Godzilla is a monster near and dear to my heart. He was the first monster I ever saw on television, before King Kong, Dinosaurs and whatever else, there was Godzilla. I remember catching most of his in the afternoon as a kid. Godzilla had it all: the roar, the super breath, the swagger, he was awesome. As time went on, Godzilla became less and less important in the realm of American pop culture, at least it seemed like it. He was pushed aside for Jurassic Park Dinosaurs, giant city destroying space ships, shape shifting terminators and so on and so on. Occasionally he’d show up to little or no fan fare with movies based out of Japan, but it wasn’t until the 1998 Godzilla that he became a household name to a new generation of people. Unfortunately, that movie sullied the great name of the king of monsters. It would be 16 years before an American studio would take the chance with the great beast.
Which brings us to the here and now. Last year American audience were re-introduced to the Kaiju (giant monster) in 2013’s Pacific Rim. While Pacific Rim managed to fill a much needed gap in monster fans like myself, as fun and entertaining as it was, it wasn’t Godzilla. So you can understand my delight at hearing the news that he would be returning in a year’s time after Pacific Rim. My worry was, with the success of Pacific Rim, how would they approach Godzilla’s rebirth? Turns out they’d do it with crafting and caring for a story you usually don’t find in opening summer movies. At the forefront of this movie is director Gareth Edwards, who had only helmed one other film before this one, the indy film Monsters, that he wrote, directed and did the visual effects for. Monsters was made on a shoestring budget, but Edwards showed that if the story, pacing, performances and directing are good, then a movie made for 800,000 (estimated cost of Monsters) can be just as good or better as the millions it costs to make a wide release summer blockbuster.
Those who’ve seen Monsters will notice the style that Edwards employees through Godzilla. A lot of the shots are moody, dark and carefully edited so the viewer can actually see what’s happening. While the name of the movie is called Godzilla, the monster isn’t the focal point of the movie. Much like with his Monsters, the people and the relationships between them are what’s important in Godzilla. He of Kick-Ass fame, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, does a decent job of carrying a good portion of the film while Bryan Cranston, fresh from his days as Heisenberg, shows why he’s become so respected as an actor, being the emotional crutch at the start of the movie. Unlike Pacific Rim, or even older Godzilla films or even the 1998 offering, this film takes itself very seriously. There’s no tongue in cheek lines or winking at the camera moments from the actors letting the audience know they’re in a monster movie. Edward’s approach to the film is that of realism, or at least as real as someone could make a film with 300 foot tall monsters stampeding through cities. Another thing that Edwards manages to do is give Godzilla a purpose. He’s not showing up and knocking down buildings just because that’s what giant monsters do. He’s on a mission and it’s that mission that makes him the ultimate hero while dealing with other monsters who look like they could be distant cousins of the Cloverfield monster.
Godzilla is different from what people would think a summer monster movie would be. It’s pacing is steady, taking its time to get to the giant on giant monster fights. For a good portion of the movie the monsters serve more as a backdrop for the people in this film. Edwards isn’t afraid to let the actors actually act nor is he afraid of teasing and testing the audience’s patience when it comes to the monster and monster violence (there isn’t a true monster fight until more than half the movie has played). But the movie is well done enough that the payoff of the ultimate smack down towards the end of the movie is well worth the teases. There aren’t wall to wall action set pieces with everything going by the viewer at a dizzying pace. Instead when the action does play out, like most of the movie, it takes its time, building up the tension, slowly letting the audience in on what’s about to happen. When does, though, it’s great and far from boring. Edwards infuses Godzilla himself with personality, making him more than some mindless beast. This Godzilla is smart, calculating (as monsters go) and above all ruthless in battle.
This was #1 on my must list of films for the summer, and while it turned out to be far different from what I thought it would be, sometimes different is better. Edwards has shown you don’t need non-stop action scenes with stuff blowing up every in other frame to make a summer movie, and his courage of actually placing the heart of a monster film in the hands of the people trying not to get stomped on by them shows that this guy’s approach to the Hollywood blockbuster is quite different. Hopefully, maybe other directors will take note of that approach. If Godzilla does great this weekend (as well as overall) then perhaps they will.