When was the last time you saw a big-budget movie that was remarkable for its craftsmanship? The blockbusters that swarm cinemas every summer often invoke the name of Steven Spielberg, but precious few modern summer movies approximate the skill and patience of his original, 1975’s Jaws, the one that (together with Star Wars in 1977) started it all.
2014’s Godzilla is one of those precious few.
Nowadays, most films with this kind of budget are lucky to have even one sequence constructed with the care that director Gareth Edwards lavishes upon his material here. Edwards clearly loves Spielberg, and he acknowledges this debt by paying winking homage to Jaws and Jurassic Park, but he is a devoted student who has studied his teacher diligently and does not settle for facile imitation – a student who follows not merely the letter, but the spirit of his teacher.
Like Spielberg, Edwards has a knack for using his camera to guide the viewer’s eye and evoke strong emotions, paying close attention to what he shows, what he hides, and how he reveals it. He also shares Spielberg’s penchant for creating sequences that could play as self-contained vignettes. Godzilla has multiple scenes that conjure memories of the initial T-Rex encounter in Jurassic Park: a slow accumulation of small details, escalating steadily toward a bracing climax.
Indeed, one of Godzilla’s most striking attributes is its patience. While films like this tend to play their cards early, as if to reassure the audience that the special effects budget was well spent, Edwards shares Spielberg’s intuition that a monster should be unveiled gradually. To that end, he frequently obscures Godzilla and his colossal peers in clouds and darkness, suggesting their presence with ominous portents like Jurassic Park’s rippling water cup. They do not appear onscreen in all their glory until about an hour into the picture, and in the end, the climactic brawl is all the more thrilling for its restraint. In an era of fast, frenetic cuts, when speed is shallowly equated with excitement, these monsters battle with a lumbering bombast that recalls Fantasia’s Rite of Spring sequence more readily than one of Marvel’s hectic triannual extravaganzas. It is a thrilling spectacle, yes, but one that retains a certain stately gloom.
This approach is in keeping with the spirit of 1954’s original Godzilla, itself an oddly effective blend of silliness and seriousness – a surprisingly downbeat drama that used a fellow stomping around miniature cityscapes in a dinosaur costume as a device to grapple with the aftereffects of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade prior. Miraculously, the juxtaposition works. The monster breathes fire and munches on trains, but most of the film is unexpectedly urgent and even moving. Director Ishirō Honda spends much of its runtime in hospitals and memorials, using Godzilla as a catalyst to probe the emotional anguish of an entire country.
Edwards also links Godzilla with the atomic bomb, a connection drawn in the opening credits (which, paired with Alexandre Desplat’s imposing score, are striking). A nuclear detonation in the Bikini Atoll engulfs the screen in white before giving way to ashes and the name of Godzilla. In both Edwards’ and Honda’s films, Godzilla’s invulnerability to the atomic bomb, the zenith of human technological power, frames him as a force that is terrifyingly beyond mankind’s control.
Like Honda, though more obliquely, Edwards nods to recent disasters: namely, the 2011 tsunami and subsequent meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Indeed, Godzilla’s prologue depicts the (fictional) collapse of a nuclear power plant and, with it, the collapse of a nuclear family. It has become de rigueur for films to open with a tragedy of sufficient magnitude to forcibly compel an emotional buy-in (a trend started, perhaps, by Finding Nemo’s decision to traumatize half the audience before the opening credits). This trope is often executed very badly. At worst, the tragedy feels cursory and trite, a textbook screenwriting device in which suffering is a cheap, transparent justification for drama. Like Nemo, Godzilla uses the death of a mother to strain the relationship between a father and a son, but unlike Nemo – which is a master class in swiftly establishing character – these characters are little more than stock types. Even so, the prologue is effectively wrenching based solely on the strength of Edwards’ filmmaking.
Complaints about the film’s thin characters are justified – and also completely beside the point. The characters’ anonymity is part and parcel of the film’s spirit. They are types, representatives, vehicles through which the viewer experiences events of awesome significance. Compared to Godzilla, human drama feels appropriately slight. In one lovely shot from Honda’s original film, two people discuss the possibility of getting married in the foreground while distant spotlights search the background for Godzilla. This juxtaposition of the mundane against the monstrous seems to be what captures Edwards’ imagination. While he is none too concerned with human characters who are conventionally compelling as individuals, he is deeply invested in our human perspective – the perspective through which he evokes visions inspiring deeply human feelings of awe and terror. Nor does his dramatic focus on humans as a species evince any contempt for humans as people. Even as he keeps a certain distance from them, Edwards has a real affection for these largely helpless masses, rooted in a humbly optimistic vision of mankind. In Godzilla, people are at their best when they’re dwarfed by forces beyond their understanding. Everyone we see in the film’s cross-section of humanity, which ranges from soldiers to nurses to scientists to bus drivers, is fundamentally decent. A lesser film would paint David Strathairn’s military man as a de facto villain, but Edwards presents him as just another person trying soberly to do the right thing and protect as many lives as he can. For a film in which dozens of extras die onscreen while entire cities are reduced to rubble, Godzilla is surprisingly, gratifyingly humane.
