Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston & Ken Watanabe
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: May 2014
Running Time: 123 mins
Synopsis: When a devastating event is covered up as a natural disaster, nuclear physicist Joe Brody realises something much more sinister is to blame. Scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa and Dr. Vivienne Graham reveal that in 1954 a powerful monster was awakened and though ‘nuclear tests’ were carried out in the Pacific Ocean to destroy it, the creature has now returned. With the US Armed Forces, including Joe’s son Navy Lieutenant Ford Brody, called into action, humanity fights for its survival.
First introduced to audiences in 1954, the character of Godzilla has been an iconic part of Japanese cinematic culture since then with over thirty films in the franchise. The majority of those movies were produced by the Japanese film studio Toho, although American studios have also used the rights to create their own version of the character – most notably, 1998’s Godzilla featuring unlikely action hero Matthew Broderick. While many Godzilla purists revile the film, I am actually quite fond of it as it was my first exposure to the character and kaiju movies, in general. Thanks to the negative critical reception to the 1998 film, the franchise remained centred on its Japanese roots from then onwards, although American studios would still flirt with the kaiju genre with films such as Cloverfield and King Kong. It wasn’t until 2014 that the idea of an Americanised Godzilla would re-emerge with Legendary Pictures keen to create a ‘monster-verse’ of connected films in a similar fashion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Director Gareth Edwards, known for his indie film take on kaijus with Monsters, adopts a restrained approach to this reboot of the Godzilla franchise, focusing more on the human relationships than on the monsters themselves. The first half of the film revolves around the father-son duo of Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Brody attempting to discover the truth behind a tragic power plant accident before they become embroiled in the titanic clash between Godzilla and a pair of parasitic MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). As a result, the film feels somewhat tonally disjointed with a slower-paced investigative first half and an action-driven monster movie in the second half, separated by a scene of intense exposition as Ford Brody is filled in on what exactly is going on.
Even during the mass-destruction and kaiju action scenes, Edwards keeps things grounded with the POV often low down and amongst the civilians. It is reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’ approach with Cloverfield without the annoying first-person perspective and camcorder footage. Edwards does manage to sprinkle some iconic Godzilla moments in there, such as the first reveal of the Titan in all his glory and the frankly magnificent sequence when he uses his Atomic Breath for the first time, but he does so whilst keeping a distance from the beast. This restrained approach works for the film, especially after establishing the focus on the Brody family, but I would like to have seen some more of the action from Godzilla’s POV.
With the human drama front and centre to the film, it is vital that the film has some high-calibre actors to provide that emotional core and so, casting Bryan Cranston is an inspired move. He drives the first half of the film, particularly the tragic opening sequence which sees him forced to choose between saving his wife and the saving the city. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a revelation here, developing beyond the Kick-Ass persona to deliver a different type of hero, and his determination to get home to his wife fuels the second half of the film. Elizabeth Olsen does a tremendous job as Elle Brody, despite having little to do aside worry for her husband, but she conveys a sense of realism that resonates. The only thing that took me out of the film was the fact Taylor-Johnson and Olsen were also cast as the Maximoff Twins (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, so to see them kissing after associating them as siblings is particularly odd.
Comparisons will naturally be made to Cloverfield, itself a Godzilla rip-off, but Edwards crafts a superior film here, making use of the rich history of the Godzilla franchise and casting him in a pseudo-heroic light. The film doesn’t spend too much time on the humans mistrusting Godzilla, and instead has them quickly identify him as an ‘apex predator’ that is more interested in killing the MUTOs than destroying mankind. I’d like to have seen more on that gradual realization that Godzilla is a ‘friend to humanity’ as it felt somewhat forced here with Ken Watanabe relying on his gut instinct that Godzilla would help them. In fact, my main issues with the film stem from the inclusion of the shadowy organisation, Project Monarch, which appears to serve the same function as SHIELD in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, laying down the connective tissue for a shared universe whilst also providing an info-dump on MUTOs and Godzilla to save time and get the protagonists up to speed. They seem to exist in the film mainly as a narrative device to streamline the story, although I guess that in the real world there probably would be an organisation like this set up to monitor (and cover up) creatures like this.
Gareth Edwards would later go on to direct Rogue One, one of my favourite Star Wars movies, and he definitely has a knack for combining the large scale spectacle with human drama. By creating some distance between us and the monsters, he places the audience alongside the citizens of the movie and as part of the chaos. We’re not some omnipotent force watching the chaos from the comfort of our armchairs, we’re on the ground experiencing the disaster as it unfolds. In a post 9/11 world, this resonates a lot more and adds a different dimension to the kaiju film, showing the grim realities of such an extraordinary event. Legendary Pictures’ take on Godzilla subverts the franchise in many ways, elevating it beyond giant monsters mindlessly smashing buildings and reinvigorating the kaiju genre for Western audiences.