I was one of the few people who enjoyed Battle: Los Angeles, and one of the few who didn’t think much of Cloverfield. Setting aside their respective merits and faults, however, I appreciated the central conceit that drove both science-fiction thrillers. Battle: Los Angeles focused on a single squadron – introducing us to its members and loved ones – even as a full-scale alien invasion was underway around the world. Cloverfield tracked a small (and obnoxious) group of friends as they – along with the entire city – sought refuge against a terrifying alien monster. In both instances, the audience gets ‘a day in the life’ that is set against the end of the world.
By utilizing a similarly narrow narrative focus, this latest Godzilla transcends its blockbuster roots. This is a movie that doesn’t reveal its titular character until its second hour, that shows the aftermath of destruction as often as it shows the act itself, that literally closes the door to the audience as two monsters are about to engage hand-to-hand. These are brave choices. But they are effective ones. In it of itself, Godzilla raises both the anticipation and stakes for the third act, when the confrontations do come in spades. And in comparing the movie to its peers (Pacific Rim, Transformers, 1998’s Godzilla), this version offers a unique, more human experience.
The heart of Gareth Edwards’ vision lies in the Brody family: Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The family story is counteracted by Godzilla’s large scope, which – distinct from the aforementioned Battle: Los Angeles and Cloverfield – takes the story to multiple settings and across the Pacific Ocean. The story reconciles these opposing forces with a brief and effective prologue that not only serves to explain Joe’s fragility and desperation in the current day, but mitigates the contrivances that land Ford in Tokyo, Honolulu, and San Francisco for every pivotal scene of the monsters’ rampage. Even if the latter is not entirely successful, the Brodys do seem to exist and have a story independent of Godzilla.
In addition, the focus on the Brodys enhances the stature of the monsters that decorate the movie. Despite Ford’s skills and centrality to the plot, there is a certain aura of helplessness that pervades the movie. The human characters – including Joe and Ford – seek the truth. They contain. They follow. At no point are they in control: instead, the most they can do is minimize the inevitable damage. The doctor characters (Ken Watanabe as Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins as Vivienne Graham) are especially pivotal to this aspect of the story. This focus adds more weight to the movie, underscoring the sheer power of Godzilla and the MUTOs.
Yet, Godzilla is not a joyless endeavor. More levity would have lessened the stakes, hurt the film’s tone, and most of all – undermined the focus on the father-son relationship, a fatal move given the already tenuous hold Taylor-Johnson has in carrying the human aspects of the movie. Regardless, the build-up in the first hour feels anticipatory rather than dreary, and the action in the second hour – evocative of Man of Steel in its scale of destruction – manages to be altogether breathtaking. Set pieces on the Golden Gate Bridge and in the center of a mostly-evacuated San Francisco are memorable, with the reveal of Godzilla’s trademark atomic breath a true highlight.
The movie is not without its faults. There are the plot contrivances (Sam Brody being on the Golden Gate Bridge being the most egregious), the multiple fake-outs involving Godzilla’s death, and some problematic acting (as mentioned, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t acquit himself well, and David Strathairn is strangely lifeless as a U.S. Admiral). The story also does the audience a great disservice by skipping over the fact that a major section of Tokyo has become a quarantined, I am Legend-like wasteland, squandering a great setup in the prologue and first act basically so we can get to the pretty white people quicker.* But this aspect of the movie is a somewhat understandable victim of Godzilla’s narrow focus.
*To be fair, Elizabeth Olsen IS really pretty.
Overall though, I greatly enjoyed Godzilla. This is an end of the world movie that truly feels like the end of the world. It conveys a sense of urgency by paradoxically having much of the action take place in the background, even offscreen. It conveys scope by having humans not as the drivers of action, but as mostly standing on the sidelines, doing what little they can – if not being completely helpless. Strangely, the latest reboot to the franchise feels like a true original. “Let them fight.” They do.