A failure by conventional standards, Gareth Edward’s Godzilla is fascinating in the degree to which it goes against the grain of the Hollywood disaster movie. Entirely spectacle-driven, to the point that it has next to no interest in building blocks of narrative storytelling like plot and character, Edwards has created a film that works only on the level of mood and tone, conjuring up ethereal, almost serene images over and over out of the mass destruction of major cities, out of monsters beating the crap out of each other, out of countless lives being lost.
As it’s been noted elsewhere, Edwards was an interesting choice for this project from the get-go. His first film, the modest indie-hit Monsters (2010), demonstrated his ability to tell a story featuring giant monsters, sure, but it was nothing like a summer blockbuster, telling as it did a small-scale, character-based allegorical story against a larger-than-life, alien creature-filled backdrop. It didn’t quite work – its characters were never quite interesting enough to follow them around for 90 minutes – but it was easy to warmly recommend due to its atmosphere, its palpable tension tempered with a sense of wonder and awe. Godzilla both fails and works for the same reasons, only here both sides of the coin are magnified – the characters are wafer-thin, the plotting is harebrained, but it may be the most visually ravishing big-budget monster movie in recent memory.
It’s worth mentioning now that it’s near-impossible to discuss the plot of Godzilla without mentioning the thing that the film’s marketing kept quiet about: the big, eponymous lizard shares his film with two other giant monsters: ancient, radiation-feeding, insect like creatures known as MUTOs that are the real antagonists of the piece – Godzilla himself is actually something of the hero, cast here as a kind of counterweight, emerging from the depths to correct the natural imbalance that these monsters’ appearance has created. The MUTOs have appeared due to our messing around with nuclear power, and the first surfaces as an earthquake that destroys a Japanese nuclear power plant – the first of a number of reference to recent natural disasters. In Ishiro Honda’s original film, Godzilla was a giant walking metaphor for the atomic bomb and its impact on the Japanese cultural psyche, and here Edwards attempts to realign his allegory with something more akin to our current fears about climate change whilst still referencing his monster’s atomic roots. He could have certainly underlined his metaphor more clearly – at times it feels like disaster bingo – but to be honest, after the heavy-handedness of Monsters’ central Mexican border metaphor maybe it’s a good thing that he’s dialed it back.
Surprisingly heavyweight actors like Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche abound but their appearances are fleeting, leaving most of the film resting on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s inexperienced shoulders. He has reasonable charm but is given very little work with – a subplot involving his difficult relationship with father is cliché as they come, and his tendency to only look slightly confused at the horrors he witnesses means that we can never quite connect to the human terror of his situation. Elizabeth Olsen, who in Martha Marcy May Marlene revealed herself to be one of the most talented actresses of her generation, is served even more poorly, behaving idiotically and unsympathetically every time she’s onscreen. In fact, Godzilla falls short of being truly great because it has no idea how to connect its human characters to its scaly protagonist. Godzilla and his enemies are such passive threats that it’s hard to relate them to the human beings on the ground, and in the attempt to create real stakes for these characters Edwards forces them into situations that anyone with two brain cells would avoid.
But it’s easy to forget about all this when you’re faced with the film’s many dazzling, wordless sequences. Edwards peppers his action sequences with moments of haunting silence, such as when Olsen witnesses a parachuter emerging from the dust-filled air of a wrecked San Francisco, or a train emerges from a fog, its headlights appearing as though they’re the eyes of some even greater horror. Crucially, he keeps us witnessing his destruction of people would: from ground level, through the cracked door of a shelter, and most importantly, on television. By the film’s climax, humans have disappeared from the frame entirely, leaving the film’s true stars to duke it out – and it’s here that it really shines.
For as much as he may not be able to fill his film with interesting characters, he understands how an attack would feel, not to his characters precisely, but to anyone. More than thrilled or scared, Edwards wants to leave us awestruck, and he captures that awe with aplomb. Maybe it was too early in his career to direct such a gigantic film, but he cares so deeply about the ancient lizard at the heart of his movie, and has created a film where he is the only real character amongst a sea of cookie-cutter human beings. Godzilla is the most calm and intoxicating levelling of a city ever committed to film – whether that’s what you’re after this summer is for you to decide.