Kaiju-Sized Review of Godzilla

I was very excited for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. This had less to do with the fact that it was a Godzilla film (though I won’t lie and tell you that wasn’t a factor) and more to do with the fact that it was a Gareth Edwards film. Edwards’ first film, Monsters, was excellent and I would’ve been excited for just about any project he was attached to.

Monsters was essentially an indie relationship film with a political backdrop. The political background, however, was largely communicated through metaphors. Metaphors made with giant alien monsters. What’s not to love about that? The entire film’s production was an impressive feat. The film’s budget was under $500,000 and it was all shot on location in Belize, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Texas. Edwards had two actors, and past that drew on locals as extras and secondary characters. He shot over 100 hours of unique, improvised, footage and edited it down into a four hour movie. Which he then edited further, until the final film was just ninety four minutes. He did all the effects himself, in his bedroom. The resulting film was not only visually stunning and emotionally gripping, it was one of the more interesting giant monsters films in a long time.

Fast forward to the Godzilla announcements. It was pretty thrilling that a studio would look at the critical success of Monsters and think, “That guy, let’s give him all the money to make a blockbuster.” But they did, and it immediately had my attention. My excitement was on hold for a while, until Pacific Rim started marketing. I was reminded that Godzilla was coming out, and the idea that we might have two good kaiju inspired films in theatres in as many years was pretty fantastic. When the marketing started it seemed incredible. Right from the leaked Comiccon trailer I was sold – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” recited over a slowly revealed shot of Godzilla while music previously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey played? This looked like a movie specifically made with me in mind. When the proper trailers came out they just proved my initial excitement right. It was genius marketing, widely resisting showing us more than hints of the monsters, instead focusing on the destruction, people, and tone. Plus more György Ligeti!

So yeah, I went into Godzilla with high hopes.

First off, let’s address the number one complaint people have about Godzilla. Many a critic has remarked that the human element of the film was “boring.” No one has any love for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character, or any of the human characters. I can’t really dispute this claim; it’s pretty clear that the kaiju action is the best part of the movie, but I’m not sure the human elements are actually bad. I think they’re a little naturalistic in contrast to the rest of the film. Monsters proves the director is more interesting in grappling with the subtleties of human behaviour than anything grand and cinematic, and that’s a bit funny in a movie that goes full-blown Spielberg the rest of the time. I definitely think there could’ve been a better way to handle the human elements, but I think the end result is compelling and fairly effective. But the kaiju are definitely the stars.

The first few scenes, the ones with Bryan Cranston in the power plant, definitely mark the emotional height of the film. It’s totally owed to the strength of the cast. They just manage to sell you on these characters that could’ve felt infinitely more clichéd and frustratingly bland in the wrong hands. Instead the scenes with the malfunctioning power plant are actually stressful. The cast for the rest of the film is good (although across the board the child actors are wooden) but they’re given even less to do. Again I think the problem is the contrast between the characters and the heightened drama in the rest of the film. Shaded, understated characters don’t really fit into a movie where Godzilla’s first roar has been so manipulated and set up that it made me want to clap when it finally happened. Again it’s not bad, it’s just not great. It definitely needs some clearer arcs. Even if the human characters are mainly there to serve as the lens through which we see the monsters, they’re still onscreen long enough that we deserve a little more.

Now let’s really dive into the rest of this film.

Some people are claiming that Gareth Edwards waits too long to show you Godzilla. They tend to throw around terms like “manipulative” and “cheap.” These are probably the kind of people who find Jaws boring. They are not to be trusted. We exist right now in a cinematic landscape that thrives on spectacle, so much so that it’s killing spectacle. Spectacular visual effects are a dime a dozen. Audiences are becoming increasingly jaded and unaffected by massive, spectacular destruction and giant creatures and space battles and explosions. By reserving his dramatic images for later in the film, Edwards magnifies their effect exponentially. Sure he teases you ruthlessly, even the first clear shot of Godzilla (and that dramatic first roar) is immediately followed by a kaiju battle that happens on a TV screen…in the background…in grainy news footage. But because he teases you, the final fights are unbelievably climatic. They’re seriously “leap to your feet in excitement type stuff.” If there had been a plethora of kaiju on kaiju action before these fights, they just simply wouldn’t have the same effect.

