A Giant Returns: Godzilla (Review)

Hollywood finally does justice to the King of the Monsters

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Guess who’s back!!!

It’s been 16 years since the release of the last English language Godzilla film. I can still remember my Dad taking me aged 10 and my younger brother aged 7 to see Roland Emmerich’s ill-fated take on the Japanese cinema legend – my brother by contrast can’t remember it all, it was that good! It seemed childish even to children. The film ends with what turned out to be an unnecessary attempt to leave room for a sequel in which he end on the supposed cliffhanger of yet another Godzilla egg hatching. This impressed my brother even less than the rest of the film and he loudly exclaimed: “oh no, not more of it!” That this didn’t seem to bother the rest of the audience did indicate that they shared his low estimation of the film.

The relationship between Emmerich’s film and the reboot currently in cinemas directed by British director Gareth Edwards is much like that between a pedal bin and Godzilla’s foot. It has the kind of gravitas and power that its predecessor so conspicuously lacked.

Edwards deftly nods towards the Japanese films and their obsession with the nuclear age, while simultaneously constructing his own mythology and delivering a new message about Man’s relation to Nature. There are also some solid performances from Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston and others. Though not it must be said the rather wooden lead actor Aaron Taylor Johnson. And above all else there are the monsters.

Not only Godzilla but his stomach churning foes the MUTOs are magnificently realised. Seeing (and crucially hearing) them on the big screen, I was as awed in the way you would be if you were actually seeing prehistoric monsters weighing hundreds of tonnes. But crucially not only does Edwards deliver spectacle but he knows how to deploy it. He is impressively restrained in the amount of screen time he gives over to monster vs monster combat,which prevents their impact being dissipated by overuse  and ensures that we the audience feel properly invested in them when they do come around.

Despite these impressive (and I would have thought evident) strengths the film seems to have attracted quite a few detractors. These seem to fall into two camps.

Firstly, there are those who take issue with its message. For example, the New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody lamented ‘the gray (sic) credo’ of the film. Brody worries that by making it a theme that humans are impotent in the face of nature, it turns the human characters into ‘spectators.’ I think this is unfair as Edward’s makes Godzilla himself a defined character able to carry the story himself. More generally, this might be a smarter than average action packed summer blockbuster but I still think trying to parse its ideas as if they were an essay is too much.

The other more common critique is that we have to wait too long to see Godzilla and that there should have been more of him fighting the MUTOs. I can only assume the people saying must also complain that we need to see more of the shark in the Jaws! While Edwards does indeed keep his powder dry for stretches of the film, as I’ve already discussed this is one of its strengths. Nor is the implication of this criticism that the film drags fair. It is remarkably well paced especially given how baggy summer blockbusters have become. And it includes well done action sequences at regular intervals. These include a nuclear meltdown in the first ten minutes and the spectacular entrance of the MUTOs half an hour in. If that is not enough for you then the problem is not with the film but your attention span!

If you want to see how bad the film would have been had Edwards gone down the road of relentless monster battle sequences, may I draw your attention to Pacific Rim. The effect all that film’s constant supersized clashes had on me was the numbing feeling that I was actually watching somebody else play a computer game.

While it’s by no means perfect, Edwards’ Godzilla is a welcome departure from that kind of thing. His style is more Spielberg than Bay (or indeed Emmerich) and for that reason I’m excited that he will be making a sequel and a Star Wars Spin-Off.

 

Verdict: if you are not wowed the first time Godzilla rises to his full height and roars, you never will be (8/10)

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