I hesitate to praise Godzilla while simultaneously celebrating how dumb it is like I’m about to, because the truth is, there’s a bedrock of competent filmmaking technique underpinning its logic-defying heights of awe-inspiring stupidness. If you think all it takes to make a fun monster movie is two monsters smushing together and going “RAWR,” just watch your parents’ sex tape. Or better yet, watch Pacific Rim again and see how wrong that can go. Both Godz and Rim play to the same core desires, and rest on nearly equal numbers of plot holes, tropes, and gratuitously expository dialogue. And with its Robot Jox wrinkle, Pacific Rim probably even has the edge in premise. But Godzilla displays such a thorough understanding of how to create spectacle and scale that it feels like a real movie, whereas Pacific Rim feels like watching a kid play with his toys. Godzilla makes the monsters big, Pacific Rim made the people small.
There’s certainly a lot more foreplay in Godzilla before we get to see it bump monsters, which is part of the charm. It begins in 1999, where Bryan Cranston is working as a seismologist at a nuclear plant in Japan, trying to understand the craaazy readings he’s been getting on all his graphs and charts and speculums. Pretty soon the shit hits the fan and he has to close the airlock on his special lady (Juliette Binoche, in her most important role), trapping her inside with the nuclear smoke monster and Chernobyling the entire town. And all on his birthday! (frowny face) Fast forward 15 years later, his son, Ford (impressive to see Aaron Taylor-Johnson rehabilitate the concept of protagonists named “Ford” after what Andrew Dice Clay did to it) is all grown up, with a wife and kid of his own, conveniently working as an EOD tech in the Army (that’s a bomb guy, for you civilians). He’s back from deployment and it seems like all his troubles are over, until one day, his crackpot old man gets in trouble for spouting his crazy theories again. Ford flies to Japan to bail him out, wouldn’t you know it, the two of them get caught up in a whopper of a lizard caper.
Director Gareth Edwards, working from a not-particularly-great script by Max Borenstein, strings you along slowly, giving you teases and hints here and there – the monster’s den, the monster’s eggs, the monster’s tracks, the monster’s scales – so that when he finally whips out his monster, you really feel its size. Where Guillermo Del Toro made the mistake of thinking the draw of his movie was monsters kung fu-ing each other, Edwards knows the draw is REALLY HUGE MONSTERS. Selling the audience on that size is a trick of perspective, and it’s more complicated than it seems. If you just see a picture of Andre the Giant, you think, “So what?” It’s much more fascinating and impressive to see Andre the Giant holding a coke can, drinking two liters of vodka in a sitting, the preparations it requires to get him on an airplane, spinning a grown man on his finger like a basketball, punching a hole in the moon, etc. To fully understand size, you can’t just see it, you have to see its effects.
Size is virtually the only thing Godzilla has to do well, and Edwards is big where it counts. Which, ironically, is in all the little details. The tsunami-like storm surge Godzilla makes when he approaches land (complete with dead fish as the tide pulls out before the crash), the way the Chinese lanterns blow in the breeze from the intensity of Godzilla’s shriek (BANNAAAA! BANAAAAAH!), the battleships bobbing in the wake like toys – it’s all so much better realized than Del Toro’s two hour mash-up of CGI glass shattering in the rain. Even the soundtracks illustrate Godzilla‘s superior understanding of the subject matter. Edwards keeps the music minimal and uses the negative space, so that you really feel the smashes and crashes, in a way that makes you think “This is awesome!” Pacific Rim‘s constant, overbearing score just kept screaming “Look how awesome this is!” until you wanted to plug your ears.
Is Godzilla‘s story great? No, no it’s not. It’s pretty bad. Aaron Taylor-Johnson manages to be in the climactic place and time through sheer coincidence more often than Mr. Magoo, and half the time you forget how he even got there. Ken Watanabe’s scientist character goes from desperately needing Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s help in the beginning to explaining everything about the monster in great detail for the entire rest of the movie like he’s the goddamn Godzilla Whisperer. There’s a lot of talk about the monster eating radiation, then using radiation to kill it, and electro magnetic pulses, and blah blah blah. It didn’t really make any sense, but it didn’t matter because a monster basically used an ICBM for a dildo at one point and it was all I could do not to throw confetti in the air and run around my seat with joy. They should really give out vuvuzelas when you enter the theater for this thing.
Even the mostly dumb script almost forgives itself for all the superfluous human interaction by constantly reiterating that we’re all at nature’s mercy and it doesn’t really matter what we do in the end (kind of like Night of the Living Dead, the guy who sounds confident isn’t always right.). And as silly as virtually all of Ken Watanabe’s exposition is, his solemn Indian chief act is a thousand times more tolerable than all the over caffeinated Mike Tyson’s Punch Out characters in Pacific Rim, to say nothing of the having to watch Hello Kitty fall for the Thunder Down Under. Oy.
Godzilla is dumb and silly and nonsensical for a lot of its running time, but it’s competent where it has to be. Big Chief Watanabe’s solemn pronouncements and Forrest Taylor-Johnson’s semi-charmed life are a small price to pay when there are giant monsters eating missiles like hot dogs and making me shriek with joy every time they were onscreen. In fact, Godzilla went a long way to restoring my faith in dumb movies, making them seem as breezy as they should be. It’s not high art, but hey, neither is your face. Gareth Edwards made me scream for his monster, and that’s all I really wanted.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.