So last night I saw and wrote about Chef, a loving small tribute to a man's growth and how it affects his family. Tonight I went to Godzilla. It ain't small.
That is one BIG lizard. The film checks all the boxes that a good monster movie needs. A mysterious discovery. A frightening unexplained event that one person suspects is not as it seems, which unravels his life. A secret government agency that participates in a cover up, although here it is not sinister but just misguided. A concerned scientist and his dedicated assistant who believe in the power of nature over all else. A child reconciling and redeeming the life of his father. A couple of interesting twists and turns. Monsters that adapt and develop. Loads of pointless bullets and missiles and planes falling from the sky, and dedicated soldiers dying in defense of their civilization. A cockamamy military plan of action that succeeds in the end because a scientist's hunch turns out to be correct. A dramatic and exciting climax, with clearly defined heroes and villians, an awesomely destructive victory moment, and a satisfying conclusion.
It also has the pitfalls of great monster movies. It's hard for mere mortals to hold up against a 300-foot lizard that can breathe white hot fire. Aaron Taylor-Johnston, as the lead character Ford, doesn't have the presence to come close, but in a brilliant piece of writing he plays a naval lieutenant with a specifically useful skill. This allows for circumstances and events concerning him to unfold within some range of reason, albeit the outer range. It also allows for his bland presence to be hidden within a soldier's framework. Outside the military structure, his character just falls flat. Luckily that doesn't happen often. I have to admit, though, halfway through the movie I found myself subconsciously pretending Channing Tatum was in his role.
Elizabeth Olson, as Ford's wife, spends too much time looking hopeful and naive, rather than being absolutely and appropriately terrified, like almost everyone else around her. She and Taylor-Johnston also can't compete with the likes of the supporting cast of Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, and Sally Hawkins, all of whom bring legitimacy to lunacy simply by looking straight ahead and opening their mouths.
The special effects here are remarkable and brilliantly used with restraint. Point of view shots from the ground, air, sea and carrier deck convey all the wonderment, terror, and sheer awe that should be expected from a direct encounter with a monster capable of breathing fire or delivering a radiation-fueled electromagnetic pulse that can cripple an entire Navy. The film also follows the lead of Jaws, and we don't see too much of the monster until we need to. Even then, we see lots of scales and spines, shadows and silhouettes in smoke and debris. CGI battles are long enough to be impressive and engaging, but not long enough to drag. Many of the battles rage in the background of Ford's exploits, and it's more disconcerting to see an isolated swinging tail, or an explosion just over the hill than it is to see ten different ways to knock down a building. The bellowing roars, the fire-breathing, and the obligatory eye contact scenes are kept to a minimum, which renders them much more effective.
I liked that the devastation in this film is portrayed as true devastation, even if there are fortuitous circumstances that save the lives of little girls and dogs, and reunite lost children with their parents. The aftermath of destruction includes people wandering aimlessly, a displaced population filling a stadium, and FEMA representatives. No one is returning to their still-pristine homes after the city is ravaged and mostly destroyed. There are traffic jams.
The film acknowledges the earlier, original 1954 Gojira and references the story several times. It puts us in the universe of that movie, where the events of 1954 and the US nuclear testing in the Pacific are real, and the events in this story derive organically from the original Godzilla-kaiju genre. This is so much smarter than trying to invent a new reason for the unexplained emergence of a monster from the depths of the sea. The simplest reason why is that there is no reason to have to spend valuable time accounting for Godzilla's existence. He exists simply because he does, and he did before. It also allows for the introduction of Watanabe's and Hawkins' effective characters, and gives justification for a crucial scientific hunch.
I especially liked that there was a lot of attention paid to the order of nature, and the potential effects of radiation and nuclear power, but the film doesn't preach a particular point of view. Ultimately the order of the Natural Kingdom prevails over all, but with an eye towards harmony and balance rather than justice for our human wrongdoings and fallibility. Radiation is acknowledged as a product of our society, but it is also referenced as a natural product of the earth's core. Although trouble comes to find us, we didn't actually create the trouble.
I have heard a few of my friends and family say it was stupid. Well, yeah. It's a 300 foot prehistoric lizard destroying San Francisco. Honestly, I thought this movie delivered on its hype. It's a combination of monster mythology, human frailty, heroism, and family drama. The CGI work enhances the film but doesn't bloat it. The story acknowledges and builds on its well-established and iconic cinematic roots. It raises questions about Nature and Order and Balance, but doesn't browbeat with answers. The young lead actors don't quite have the charisma to carry the human plotlines, but the supporting cast does a good job of picking up the slack, and smart characterizations limit the damage they can cause. Luckily, the filmmakers didn't decide to limit the damage Godzilla can cause. After all, the real reason any of us is sitting in the theater is to be able to see the big lizard. Gojira!