Gareth Edwards has followed his fascinating low-budget calling card Monsters with something with a huge budget – namely, a no-holds barred reboot of the Godzilla movies. The good news is that unlike the dreadful 1998 Roland Emmerich version, which was rightly dismissed by the Japanese as not a proper Godzilla film, this time Hollywood have got it right.
The earliest clue that Edwards has scored something of a direct hit comes during the opening sequence; a brilliant montage of faked archive footage of nuclear testing in the 1950s that reveals the bombs were being deployed to destroy a mysterious gigantic monster in the sea. We don’t see the monster, but behind the scratched, deteriorated 16mm footage and credits surrounded by redacted text we glimpse the creature’s spine, akin to a gigantic aquatic stegosaurus. After this the film unfolds at a leisurely but not boring pace, with the sinister discoveries of a gigantic animal skeleton and what appears to be an earthquake causing an apparent meltdown in a Japanese nuclear plant.
The biggest influence on this film is unquestionably Steven Spielberg. Edwards has made his Godzilla akin to the great director’s early masterpieces in three very specific ways. Firstly and most emphatically, the directing style is torn straight from the Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind handbook, teasing you with glimpses of the monsters and only gradually revealing them. The tremendous sense of atmosphere and mystery borrows heavily from Close Encounters in particular. The UFO in the rear view mirror scene is echoed in a moment where what appears to be a mountain suddenly moves behind a group of soldiers. A submarine in a jungle echoes the discovery of a ship in the desert. Elsewhere nuclear contamination as cover story, replete with the familiar iconography of men in gas masks and even an equivalent of the famous “I want to speak to someone in charge” scene crops up. Frankly this is a game you play at your peril, as Jaws and Close Encounters are so completely iconic (see my review of Super 8 for an example of how this kind of thing can even trip up a director like JJ Abrams). However the reason Edwards gets away with this is because his Godzilla is mysterious and atmospheric in its own right. The Spielberg references (which I gave up counting halfway through) are not lazy, direct lifts from his work. They are a specifically Gareth Edwards remix of some very brilliant ideas and an absolute joy to watch. In this respect, I give the film top marks.
The second area in which the film apes Spielberg is in Alexandre Desplat’s music score. Not merely content to provide the requisite chugging usually deployed in films of this nature, Desplat instead seems to be channelling the legendary John Williams. The score not only manages to be appropriately bombastic where it needs to be (most notably in the barnstorming finale), but it also contains several subtle and brilliant cues that directly reference the monumental work Williams did in Close Encounters. In this respect, I would also give the film very high marks. The only slight nit I have is that during a sky-diving sequence Edwards discards Desplat’s score in favour of Ligeti’s Requiem – a piece so rigidly associated with 2001: A Space Odyssey that quite honestly I think there ought to be a law against using it in any other context.
The third and frankly most unsuccessful area in which Edwards borrows from Spielberg is in the theme of disintegrating families. The central character in the story, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a bomb disposal guy in the military whose father Joe (Bryan Cranston) lost his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) fifteen years earlier in the supposed earthquake/nuclear meltdown in Japan. Joe subsequently becomes convinced there is a conspiracy to hide the truth of what happened, and in his obsession with pursuing this theory, he has alienated his son. At first this plot works quite effectively, but after the first act it has nowhere else to go and runs out of steam. Subsequently the human interest isn’t that interesting, with great actors like David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins wasted in one-dimensional supporting roles.
How much this third point matters seems to be the point at issue with many critics. Yes, it could be argued that the screenplay (written by Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham) hasn’t got the most interesting human characters. It could be argued that it is overly serious and that there are some large plot holes (for example, how exactly does Ken Watanabe suddenly become an expert on Godzilla’s behaviour?). But I think, in the context of the overall film, this is not a fatal flaw. The real stars here are the monsters, and they are brilliantly rendered, echoing the classic Godzilla pics of old.
Speaking of which, the original Godzilla was obviously and emphatically a metaphor for the appalling trauma suffered by a nation that had had an atomic bomb dropped on it, but Gareth Edward’s film is more subtle. It seems more concerned about what happens when nature is out of balance, with images of tsunamis, earthquakes and nuclear meltdowns unquestionably striking a chord with a global community appalled by the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the recent earthquake in Japan, the subsequent meltdown at Fukushima and so on. Yet the film dares to strike a hopeful note too, hinting at nature’s ability to return balance to itself.
All that said, Godzilla isn’t a film most are likely to find particularly thought-provoking. It is, however, unquestionably wow-provoking.