Written by Max Borenstein
Directed by Gareth Edwards
It’s been almost 16 years to the day since Roland Emmerich attempted and failed to bring Godzilla to a wider American audience, a mistake almost as gargantuan as the monster itself was an accident of nuclear radiation and mutation. Surprisingly, the concept of making mistakes and attempting to undo the damage ends up being one of the main, consistent themes of the 2014 film Godzilla, which gets almost everything right that Emmerich’s film got wrong. The people in this Godzilla are not as outrageously arrogant in the face of the impossible; they are faced with the errors they’ve made, in the same vein as the errors made by their forebears, and dwarfed by the resulting enormity. At a certain point, the human angle of the film becomes perfunctory, but in its place, director Gareth Edwards instead offers legitimately incredible and spectacular setpieces.
The film opens in 1999, as Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) fears something mysterious and inexplicable may cause the power plant where he works in Japan to have a meltdown, and he’s soon proven right: the plant is destroyed from within by…something. Fifteen years later, Joe’s either become an ignored prophet or just a madman breaking into quarantine zones to give credence to his crackpot theories. After his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), bails him out of jail, they both become entangled in the massive worldwide disaster that is Godzilla, as the monster as well as some new prey wreak havoc on the Pacific side of the world. Ford’s most concerned with returning home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son, to make sure he doesn’t screw up family life as his dad did, but once the monsters stop lurking and rise above water, he becomes as much of a spectator as anyone else in this picture.
Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey make a nearly consistent and frequently fascinating decision in presenting the epic scale of Godzilla and the ways in which he lays waste to the world: with only a couple of exceptions, the camera is never placed at the monster’s level. Aside from a number of bird’s-eye shots, the camera is at the level of the people who are dumbstruck at the impossibly mammoth size of Godzilla , much in the same way that Steven Spielberg set the camera to a child’s point of view in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, at a literally sizable disadvantage compared to the adults. Even as Godzilla battles against otherworldly creatures, there is a sense of awestruck wonder intermingled with actual dread, the closest this film approaches to feeling Spielbergian, as opposed to simply being inspired by Spielberg’s work. (It’s difficult not to see the influences both in Edwards’ direction as well as Max Borenstein’s script, from Jaws to Jurassic Park to even James Cameron’s Aliens. Though the inspirations are obvious, it rarely feels as if Godzilla is firmly tethered to them.)
The spectacle is excellently achieved and presented in Godzilla, in part because Edwards rarely indulges in the most frustrating tropes of modern action filmmaking; intrusive shaky-cam photography and choppy editing are absent here. Instead, even though a number of the action sequences take place at night or in the rain, the action is clearly presented and, thus, is far more thrilling than almost every other big-budget movie of recent years. That alone makes Godzilla feel special, the sense that this movie is a breath of fresh air compared to every other would-be blockbuster. The movie falters, as most of these do, in presenting its human characters. It’s a nice twist, granted, that the gruff military man (David Strathairn) isn’t unwilling to hear the pleas of the knowledgeable scientists portrayed by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins; however, he might as well be called Gruff Military Man, because he has no personality outside of that trope. Similarly, it would be easy to criticize Taylor-Johnson as lacking charisma as Ford, but it appears to be a deliberate decision to make Ford less of a leading man and more just a face in the crowd, a military grunt doing his job as efficiently as possible in the face of an indescribable disaster.
The new Godzilla pays a great deal of lip service to disasters of the last few years, from the Fukushima reactor meltdown to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004; unlike the 9/11 allusions in Man of Steel, these never feel terribly forced or insensitive. Godzilla the creature is a product of manmade disaster, and the terror and confusion he causes in the populace feels like the only appropriate, if horrifying, result. As such, this film is horrifying because it chooses to force its human characters to confront their mistakes in the most direct way possible. “The arrogance of man is that we believe nature is in our control,” intones the Watanabe character at a late moment of the film; one reason why Godzilla works so well is that we meet its characters after they realize the fault of their arrogance. The other chief reason: Gareth Edwards knows how to deliver genuinely exciting spectacle in a movie that desperately needs it to survive.
— Josh Spiegel