Review: Beautiful and badass, ‘Godzilla’ puts the awe back in awesome

I can't imagine sitting in a theater in 1954 in Japan and watching “Gojira” play for the first time. Ten years earlier, your country faces a nuclear nightmare, and for the first time in human history, the atom was used to wipe a city full of people off the planet in an instant. War reached its most horrifying manifestation, and it completely changed the world. But for Japan, it was not an abstract. It was a redefining moment, part of their identity from that moment, an actual scar they were going to have to live with. Looking at “Gojira” now, it feels like an attempt to come to terms with the hopelessness of that event in a way that people could watch together, a fantasy catharsis that the country needed.

The stark black-and-white images of a giant monster smashing and burning Tokyo must have felt terrifying. Godzilla is barely a character in that first film. He's a rampaging force of nature, and the solution they find to finally stop him is pretty much an equal horror, a worst-case-scenario sort of ending. They know that if they use it, they're turning Tokyo Bay into an aquatic graveyard. To kill Godzilla, they're going to have to kill everything, and that seems like an acceptable trade.

That original film is also fairly thick with melodrama, setting a tone that the enduring franchise that has often followed, and while the films have been in almost constant production for the past 60 years, it's become almost completely accepted that the dramatic stuff in these movies is going to be less interesting than the monsters. The moment they made the decision to bring Godzilla back for more movies, they began figuring new roles for the monster. He went from threat to protector, and more monsters were invented to give Godzilla someone to fight.

It's fair to say that they've never made a more effective use of Godzilla as a metaphor than they did in the original film, and after a certain point, they didn't really try. It became more like watching WWE matches with elaborate costumes than movies that had something specific to say about the world. When Roland Emmerich decided to make a new American Godzilla movie, he had absolutely nothing to say, and it became just another disaster movie from a guy whose success has been predicated almost entirely on his ability to blow shit up.

As I've recently discussed, we've reached a point where audiences have seen certain things so many times that I ca't imagine it's enough simply to watch a monster smash things. Scripted by Max Borenstein, working from a story by Dave Callaham, this new film is the first time since arguably “Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster” that they've tried to actually deal with something on a subtextual level in addition to also creating a large-scale monster mayhem movie, and while I don't think the film is completely successful, there is so much that's interesting and exciting about it that it feels like a brand new day for Toho's greatest icon.

The film opens in the past, as Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) head in for a day at work at the nuclear power plant in Japan where they are part of the team that maintains safety. Joe's concerned about a recurrent electrical pulse that seems to be building to some sort of event, and on this particular morning, things finally reach a crisis point. Instead of validating Joe, though, the events destroy him and his family, and the plant goes into meltdown.

Picking up in the present day, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a military bomb disarming specialist, and Joe is still grappling to make sense out of what happened in that Japanese plant, sure that it was not his fault, and sure that it's going to happen again. When Joe is arrested trying to get back to their family's house inside what has been a quarantined zone since the incident, Ford flies to Japan to bail him out. He's embarrassed by his father, still angry over everything that happened, and he's convinced that Joe is crazy, broken by the grief over his own role in things.

The way the film is structured, and the way Gareth Edwards chooses to shoot things, it's all about giving us an eye-level view of these events. There are big things happening, and the Brodys intersect those events in a way that makes them suitable entry points for us as an audience. There is a larger event unfolding, and it takes some time before things start to make sense. The film is structured like a mystery up until a certain point, and even then, don't expect to see Godzilla for a while.

The “Transformers” model for this film would open with Godzilla killing some other monsters, and then every ten minutes, there'd be another scene where Godzilla knocks a few buildings down and kills something, punctuated with expository scenes that don't remotely bother to make sense. This is pretty much the exact opposite of that. There are creatures besides Godzilla in the film, and they are tied to him in a very direct way. This isn't so much about us dropping bombs on one another, but instead uses the giant monsters as a stand-in for nature itself. I've said for years that we will not destroy this planet, no matter what we do, because before it reaches that point, the planet will do whatever it takes to wipe us off of it. We are arrogant to think that we are going to be able to destroy the Earth. When it comes down to it, the Earth will find it far easier to destroy us, and in “Godzilla,” we see a natural cycle start to play out in a way that has little or no regard for mankind or our place in things.

People may be surprised to see how brief Bryan Cranston's screen time is, considering how he's the center of the ad campaign so far. The film is told mostly from the POV of Ford, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is almost treated as a gaming avatar in the film. There's not a lot of time spent trying to learn anything about this kid's inner life. Instead, he is who we follow from encounter to encounter, from setting to setting. There are a few other recurring characters, like Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), and the military decision making body is represented by Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), but for the most part, the people are not the point. They are simply the perspective.

It may seem like an easy thing to bring Godzilla to life using modern visual effects, but I cannot say enough good things about the way the character has been imagined here. There is a very real and organic quality to Godzila. He feels like a real creature, something that could exist. The other giant-scale animals in the film are interesting in terms of how they work, what they do, and what their ultimate goal is, and I like that they seem resolutely uninterested in people. We happen to be in the way sometimes, but these are not evil creatures. They simply exist at a scale that renders us unimportant.

By the time Edwards finally stops playing peek-a-boo, the film has brought its remaining characters together in one location, and the way the final act is staged is both stunningly beautiful and genuinely scary on a primal level. By the time the film wraps up, I think the thing that surprised me most is just how little this feels like the cookie cutter “event film” template that everyone seems to follow these days. For better or for worse, depending on how you like the end result, Edwards has made a film that stands apart from how pretty much anyone else would have handled this, and I like that he remembered how important “awe” is to something that hopes to be “awesome.”

There are some missteps along the way. I think the film has a disconcertingly narrow view at times, and oddly, Alexandre Desplat's score seems to me to be heavy-handed and obvious in a way that really doesn't seem like him. Seamus McGarvey's photography is striking, and Edwards leans heavily on him to help create a sense of atmosphere. This Godzilla lives up to the first half of its name, and there is a great deal of character to it in every moment we see it onscreen. There are some images during that final stretch of the film that any fan of Godzilla will be amazed by, images that feel like they were pulled out of the collective dreams of all of us who have been fans of the big guy over the past 60 years. This could easily be ground zero for a whole new series of films, but if it remains a stand-alone single movie, Edwards told an entire story, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, it feels like Godzilla actually matters.

“Godzilla” stomps the competition flat starting on May 16th.