The effects are excellent, by the way. Most big budget blockbusters have excellent effects, but they get let down consistently by two things – design and cinematography. Godzilla does a great job with both.

First-off there’s the design of Godzilla’s foes, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). As much as I love attempts to create truly alien monsters, I’m definitely of the opinion that the post-Cloverfield world of monster design is a sad one. Every monster in every movie now is an uncomfortable cluster of limbs and teeth and talons and pincers and eyes and they’re all completely forgettable and un-iconic and confusing to look at. The creators of the MUTOs take the trend, give it a gentle twist, and make a cool monster. The MUTOs may have weird limbs and eyes and seem ungainly and inhuman, but they’re saved by their weirdly angular quality. There’s an iconic, classic kaiju, weirdness to the plastic pointiness of the MUTOs, which, coupled with the fact that they still move kind of like a man in a suit (at times) makes for a pretty unique creature. I could sit right here and sketch one right now, something I sure as hell couldn’t do with Cloverfield or Aqua. Apparently the MUTOs took almost a year of design work to get right, and the team really tried to draw on what made past iconic monsters work so well.

Godzilla himself is perfect. He is a fabulous redesign of one of the most iconic monsters of all time. He’s stockier than ever before, but it works really well. It gives him some heft and physicality that feels appropriate for something of his size. Gareth Edwards’ whole take on the design is pretty cool:

The way I tried to view it was to imagine Godzilla was a real creature and someone from Toho saw him in the 1950s and ran back to the studio to make a movie about the creature and was trying their best to remember it and draw it. And in our film you get to see him for real.

Gareth Edwards seems like such a nerd – I love it. Godzilla’s face is occasionally surprisingly emotive, reminiscent of a dog without ever being too corny. (Apparently they specifically looked at dogs, bears, and eagles.) Though maybe I’m just partial to seeing Godzilla so clearly seem tired and annoyed at different points in the movie. It’s like he’s an actual character and I for sure want to be his friend and go on crazy Godzilla adventures. He’s textured, but definitely not too textured (another very popular, surprisingly ineffective choice made when creating CGI creatures). He does push right up against being too textured, but he’s a giant lizard, so I’ll forgive them. Plus the MUTOs are sleek and fleshy so it’s all good. The way Godzilla moves is so unbelievably awesome too, but we’ll get there later.

The film’s plot is clever. It does what it needs to do fairly well. Ken Watanabe finds the corpse of a creature with two MUTO eggs in it. One is empty and the creature has swum across the sea. The other, they take away to study. The hatched MUTO crawls under a nuclear power plant to feed off the radiation, eventually destroying the plant. Bryan Cranston works at the plant and becomes obsessed with discovering what happened to it. This eventually gets him arrested (some fifteen years after the meltdown) and his son (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now an explosives expert with the Navy, comes to pick him up. The MUTO under the plant wakes up and the film essentially follows Aaron Taylor-Johnson as he tries to get back to his family by hitching rides with people who are following the MUTOs. It’s not a great plan on his part, but I guess he didn’t want to pay for plane tickets. Turns out the unhatched MUTO did hatch, and the two are looking for each other to mate. This makes them surprisingly sympathetic, and the scene where they court via atomic bomb gift giving is utterly wonderful. The MUTOs don’t hate people; people are just in the way. Godzilla also doesn’t hate people, but he does hate the MUTOs. He needs to maintain his standing as King of Monsters and deal with these upstarts. Not that he’s protecting people, he’s just got an enemy in common with them.