The film treats Godzilla and his monstrous foils, the MUTOs, with a similar lack of antipathy. They are terrifying only because of their enormity. Otherwise, they are only trying to carry out normal, natural imperatives – to feed, to mate, to breed offspring. One eerie, almost endearing scene sees two monsters nuzzling, “about to share a warhead like the Lady and the Tramp dogs sharing a meatball,” as Matt Zoller Seitz memorably puts it in his excellent review. The creatures are, by and large, some of the finest CGI creations to grace the silver screen. They do not have the uncanny tangibility of a man in a rubber suit, but they have enough weight and personality to be convincing. The film’s most ingenious trick, achieved mainly through lumbering body language and the subtle furrowing of a reptilian brow, is to make Godzilla expressive – even sympathetic – without making him any less fearsome.
The original film’s greatest strength is its broad scope; correspondingly, its weakest element is its focus on a thread of melodrama involving the tortured scientist who creates a weapon that can kill Godzilla. Bryan Cranston’s turn as bereaved patriarch Joe Brody is similarly overwrought, but the 2014 film inverts the structure of the 1954 film, and is more successful. Honda starts big and narrows in on Dr. Serizawa’s dilemma – a diminution of scope that feels unconvincing and disappointing. Edwards begins with a small personal tragedy and opens up into something larger. The fate of the world does not revolve around one man’s obsession; rather, one man’s obsession is subsumed into earth-shattering events far beyond his grasp. “He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” Solomon teaches us, and there is something a little Ecclesiastes-esque about Godzilla. Joe’s desperate pursuit of knowledge leads him only to isolation and egotism. “I have a right to know!” he blusters. “I deserve answers!” Edwards contrasts Joe against his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is defined by the most primal, earthy human impulse – the desire to preserve and protect a family. There is something admirably old-fashioned about the way the family unit, stripped down to its most archetypal form – man as father/husband/soldier, woman (Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, whose name literally means “she”) as mother/wife/nurse – acts as Godzilla’s emotional focal point. After all, the film begins with the separation of one family and ends with the reunion of another.
Yet the longing for knowledge is not ultimately vilified. Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa is a counterpoint to Joe. Both men have experienced tragedy (the film suggests that Serizawa’s father was killed in the bombing of Hiroshima), and both are seekers after some elusive truth, but while Brody is defined by his strained relationship with his family, Serizawa cuts a curiously monastic figure. He seems to be devoid of attachments, instead devoting his life to the study of Godzilla, who he speaks about with quasi-religious reverence. This is not really a religious film, but it possesses a mood of sufficient solemnity that a brief scene of a chaplain praying can be presented without irony. (In a Marvel movie, religious references must be played off as jokes.) Both Ford and Serizawa see Godzilla at the end of the film, and both scenes play like epiphanies in the religious sense. Ford sees Godzilla face to face in a moment of unexpected quietude before the monster is engulfed in a thick cloud. Serizawa sees Godzilla’s back with tears of awe in his eyes, like Moses on Mount Sinai. (I am reminded more than anything else of Melville’s description, in Moby-Dick, of how a man cannot see a whale’s face.)
These moments would be laughable if not for Edwards’ palpably sincere spirit of reverence for something sublime. His modus operandi is to enter scenes through a human’s limited perspective and then zoom out to an omniscient God’s-eye-view, alternating between a quasi-documentarian immediacy and a composed, painterly distance. There is a rarefied cohesion in the way the film’s aesthetic dovetails with its philosophy. Godzilla is a genuine spectacle because it sees the world as a genuinely spectacular place. It evokes majesty by remembering man’s smallness; it conjures visions of grandeur by looking at them from a place of humility. At its best, it’s a strange, enthralling cross between Spielberg and Terrence Malick.
This must make the whole thing sound stiflingly self-serious, but it is also great fun to watch. Like Honda’s original, it transitions seamlessly between two modes, marrying lofty aspirations to childlike wonder and even delight. Here is a modern summer movie that earns the right to invoke György Ligeti’s Requiem, an iconic musical cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey – not just because the apocalyptic imagery is grand enough to fit it, but also because 2001 is, after all, about recovering the perspective of an eternal child. Edwards invests his spectacle with uncommon weight and gravitas – the apocalyptic tableaus of Godzilla’s ruined cities evoke dread better than any of its contemporaries in the genre – yet to watch it is also to watch a child playing with his toys on the world’s biggest playground. The plastic soldiers and dinosaurs littered throughout seem intended to winkingly remind us that it’s all make believe; Edwards cheekily cuts away from his first monster brawl to show us the aftermath playing out on a television screen while a child watches from a living room couch. “Look, mommy!” he exclaims. “Dinosaurs!”
In its closing passages, Godzilla pivots from bombast to beauty, concluding with a series of unexpected grace notes. The film opens with references to The Origin of Species, but this is no bleak vision of Darwinian survival of the fittest. Instead, humans are saved by a higher power despite their frailty. As in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the human hero is ultimately rendered passive, dwarfed by the power of the supernatural. Ford Brody’s name seems to be a twofold Indiana Jones reference (Harrison Ford and Marcus Brody – a surname also shared with Roy Scheider’s Jaws policeman), but “Ford” also recalls the automobile, that quintessential American icon of mankind’s technological mastery – which gives way, here, to the transcendent power of nature. At the end of himself, Ford is saved, suggestively (though no more than suggestively) by a light from above. “Nature has an order,” intones Serizawa. “A power to restore balance.” Godzilla rewards his faith. From beginning to end, it teeters on a razor’s edge between the frivolous and the profound – between prose and poetry, solemnity and playfulness. Here is a strange, delightful paradox: a loud, massive, expensive movie that culminates in a moment of serene, silent stillness.
It is a dazzling balancing act.