Review: Godzilla

The director of Monsters revives the King of the Monsters. Monster!

Kim Newman
Updated:

from our forthcoming July 2014 issue

The first attempt to retool Toho Studios’ Japanese monster franchise for international consumption came when new footage (featuring Raymond Burr as a reporter) was spliced into the dubbed re-edit of Honda Ishiro’s Gojira (1954) released as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

The Japanese series evolved, as the rampaging radioactive dinosaur reformed as a child-friendly protector of the planet – with occasional backsliding into his former city-smashing ways. Meanwhile, there was a long period when Toho and various American partners tried to develop a non-Japanese Godzilla franchise – a process which yielded Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998). In Hollywood terms, Emmerich’s film – a decent enough unofficial remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the film Toho imitated in the first place, but with an off-model enlarged iguana that simply didn’t look like Godzilla – seemed the end of the story. However, Toho rapidly rebooted in Gojira ni-sem mireniamu (Godzilla 2000) and showed what they thought about the Americanised creature by having it squashed by the real Godzilla in Gojira: Fainaru uozu (Godzilla, Final Wars, 2004).

A generation on, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla learns from the negative example of Emmerich’s film. Though realised via CGI rather than by having a sumo wrestler in a rubber suit stomp on a miniature city, the monster here conforms to the classic Godzilla design (tweaked many times over the years). Lumbering rather than lizard-quick, this Godzilla is a literal tower of strength, unloosing its radioactive breath against the new-made MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) creatures in an impressive display of force.

In a canny rewrite of series’ history, this Godzilla has been at large since the early 1950s – the US Pacific bomb tests of the period were actually attempts to kill the thing. Ken Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa, a character named after the self-sacrificing scientist who destroyed Gojira in Honda’s film, speaks up for the ‘apex predator’ as a ‘balancing force’ who manifests whenever other kaiju threaten the world.

Godzilla began fighting other monsters in his second film appearance, Gojira no gyakushyu (Gigantis the Fire Monster, 1955), and transformed into a heroic defender of the Earth against alien invaders with Sandai kaiju: Chikyu saidai no kessen (Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, 1965).

However, the inspiration for this iteration of Godzilla seems to be the 1990s revival of rival kaiju Gamera in a series beginning with Kaneko Shusuke’s Gamera daikaiju kuchu kessen (Gamera, Guardian of the Universe, 1995), in which the giant turtle is exactly the kind of natural balance on other monsters that Max Borenstein’s script makes Godzilla here. Kaneko’s film was sufficiently influential – redeeming a franchise that Godzilla’s fans tended to look down on – that Toho recruited him to contribute to their ‘millennial’ series with Gojira-Mosura-Kingu Godora: Daikaiju soukougeki (Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, 2001). The design of the MUTOs is even in line with the blade-headed, fantastical creatures Gamera tends to fight – though the plot motor of giant creatures trampling over human civilisation in order to mate also evokes Edwards’ debut feature, the far-less-expensive Monsters (2010).

It is beside the point to complain that the human element in a Godzilla movie is weak; merely not being as irritating as the human cast led by Matthew Broderick in 1998 scrapes a passing grade. This hauls in the frankly overqualified likes of Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn to do little more than Raymond Burr did – look awed and earnest while reporting on the damage.

Once the sub-plot about Cranston’s grieving conspiracy theorist is concluded by his character’s death, the film relies on an utterly token familial bond between the sensitive-yet-macho bomb expert (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde). However, rescuing any surrogate imperilled child (a Japanese kid separated from his parents on a Hawaiian monorail) will serve, at a pinch, to underline his heroism. There’s an odd discrepancy between Ford’s dedication to military duties and his wife’s willingness to walk off her job (she’s an ER nurse) because a family hug is more important than ministering to the many casualties of the monster crisis.

Edwards takes care to include people in the frame, often for size reference, and stages excellent moments of awe-inspiring peril in which tiny figures are dwarfed by monsters and general devastation: a monster attack on a rickety bridge transporting a nuclear weapon by train, a Ligeti-scored high-altitude parachute jump into a smoke-shrouded city, the tsunami that signals Godzilla’s first approach to land.

What’s lacking is any connection between Godzilla and Ford (though the latter’s childhood bedroom has a giant monster poster, and he has named one of his pets ‘Mothra’) beyond the fact that they’re both heroes in this film. Still, no one is really begging for an ongoing ‘Ford Brody’ franchise; the job this movie does successfully is bringing back the One True Godzilla and positioning him again as ‘King of the Monsters’.

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