The movie is all about withholding Godzilla visuals, so a lot of it comes firmly from the human point-of-view. With the exception of the climactic final fight, of course. That’s not to say there aren’t dramatic kaiju moments until the end, there are quite a few. They’re just more MUTO heavy. They’re also all uniformly wonderful. Each one brilliantly ratchets up the tension, slowly expanding on the danger, slowly revealing the monster, suddenly exploding into terror and chaos. There’s a sense of scale that feels like it shouldn’t be impressive. Giant sized things crashing through buildings shouldn’t be unexpected in a world with the fifty-eighth Transformers movie on its way (yes, Transformers the Second wasted so much of my life I’m counting it fifty four extra times). And yet the casual destruction presented by Godzilla, coupled with the actual concern he makes us feel for people on the ground, feels like a breath of fresh air. A few of the set pieces are just unbelievably cool too. Even ignoring the final fight, the scene with the MUTO and the bridge was insanely amazing, just a perfectly made scene. Ditto the scene with Godzilla and the Golden Gate Bridge. These are expertly crafted moments.

The movie actually has stuff on its mind too. I hoped it might, given the heavy political themes of Monsters, as well as the history associated with Godzilla, but it still felt surprising in a summer blockbuster. The movie feels very anti-nuclear, which, granted, is a fairly obvious choice when faced with the job of making a Godzilla movie. That being said Gareth Edwards doesn’t so much focus on the dangers of the atomic bomb as he does the idea of nuclear waste and meltdowns, something with actual relevance right now. Interesting too that these themes seem like they’d land far more effectively in Japan then they would here, given the fairly recent meltdowns they’ve suffered. I sort of wished he’d leaned into these themes more heavily, especially at the end. It’s similar too how Monsters backgrounded the politics in favour of the characters’ relationships. Godzilla focuses first and foremost on being Godzilla movie. I like that enough that it didn’t bother me, but I thought he had all the pieces in place for a stronger final message. Ah well, the last shot was still damn cool.

Let’s talk sound design. This film’s soundtrack was great, and not just because of the occasional use of Ligeti. The brunt of it is composed by Alexandre Desplat, also responsible for Moonrise Kingdom, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The soundtrack was just plain good, which was nice to hear after the frustratingly generic soundtrack of Winter Soldier. Godzilla’s sound effects were excellent too. The titular beastie’s roar was perfect, and the MUTOs insectoid chirping was pretty cool too. The sounds of destruction were complex and ornate. From the roar of oncoming radioactive steam to the delicate tinkling of Godzilla’s tail brushing up against a glass heavy building, the film’s sound effects are powerfully felt and emotionally stirring.

Remember when I said most CGI heavy creations are let down by the design and cinematography of a film? Well Godzilla’s cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, hasn’t been responsible for many visually rich projects, so I’m inclined to suspect a lot of the praise deserves to be set at Gareth Edwards’ feet. (Monsters was also very well shot.) The movie has a haunting quality in common with Monsters, as well as a whole bunch of Spielbergian influence. Spielberg doesn’t really seem to be in the vogue right now, which is a shame because Edwards proves how stunning that aesthetic can still be. Without the lessons Edwards copped from Jurassic Park and Jaws, this movie wouldn’t be half as effective as it is. But don’t mistake what he does for hollow nostalgia or derivativeness (coughAbramscough), he’s just smart enough to learn lessons from one of film’s master manipulators. Most of the film’s best images are pretty original too, like the unbelievable HALO jump.

All of the film’s attempts at crafting, for lack of a better word, cool moments completely land. Whether it’s the great Ken Watanabe staring into the distance saying, “The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in our control, and not the other way around: let them fight” or Godzilla first roaring or using his atomic breath, when the movie wants to be awesome, it fucking works. I’d like to take a moment to point out that we’ve had two incredibly cool kaiju movies in two years, both with some of the more badass movie scenes I can think of, both ultimately optimistic, both mindful of still generating drama and tension despite all this. Somewhere along the line Legendary started specifically making movies for me didn’t they? Oh look they’re also releasing Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro’s horror film starring Tom Hiddleston), Warcraft (a fantasy epic directed by David Bowie’s son), and Interstellar (a hard SF film directed by Christopher Nolan). You guys don’t even understand how perfectly tailored to my tastes those films are.

