Monday 19 May 2014

Godzilla (2014), reviewed by Stephen Theaker

By my count the new Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is the twenty-third I’ve seen, the first being King Kong vs Godzilla on Saturday morning television as a child, the most recent Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, a week before this new American production came out. This is the first appearance of the monster since Godzilla: Final Wars, which underperformed at the Japanese box office but did give us the pleasure of seeing baby Godzilla ride in a truck and Roland Emmerich’s female Godzilla fighting her Japanese inspiration. (It wasn’t a long fight.) For the uninitiated: there are three runs of Japanese Godzilla films: the original Shōwa series, from Godzilla in 1954 to Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975, the rebooted Heisei series, from Godzilla 1984 through to Godzilla vs Destroyah in 1995, and lastly, after the America Godzilla of 1998 failed to produce any sequels, the Millennium series of standalone films, from Godzilla 2000 in 1999 through to Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. Most Godzilla films are entertaining (even the really bad ones, like Godzilla vs Hedorah), though the lack of variety does make you wonder why quite so many of them were made.

Happily, this is not another remake of the original film, nor is it yet another direct sequel. Here, the world at large is not yet aware of Godzilla’s existence. Although he was sighted at sea in 1954, and attempts were made to destroy him, he hasn’t previously come ashore. Rather like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and its explanation of the moon landings, Godzilla winds into itself real world events like the nuclear testing in the South Pacific, and disasters like the 2004 tsunami, the Fukushima meltdown, September 11 and the New Orleans floods are echoed throughout. Godzilla is once again a force of nature, though that hasn’t always been the case in the past. In All-Out Attack he was supernatural, resurrected to attack Japan by the ghosts of those killed in World War II, while in other films he is a reluctant defender of the Earth against alien aggressors, or himself the servant of such aliens – he can be anything a film requires. Here he represents the power of natural forces, capable of utter destruction, yet also grace and beauty. This is his planet, really; we’re the ants scurrying on its surface.

Godzilla is as powerful in this film as I’ve ever seen him. He has mass and strength and for once you don’t have to imagine what he is like, you can see it on the screen. To take a monster represented by a man in a suit and turn that into a believable living creature, with it still being recognisably the same creature, is quite an achievement. The colossal creatures he fights are terrifyingly alien (think of that huge strange beast from the end of The Mist). The size and strangeness of them all is reinforced by our point of view being restricted, for most of the film, to that of the humans experiencing these events, some battles seen only through snatches of handheld camera footage on television, This is a world where humans are no longer the protagonists. We’re part of the scenery, desperately trying to avoid being chewed.

Godzilla is the star, and that’s reflected in the cast, made up of respected actors – Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins – rather than the kind of movie stars who automatically make for big opening weekends. It’s a risk that pays off. They aren’t superheroes, they’re regular people doing their best to help others and protect their families and survive in appallingly dangerous circumstances. We spend most of the film with the military, watching their almost futile attempts to guide the creatures away from population centres, but the action begins cleverly with the workers at a nuclear plant. We’ve frequently seen these places destroyed by Godzilla and his fellow monsters, but to be inside the plant while such an attack is happening brings home the effect that these events have on ordinary people. It’s not as if that human perspective was never represented in other Godzilla films, but it’s the primary focus here.

The music reminded me in places of the Japanese scores, and that much of the story took place in Japan felt respectful to the character’s origins. We often see Godzilla serenely swimming in the ocean, which seemed to reference scenes in Godzilla vs Mothra (1992), one of my favourite films in the series (and of all the Godzilla films I’ve seen, that’s the one this most resembles). It’s rather a dark film for much of the time, so I wish I’d watched it in 2D without the darkening effect of 3D glasses – and I would have preferred to have seen the final monster battle in daylight. But that’s the worst I can find to say about it: for me this is the best Godzilla film since the Heisei era, and it’s much better than the inferior films in the Shōwa series that followed 1968's excellent Destroy All Monsters. After some of the daft stuff past films have shown him doing, it’s surprising and rather thrilling to once again be afraid of Godzilla.

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