The history of Godzilla goes back to 1954 when a Japanese film was released featuring a fire breathing dinosaur-like colossus rampaging its way through Tokyo. The film was a huge hit and acted as a scathing morality tale about the horrors that the country suffered during Atomic bombings in World War II.
Sadly my personal history of Godzilla only goes back to 1998 when an American film was released featuring a giant T-Rex that somehow manages to hide in downtown Manhattan. The film was negatively received and a potential trilogy was abandoned. This iteration was perfect for the ten-year-old me who saw the film in the cinema but subsequent viewing revealed it for the astonishing Matthew Broderick starring mess it was. This particular Godzilla was just a bit of fun, some light entertainment for a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV but nothing more than that.
The history of 2014’s Godzilla goes back to 2010 when British visual effects whiz Gareth Edwards released his debut feature as writer and director; Monsters. The film was a small story about two people trying to get back to America from Mexico in a time when the American border has been turned into a quarantine zone filled with extraterrestrial creatures. Working on a micro-budget, and creating his own visual effects, Edwards demonstrated a great visual eye and an ability to put characters first ahead of relying on the, admittedly excellent, CGI beasts. The question going into Godzilla is whether Edwards can learn from Roland Emmerich’s mistakes and make a film worthy of the 1954 original utlising the talents he showcased in Monsters.
On most fronts Edwards’ Godzilla is hugely successful. The sheer scale, bulk, and scope of both the monster and its setting is frankly jaw-dropping. Godzilla is big. I mean BIG. Seriously though, Godzilla is BIG. The press notes alone were over 40 pages long; everything about this film is done on a bigger scale than I have seen in a cinema before. In what is a film with a relatively serious tone the only laughter I allowed myself (aside from a few amusingly convenient plot contrivances) was when I just had to giggle at the spectacle of what I was seeing on screen. It was just plain ridiculous. Ridiculous and sublime. And BIG. As the chaos got more and more chaotic I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself and shake my head in disbelief – a wonderful thing to be able to do at the cinema I’m sure you will agree.
With Godzilla as his second film Edwards is displaying some serious chops when it comes to a striking visual. While initially being coy about showing us the titular creature he is sure to give us our eyeful of monolithic prehistoric riotous beast before the film is done. When we aren’t feasting on creature visuals the film is littered with gorgeous photography filled with gloomy smoke, looming shadows, and this film’s signature red hue. While the 1998 Godzilla was a lumbering mess this is a gorgeous piece of cinema with endless treats for the eyes that need to be seen on the big screen. While I’m not going to be plugging the IMAX or 3D experience I really do think that this is a film that deserves a large cinema screen with loud speakers surrounding you.
All that Godzilla lacks, something Monsters had in spades, is intimacy. While we follow the action through the experiences of a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his family (Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, and Juliette Binoche) the characters are rarely seen together so their disparate experiences don’t tie together in a satisfying way. The superb cast list is rounded out by Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe as Godzilla experts but they too feel a little underserved. The fact that I didn’t care who lived and who died is definitely a flaw but at the end of the day this is a story on a global scale with a large monster as its star. If you want a more intimate story about a big beasty might I suggest both Cloverfield and The Host? Both are films that take their stories down a notch to give a real human experience amongst the madness of a monster movie.
Godzilla is a big and beautiful film that knows what it needs to deliver to impress its audience. Special effects can so often leave me numb and disconnected but Edwards has a way of dealing with fantastical scenes to make them seem real and grounded. Both Godzilla and Godzilla have a real heft to them and the idea of a gargantuan creature and its effect on mankind is taken as seriously as is possible.
When the film was over my heart was pounding and I let out a quiet “bloody hell”. For well crafted spectacle you can’t do much better than Godzilla. There is room alongside the smaller, independant fare to enjoy big meaty blockbusters and I only wish they were all as good as this was.