It’s been a long time since I got goosebumps while watching a film. That feeling of being awestruck by the sheer size of what’s on the cinema screen. It came closest to my earliest theater-going memory of Jurassic Park (1993). An experience that kept me glued to my seat, while the seat shook.
“Is my jaw supposed to drop?” A character asks in the movie. My answer to that is a resounding yes. Lo and behold, world’s most famous monster, the original kaiju – Godzilla gets a major Hollywood film to roar about!
The first hour of the film is absolutely fantastic. It is cleverly written with one expertly directed scene after another. The characters and the disasters both are given equal weight and the actors shine. Bryan Cranston sets up the emotional core of the film. Him and Juliette Binoche single-handedly walk away with the most heartbreaking scene in the film. I was reminded of the Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) when Cranston reaches to find what he’s been fighting for. There is also a bit of Jaws (1975) in there and not just because the family name is Brody. Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn and Sally Hawkins don’t get enough meat to chew on but they competently play their parts well. I do have my reservations about Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I believe is simply a bad actor.
The second hour of the film focuses more on the monster(s). This is where either you will tune out of the film or love it more. I fall into the second category. I’ve already got a good dose of human drama, now I wanted Godzilla to come out. I was immeasurably happy to see that Gareth Edwards knows why he is the king of monsters and has no inhibitions to put it all out there. He does to monster films what Spielberg did to science fiction and what Nolan did to superhero films. It is more applause worthy that this is just his second film, after his brilliant debut called.. wait for it… Monsters (2010). A bit more emotional connect to the family would have done the trick but I'm not complaining. I didn't love Jurassic Park because it made me wipe tears, it's because of its majestic sweep.
Gojira (1954) is one of the most fascinating movie experiences of my life. I had first seen the American reboot of the late 90s. Since then I’d wanted to find the Japanese original. I later discovered how Godzilla became a worldwide phenomenon. It wasn’t just the Japanese film. Hollywood took the Japanese film and made their own version around it. Changing the script by bringing an American to Tokyo, adding scenes in English with Raymond Burr and dubbing the Japanese dialogue. Most notably, they changed the name of the monster - Gojira to God + Gorilla = Godzilla. That film was called Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). Also, cashing in on the King Kong hysteria. Popularity aside, the original film had gruesome scenes of destruction and a terrifying sense of dread. It showed special effects are not why a film works. They can’t save a bad film but they definitely can make a good film better.
Gareth Edwards pays homage to the original Gojira films and takes cues from what made the Ishiro Honda films work. The one character I loved from the original film was Dr. Serizawa. This is the only character they keep and give an accomplished actor like Ken Watanabe to play it. The eye patch is gone but he gets the best lines and the only one who knows what these monsters are. The kaijus are Rodan-like. There is a blink-and-miss nod to Mothra as well. You can see how much Edwards loves his monster films.
The reason why a Godzilla film was made in the first place, or, if you ask me, the reason why any monster film should be made is its allegorical statement. The 1954 original was a metaphor for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The best monster films speak about the monsters that haunt the collective global consciousness. Cloverfield (2008) depicted the 9/11 trauma. The South Korean film The Host (2006) depicted the SARS pandemic. What do we have now?
From the nuclear disaster of Fukushima to the ever-looming threat of the tsunamis, Edwards does not give the man-made or natural disasters a miss. When he incorporates the earliest instances of atomic bomb and nuclear bomb testing in the narrative, I couldn’t be more impressed. It’s like he set out to make the grand-daddy of monster films and came out victorious. In every war, you are left with battle scars. Sure, the film has some moments where the destruction goes bonkers. For me, it didn’t become as frivolous as Man of Steel (2013). When giant monsters invade a city, what else would happen? Further more, they save the best for last. I won’t reveal what it is but my cinematic hormones, waiting for Godzilla to open and his mouth and reveal his glory, went haywire when he did. Twice. My other favorite moment is the gun flare reveal of the monster. This is what motion pictures are made for.
The third act overkill would have had my disapproval, if it weren’t for the superbly directed scenes and Edwards’ tribute to Godzilla’s history. I was awed, I was moved and I was blown away. More than once. Godzilla is blockbuster filmmaking brilliance.