(Dir: Gareth Edwards, 2014)
There's a formula to big budget movies centered on some sort of monster / alien / strange mechanised creature (delete as appropriate), threatening to destroy the Earth and mankind. You may have noticed it in the past. Mankind is usually in some way responsible for this threat arising. It appears and destroys without much warning. There's some sort of scientific solution which only one hero can manage to impossibly deliver and save us all, inevitably with bare seconds to spare. So it's nice when conventions are playfully and positively tweaked. Say hello to Godzilla, a film not content with merely being a by-the-numbers destructathon.
That last statement sums up the divided reaction Godzilla has been met with. There are the people who inevitably only want to see a ridiculous amount of destruction and firepower aimed at this monster whilst he's doing his darndest to level our cities. These people appear to have been less than happy with this film as a result, but I suspect the forthcoming Transformers: Age of Extinction will do enough to satiate that desire they hold. Epic decimation of cities is a secondary concern in Godzilla. The focus and framing is on the actual characters which quite frankly is how any good film should be. But, if you've ever seen Gareth Edwards superb debut film Monsters, this should come as no surprise. In that case the character-centric approach was a result of the miniscule budget, but here on this grander scale, well it's just such a pleasant surprise for the audience to be trusted in such a way.
Yet it's not quite as simple as that. The characters we're presented with are perfectly watchable but don't give many reasons for us to really care what happens to them. Really anyone could be in the shoes of either Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Elizabeth Olsen. It's the likes of Bryan Cranston, who is always fun, and Ken Watanabe's kind of intriguing one-note performance that bring personality to the table. The story runs the course of predictability (the scientist no-one wants to listen too, the hero continually in the right place, etc), yet in doing so still manages to take a route that feels more akin to the original films. I'd imagine most of the people complaining about the approach here have never seen one of these, although admittedly it has been many years since I watched the likes of Godzilla vs Megalon, Mothra vs Godzilla and Godzilla on Monster Island, but this new film is definitely hewing far closer to those than the likes of Roland Emmerich's bastardized 1998 film. And all the better for it.
Godzilla is really a feast for the eyes and ears thanks to some fantastic cinematography and the use of sound and music. Take the HALO jump scene of soldiers parachuting into the dusky, dust-choked, monster-ravaged city, to the haunted strains of Ligeti's Requiem, whilst very cleverly utilising the heavy breathing first person perspective. That is the pure viscera of cinema. Edwards has found himself a massive toolbox to play with so across the whole film has amped up what he'd previously tried to achieve on such a limited scale. The creature reveal is effectively done too. Sure it takes a long while to see the world's most famous kaiju in all his splendor, but the tease is exactly part of the fun as parts of him slowly come to light. There's been criticism that he's a bit too fat looking but honestly, so what? This feels like Gojira and that's what matters.
By refusing to stick to formula and frustrating people in the process, this latest version of Godzilla stands out in the best possible way amongst the pantheon of big-budget films intent on leveling this world we've built. Sure it could use some better characters and writing, but please, give us more films where the monsters and destruction they cause are the background to actual characters. It's the kind of film where the camera pulls away when other films might be having their money shot and I applaud that. Haven't we seen enough films that devolve into an hour of mindless destruction and explosions? Less is more and that's something that's frequently forgotten in this modern age - just look at how the most effective horror films tend to be those that let your mind run amok rather than those that bare all quickly. The same applies here. Mix in the stunning visuals, sound and sense of faithfulness to the history of the character and we're left with a hell of an enjoyable film. Writing this has really made me want to watch it again - what does that say!?