Shouting nerds! Fleeing civilians! Military impotence! Collapsing buildings! A solitary man with a plan! This is the template for the modern disaster movie, set down in stone by Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954), leaving later exponents of the form with only a single question to answer: ‘What’s causing this disaster?’ A monster? Nature? Mankind’s collective hubris? Even here, Honda’s Godzilla is a step ahead, because it’s all three. The scaly city-destroying behemoth is nature’s revenge for manmade nuclear destruction.
This is enough to have made the original Godzilla influential, but what makes it a classic is how it ties its apocalyptic fatalism to a surprisingly rich overview of Japanese life in the 1950s. Every stratum of society is implicated in the appearance of the monster – from superstitious fishermen to bohemian youth, from smug scientists to the deaf-eared military. It’s a vision of universal destruction, and we all deserve it. Despite its paltry special effects (crude next to those of King Kong, made some twenty years before), Honda’s Godzilla still has the power to provoke.
Monster movies often end with the monster effectively destroying itself. Its weakness uncovered, the monster suffers a moment of heartbreaking cognitive dissonance before being offed by a violent boffin. Something of the sort happened to Godzilla himself when he went from cautionary nuclear fable to franchise. For forty-odd years, Toho Productions sent the tragic lizard into battle against a series of genetically modified foes: a three-headed dragon, an octopoidal smog monster, some unusually single-minded moths, and the unfortunate genetic offspring of Godzilla and a rosebush. These other monsters, while often vivid, tended to behave rather worse than Godzilla, which rather served to undermine his status as nature’s singular revenge on humanity. The sense of a series running on fumes was not helped by Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American reboot, a movie so toxic that franchise owners Toho have been moved to state that the creature in the film is notGodzilla; rather a fraternal relative known as, er, Zilla.
But what’s that coming over the hill? It’s English director Gareth Edwards; he of cultishly admired Ballardian fable Monsters (2010). That film was a microbudget love story, largely improvised, where the developing affection between the two leads runs parallel to a story of an alien invasion of Mexico. The harder the heroes try to get back to America, the more sympathetic the film becomes to the violent extra-terrestrial forces that stalk the border. Monsters is hardly a grown-up film, but it’s visually very delicate – even painterly – and its sympathy for illegal aliens of all species is nicely underplayed. Its air of open-ended melancholy and its allegorical surefootedness clearly impressed someone important, because out of nowhere Gareth Edwards was given $160m and told to make sadsack Godzilla live again.
The results are uneven; the reasons too many to count. On the plus side, it’s pretty clear that you could have given Edwards twice the budget, or half, and he would have made something that looked and sounded more or less exactly like this. His style is already so distinctive that nothing can turn his head. On the minus side, his style is already so distinctive that nothing can turn his head. There are many individually beautiful shots in Godzilla, but they have a kind of static perfection. Edwards is very good at staging the moments just before all hell breaks loose, and very good at framing the carnage that follows, but he somehow can’t get his action scenes to escalate.
Part of the problem is surely that his protagonists are 500ft tall and committed to brute force. When the first building gets destroyed through reptile overenthusiasm, it’s exciting enough; by the time you reach the hundredth, even 3D isn’t going to stir you too much. Unless, of course, you care about the human characters scuttling about amid the rubble.
Which, I guarantee, you won’t. Godzilla is pretty starry, and a pretty cool sort of starry at that (Bryan Cranston! Juliette Binoche! Sally Hawkins!). But it’s also a project that’s been in development for years, with the kind of hacked-up multiauthor script you’d expect. Various drafts have been stitched together based on their most exciting bits, which means that any emotional through-line gets lost long before the end. It also means that the connective tissue between scenes is thin to the point of transparency.
Let me give one extended example, which will serve to sum up the whole plot. Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Cranston) is an amateur seismologist. He notices weird readings around the Japanese nuclear plant he’s working in. He wants to shut the plant down, based on his layman’s understanding of seismology. Furthermore, he orders his wife (Binoche) down to the plant’s core before his bosses find out what he wants to do. What is Binoche’s actual job? What is she supposed to do when she gets to the core, given that it can be shut off from a central office? The movie is silent on this point.
Anyway, there’s some huge catastrophe. Fifteen years later, Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) comes off shore-leave from the Navy to discover that his old man has been arrested for poking around in the exclusion zone left by this apparently huge catastrophe. Ford catches a flight from San Francisco to Tokyo straightaway. I mean, dude, you could have slept first. You could call your dad and see what’s actually going on. Maybe he only needs bail money. But no, straight on that flight, no questions asked.
Dad tells son that there’s something fishy going on around the old plant. Son tells dad he’s full of shit, but still accompanies him on an illegal raid into the exclusion zone. Dad and son go back to their old family home, where Dad discovers a bunch of zip discs full of apparently relevant seismological information. Dad and son are captured by the police and taken to the old nuclear plant, which is apparently still operational (nobody has noticed), and which now houses the 300ft larva of a prehistoric insect that was there during Dad’s original tenure (again, nobody noticed.)
Various wonks analyse the data on Dad’s zip discs. They discover that the larva is sending out signals to … something else. But hang on: Dad took these readings in 1999. It’s now 2014. How are the readings still relevant? Doesn’t matter, because the Bugpocalypse is upon us.
And here’s where Godzilla comes in. In the original movie, Godzilla is an ancient creature summoned inadvertently from the deep by nuclear testing. Here, he’s an eco-warrior; the victim of nuclear attacks by a frightened military, but basically dedicated to an overall balance of power in nature. We know this because Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has some sort of native connection to the balance of nature, in the way that white Americans just don’t. So he can ventriloquize for a lizard that’s several million years old. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I want summer blockbusters to ask me to check my privilege. Particularly when they’re flat-out racist themselves.
Very little of this would matter were Godzilla either a little lighter on its feet or completely committed to its pessimism. There are jokes here, but they’re not given enough time to breathe. Conversely, there are half a dozen explicit references to recent man-made tragedies (including 9/11), but they’re subsumed by a general tone of Love Conquers All. The problem is that there’s nothing here on a small scale – nothing humdrum or random or friendly. And in a film about mile-high monsters beating the shit out of each other, you really need that human scale. That’s why Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla has lasted 60 years. It might be a case for the prosecution against all of humanity, but at least it sees us whole.
Godzilla is out tomorrow.