But nothing in the film is cooler than that final fight. The scene is so wonderfully built up that the simple shot of the two monsters facing off across the city is fist-pumpingly exciting. The mere fact that we can suddenly see the entirety of these creatures sells the coming fight better than you could possibly believe. And then they start fighting. They fly and bite and grab each other, but that’s not what’s unexpected about it. What’s unexpected is that they move like men in suits. Godzilla clumsily grapples with the monsters like a wrestler. He kicks one in the head. And it looks like men in suits! I have absolutely no idea how this fight scene looked to people unfamiliar with kaiju films, and I can’t hear them over the sound of Godzilla throwing a MUTO through a building like he’s in a fucking wrestling ring. I guess the filmmakers looked at komodo dragons and bears for inspiration. They didn’t make Godzilla fight like an animal or monster though, they even did motion capture work to ensure the creatures looked right (Andy Serkis consulted, because of course he did). Guys, a massive summer blockbuster spent many many thousands of dollars making two clusters of pixels look like clumsy guys in suits. This is a good world we live in. Even Pacific Rim, a love letter to Godzilla films, didn’t want the kaiju to fight like that. MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN And the ending of the fight? When Godzilla King Kongs the MUTO’s jaws open and blasts atomic breath until his head pops off? Fuck. Yes. SPOILERS OVER

There’s going to be a sequel too. We’re going to get sequels to Pacific Rim and Godzilla (Del Toro jokingly said he’d be willing to do a cross-over). I understand I’m fan-boying out a bit right now but I promise it won’t last much longer. The movie made enough money to get a sequel though. Edwards said he didn’t think much about sequels when he was making it, but was interested in the potential of doing something with the monster’s island concept from Destroy All Monsters (which I haven’t seen, but do have a poster of).

This poster!

Now objectively this movie is not perfect. The human element is problematic, the thematic potential falls a little short, and Godzilla slaps a flying kaiju out of the air with his tail. Oh wait, that last one wasn’t a problem, it was another example of how Godzilla absolutely hits me dead in my movie-going sweet spot and blinds me to most of its flaws. It’s not a perfect movie, but dear god do I love it. I can’t wait to watch it a million times.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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  1. ...David Whittaker says:

    So excited for this film. Not even bothered that I pretty much know what will happen. I want to see how it happens.

    Two more days of the dayjob and then I’m free.

    The Monster Island concept from Destroy All Monsters does involve Kaiju controlled by malevolent extraterrestrials in s futuristic setting. So maybe a Pacific Rim crossover isn’t so implausible?

    • I don’t foresee them actually doing that…

      That being said they would have ALL my money if they did.

      It’s not really a film that relies on surprise, it shouldn’t affect it much. And if it’s the kind of film that excites you in theory you’ll probably like it!

      • ...David Whittaker says:

        Finally saw it Harry and you’re pretty spot on. Sure it has flaws but then there are those singular moments that are what essentially Godzilla is all about.

        I didn’t mind the human element at all. That’s generally one of the original conventions of the genre. It reminds us of our diminished scale and the very real effects such entities would have.

        My only quibble that won’t go away was the whole Godzilla as hero ending. Sure they set it up that he was the Muto’s natural predator, bit why didn’t he eat them? Also didn’t he inadvertently drown a lot of people in Hawaii and kill a few more as he walked through the bridge and rambled around San Francisco? Unless that’s a comment on how self centered and fickle we are, forgetting the catastrophic loss because hey we’re alive still?

    • You know, I’d noticed the lack-of-MUTO consumption myself. I suppose “balancing the scales” or what have you doesn’t necessarily require eating? Maybe it’s a dominance thing…

      I think Godzilla’s ending is heroic, but the movie shows him causing a lot of harm too. That reunited family in Hawaii for sure dies off screen – that glass is cracking. I think that’s pretty classic though: his distaste for other Kaiju doesn’t necessarily mean he likes people. They’re just sort of incidental.

  2. ...David Whittaker says:

    To be fair, humanity interpreting Godzilla’s instinct and indifference as somehow benevolent and heroic is an oft used convention. So, it was so much the idea itself more the way it just came out of nowhere.

    Have you had a chance to read Godzilla Awakening? That helped me deal with my quibbles or realise how minor they are.

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