One of the first encounters with the movies that I can remember having came when I was about 5 or 6. In the middle of the night, my dad woke me up and took me out in front of our television set. On it was the 1962 “King Kong vs. Godzilla”, and it was the final fight scene between the two. For the next 5-10 minutes I was mesmerized watching these two giant monsters grapple with each other, eventually tumbling into the ocean killing one another. I’d never seen anything like that before, and it blew my tiny mind. From then on Godzilla defined my childhood, I religiously watched every Godzilla film I could get my hands on. It only seems fitting that the latest incarnation of the King of the Monsters comes out just after I’ve graduated college, as if to cap off my entire life up until now. Based on what I’ve just seen, I think director Gareth Edwards had a similar experience with the character growing up.
The thing about Godzilla that makes him so timeless of a character is that there are so many ways to make a good Godzilla film. He can be the hero, or he can be the villain. He can be a literal manifestation of nuclear fallout horror to whatever extent you need, or you can have him show up to just destroy shit and fight monsters. Any of these ways works to make a good Godzilla film, but successfully mix the character’s useful components the way Gareth Edwards has? Then you have an amazing Godzilla film.
Gareth Edwards first showed us his chops with the effective micro-budget film Monsters. Here he brings a similar sense of intimacy and naturalism to the tone of the film, and retains it even though the scope of this film dwarfs the scope of Monsters.
There’s a large sense of wonder in how Edwards builds his film. He doesn’t just show you his creatures and destruction, he reveals them to you in all their magnitude and glory through slow camera movements. It’s not until halfway through the film that Godzilla is revealed, and in that moment you cheer. Up until that moment Godzilla has been in the shadows, referenced by the human characters as an exalted being. The reveal for Godzilla is brilliantly constructed: A troup of soldiers fires up flares that get dwarfed into obscurity by Godzilla’s leg and torso before the camera ends up on Godzilla’s face. Cue Roar. It earns every cheer that came from the audience.
Workaholic composer-for-hire Alexandre Desplat creates a unique score in line with what Edwards is doing. Desplat builds tension with the story throughout while harkening back to classic science fiction scores with a sense of wonder.
The cast is admirable throughout, with Bryan Cranston the real standout as he seems always able to elevate any character he inhabits. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is capable as the lead of sorts in Ford Brody, and has believable chemistry with his father Joe (Cranston) and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). Ken Watanabe gets the coveted line of “We call him…..Godzilla.” and he nails it. Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn don’t have much to do in this film but they are well applied by Edwards. The simple fact that they are there makes the characters feel somehow more authentic than they would otherwise. This Godzilla has some attitude to him too. He has a generally pissed-off demeanor on his face like the indifferent force of nature he’s built up as in this film.
When Godzilla fights the MUTO monsters, Edwards reminds us of what “epic” means. Watching these monsters grapple with each other, toppling buildings in the process brought me back to the same sense of awe that I first had when I was a kid. Edwards doesn’t shy away from the destruction at hand, reminding us of the immediate danger taking place. He fills the final fight with moments that will have Godzilla fans and newcomers cheering and clapping with glee. The King of the Monsters has taken his crown back. This is the Godzilla film we’ve been waiting for, and this is the type of blockbuster film Hollywood should model itself after. The final shot is touching, calm but suspenseful in that it reminds us how small we are to the indifference of nature.