It was sixty years ago that a gigantic and terrifying lizard first lumbered out of the Pacific Ocean and proceeded to leave its indelible footprint on cinematic history. Since Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954), the scaly titan has been repurposed on the silver screen dozens of times – often having to battle critics as ferociously as its need to contend with gargantuan insects, oversized primates or humanity’s military prowess. Now it’s the turn of British director Gareth Edwards to breathe new life into a decades old conceit with Godzilla (2014). Fortunately, he nails it, crafting a fresh motion picture whilst still managing to embrace the genre’s rich heritage.
In retrospect, Edwards’ Monsters (2010) now looks like something of an audition tape. An imagined world in which giant beasts roamed restricted zones, Edwards combined impressive special effects (produced on a shoe-string budget) with meaningful character-based storytelling. Some detractors bemoaned the lack of Monster’s titular behemoths, a complaint that has also been levelled at Godzilla. However, Edwards rations the screen time of his reptilian star perfectly. Back in 1954, Godzilla was a hulking embodiment of national anxiety – havoc wrought through scientific hubris in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 2011 earthquake and subsequent Fukushima meltdown are front and centre of this interpretation, which opens with an accident at a Japanese nuclear power plant.
Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is the overseer at the aforementioned facility when unexplained tremors cause a major disaster, resulting in the death of his wife amongst many others. Fifteen years later, he is now a crack-pot conspiracy theorist who drags his grown soldier son, Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson) back to their abandoned home in a quarantined zone. Joe is convinced that the cause of their tragedy was not erratic seismic activity, but something far more mysterious. Naturally, he’s proved correct. A cocoon has been leeching the area’s radiation for over a decade and has now hatched into a massive unknown terrestrial organism (M.U.T.O.s). Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (fulfilling the need originally met by Takashi Shimura) speculates that there’s another, more ancient force that may provide the key to restoring balance.
Edwards’ Gojira is an awesome force of nature embracing the role of destructive anti-hero, textured by defence for his origins and the noble samurai traditions of his native soil. Where he has previously been introduced as a terror and nuclear metaphor, Edwards’ incarnation is an ecological allegory – representing a world capable of restoring itself were it not for human interference continually impeding the process. Such nuisances do distract during the film – the human characters never quite compelling or emotive enough to warrant so much screen time – but they ultimately provide perspective and keep the real protagonist from overexposure. Both in terms of narrative and spectacle, the big man just does his thing; when you hear him roar, there’s no doubt whose movie Godzilla truly is.
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Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson