Consider what it must have been like for an ant building a hill on the island of Guadalcanal in 1942. You, and a thousand of your closest friends, are going about the business of collecting food and constructing tunnels when suddenly, a giant boot comes crashing down. Pandemonium. Destruction. Carnage everywhere. Then, an explosion nearby scatters debris and sand everywhere, killing more. A branch falls on the hill, burying more ants, collapsing the western corridor. Another explosion. Another batch for the Grim Reaper. Another boot. Then another. Bullets hit the dirt, spraying hot sand all around. Ants run hither and yon, seeking shelter, seeking sanity, seeking, who knows what. All of this destruction, all of this insanity, is due to the American and Japanese soldiers trying to kill each other. There is nothing an ant can do to stop them, but how to react? Do they give up? Simply roll over and die? No. They do the same thing every living being does. They try to survive. They try to weather the storm. It will be over eventually. Then we can build again.
This is the perspective director Gareth Edwards and writer Max Borenstein places the audience for their rendition of Godzilla. As luck would have it, I was halfway through Michel Chion’s book-length study of The Thin Red Line when I saw Godzilla. Both movies share a great deal of similarities, perspective being one, hopeless the other. Godzilla, The King of the Monsters, is much more than a city wrecking reptile, he is a primal force of nature, and mankind is utterly helpless against natural forces.
The plot has been updated slightly to fit our time. The 1954 Gojira bore the monster out of man tinkering with the atom. Japan, which felt the brunt of two atomic bombs, lived in constant fear of another attack, which manifested into the monster. The atom still perplexes and terrorizes man 60 years later, but it is a far more abstract fear. What is far more prescient is the destruction brought from rising sea levels, superstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. There is a scene where Godzilla’s wake causes a tsunami-like wave to crash through city streets—a moment that calls to mind The Impossible (2012), a movie based on a real-life incident.
In this version, mankind does not create Godzilla, but they are aware that it is there. Godzilla has been tagged and tracked by two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) for decades. They theorize that he is a pre-historic alpha dog that has remained dormant because no one has risen to challenge his position. The connection to the animal kingdom is immediate, but there is a political one here as well. America embraced isolationism until it too was “awoken” by a challenging nation.
Edwards and Borenstein structure Godzilla similar to early Steven Spielberg movies: open with a bang, hold back the monster until halfway through, and drive the story by using half-informed protagonists trying to solve the cover-up. When the monsters are finally revealed, we get them in bits and pieces: snippets from TV cameras, a foot coming through fog and dust, the perspective staying mainly on the ground. The story has very little excess, but it is not without moments of visual poetry. Edwards and director of photography Seamus McGarvey manage to craft visuals that are haunting and ghostly (a HALO jump into a suicide mission takes on a great deal of impact thanks to the visuals). Alexandre Desplat’s score invokes everything from Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Kubrick to anime and, of course, to Gojira.
The cast is impressive considering that it is a monster movie, and most are quite good. Two fathers (Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) drive the story forward by constantly placing themselves in harm’s way. Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and David Strathairn (he plays the commanding Admiral) are good actors and give good performances. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is not a good actor and does not give a good performance. The rest of the cast doesn’t have much else to do than run around and look shocked, but that’s okay. We are the ants, and this war is tearing everything to shreds.
Edwards’ debut film, Monsters (2010), was a low-budget monster movie that garnered a lot of attention because of its striking qualities despite the minuscule budget. Edward has significantly more money to play with here, and it shows. Unlike so many indie directors that step into the studio system, the money does not expose Edward’s weakness and narcissism within. Edwards has one hell of a career ahead of him, as does this revitalized Godzilla franchise.
Directed By: Gareth Edwards
Written By: Max Borenstein
Story By: Dave Callaham
Produced By: Bob Ducsay, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, Thomas Tull
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn
Warner Brothers, Rated PG-13, Running Time 123 minutes, Released May 16, 2014.