For western audiences, the image of a giant lizard bashing down buildings and fighting weird-looking monsters is more likely to incite giggles rather than awe, but for Japanese audiences, Godzilla represents something much deeper. It’s a cultural landmark born out of the trauma of a nuclear catastrophe that has become ingrained in their cinematic landscape. Toho, the studio that created him, handed their prized creation to an American studio once before - in 1998, and we all know how that one turned out. For the 60th anniversary, they’re giving it another try, but this time to a team prepared to take the time and care to make sure the legacy is honoured. In the director's chair is Gareth Edwards, in one of the biggest gambles a studio has taken on an up-and-coming director in a long time. And oh boy, does that gamble well and truly pay off.
Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has made himself a family with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son Sam, out of the tragedy of his childhood. His father Joe (Bryan Cranston) has become obsessed with the nuclear accident that claimed his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), convinced that what appeared to be an accident was the result of something much more unusual, and Ford is trying to help him come to some resolution. The accident appears to be linked with the work of Dr Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who are pursuing the location of some sort of creature. When all these characters collide, they become present at the birth of a hideous monster which not only threatens millions of lives, but summons with its presence a very ancient and formidable foe...
‘Godzilla’ is a mammoth film, unashamedly a blockbuster and gloriously epic, and one that has taken its place in the Godzilla legacy very seriously. While the screenplay by Max Borenstein isn’t anything to write home about, it completely embraces its need to be a big Hollywood spectacle without sacrificing the underlying allegorical tones that made the original 1954 film so memorable, of man’s reliance on weapons and destruction forcing a response from the natural world. Godzilla and his combatants (who have been very carefully kept a secret until recently) are ancient creatures that have lain dormant under the earth until awoken by our need to create bigger bombs to destroy one another, and they return from under the ground with a vengeance. It also places Godzilla himself not as a villain, but as a hero, which might seem a strange choice, but Japanese cinema quickly gave him this status, and we find ourselves cheering on the big lizard during his epic smash-downs. He’s a sight to behold - an incredible CGI creation with one hell of a roar, and while he’s kept off-screen until we can’t bear not seeing him any longer, he and his fellow monsters are breathtaking when they finally do.
What comes as the greatest surprise though, and what makes ‘Godzilla’ one of the best blockbusters in years, is how stunning a piece of filmmaking it is. This is only Edwards’ second film, his first being the critically acclaimed but ultra low-budget ‘Monsters’ (2010). With his first step into the big leagues, he’s completely hit it out of the park. This is a classical, almost operatic film, filled with extraordinary images not just of the creatures and their destruction, but of the human experience of witnessing them. There is an elegance to the film, but also an insatiable love for big scale filmmaking. It’s hard to find an experienced director who can handle a film of this scale better than Edwards has, let alone an emerging one. ‘Godzilla’ would have been a fun film at the very least, but Edwards has elevated it to a great one. And special mention has to go to Alexandre Desplat’s score, his best in ages, unashamedly bombastic and a glorious tribute to the music of the original. At points you could almost have sworn it was written by John Williams. As for the performances, they’re all great, especially from Taylor-Johnson, Cranston and Watanabe, but in this film, they can do little but stand in awe at Godzilla, and then run as far away as they can. While this might have been a problem in a lesser film, it doesn’t feel out of place here at all. We need them there to sell to us the sense of awe at the sight of these creatures, and they most certainly do that.
‘Godzilla’ is a mammoth film, unashamedly a blockbuster and gloriously epic, and one that has taken its place in the Godzilla legacy very seriously.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give this film (and I could give it many) is that, for two hours, it reminded me of the awe and exhilaration I had felt as a kid sitting in the cinema and seeing ‘Jurassic Park’ for the first time. That’s not to say it’s as good as Spielberg’s masterpiece, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a film that has come this close to that feeling since. ‘Godzilla’ is a film of such force and scope that it invites you to forget logic and overlook its minor flaws and become a kid again, to sit in the dark and see monsters from another world battle each other with the biggest smile on our faces. Gareth Edwards has created some kind of magic with this film. It’s the closest anyone has come to capturing the spirit of that young Steven Spielberg and the films he made that invented and perfected the summer blockbuster - and at the same time, one of the most important cultural icons of Eastern cinema. This ‘Godzilla’ is an absolute blast.