, are handsomely done. In a film where we know exactly what will happen from the outset, the shots are also how Edwards creates suspense throughout. He teases (some say too much) the monster, only giving a peak here and there for most of the movie, and much of the destruction is seen after the fact. I say this works for a property so ubiquitous, as it gives you something to keep watching for. Along with the visual elements, the score and sound design are hugely effective as well. These combined elements do much to distinguish this movie from others of its kind by the likes of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay.
However, much of what didn't work in the movie forces it to be associated with its lesser-quality action movie brothers anyway. This comes down to characterization specifically, and writing generally. None of the characters are any kind of flushed out, which is frustrating given the film's Oscar- and Emmy-winning cast. More offensive, though, is how the film's female characters are used. They are all essentially there to be a motivation for the men (who have important things to do!), usually because of some combination of grief and guilt. Obviously not shocking considering its genre, but it felt different here again because of the talent of the cast and the outrageous extreme to which the ruse is taken. Even Olsen, the closest thing to a female protagonist in the film, only has about 15 minutes of screen time, and much of that is filled with screaming and not knowing what to do. But the sin, I am careful to note, lies in the material and not the performances. What little the actors are given they generally make good use of, but it is often very little they are given indeed.
An interesting historical read of the film I was thinking about involves our post-imperial unease with the atomic bombs used on Japan in WWII. The original 1954 film is largely a Japanese reaction to the terror caused by the weapons, of the indiscriminate annihilation of entire cities; but our American versions have never really addressed that. This one does, if marginally, by claiming that Godzilla was awakened by American nuclear tests. The subsequent fallout is ascribed by some as nature correcting itself, and the conflict (ironic, slightly) of whether to use nuclear weapons to destroy the creature is a prominent one.
Overall, I say that the movie is generally impressive, especially visually and technically. Ultimately, the film forces us to realize that we have no control over nature, that while she might let us live as we will, she is still in charge and is something of which to be in awe. Edwards' vision supports this, even if whenever a human is involved the vision gets a little hazy.
Godzilla features Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Juilette Binoche, and David Strathairn, and is rated PG-13 for the wanton destruction of landmark American architecture.
Writer: Max Borenstein
Director: Gareth Edwards
by Chase Harrison