Many of my friends eagerly thronged to theatres to see the latest incarnation of Godzilla and I heard two common responses: love and hate. Interestingly the love and hate didn't necessarily come from who I might have expected, but opinions were certainly polarised. I found myself far more in the middle, like many of the critics who sat back and analysed how British director Gareth Edwards and American scriptwriter Max Borenstein fared in adapting something quintessentially Japanese.
I liked a lot of what I saw but what I found I liked most was what I didn't see.
For a start, there are the monsters. We get three of them, one we know well and two we haven't seen before, and they choose sides to set up a gargantuan battle. The digital effects work is superbly constructed, as we might expect, but we get a lot less of the monsters and a lot more of the devastation they wreak, which is as outstanding as it is vast. Edwards follows the standard monster movie rule that the monster should be seen as little as possible, but he knows precisely how to generate the most impact with his entrances. We don't need to see it stomp on buildings, we just need to see what it leaves behind in its wake.
While many did, I certainly didn't have a problem with so little screen time being devoted to the monsters, who arrive late and fight in dark scenes that often obscure what we see to let the sweep of it wash over us rather than allow us to nerd out and concentrate on details. I appreciated the restraint. I also appreciated how, when they do show up, they're too big for the film, literally. The best scenes have the camera pan and scroll in a failed attempt to show all of them because a long shot wouldn't have done them justice.
I especially appreciated how the monsters operate entirely on their own level. They either ignore the human race utterly or shrug off our pathetic attempts to join the fray with our most advanced technological marvels. There's a wonderfully set up partial reveal of Godzilla early on where he floats under a battleship. To him, this high tech killing machine is no different than a random iceberg.
I'm surprised that more people haven't commented about how worthless we are in this picture. Surely the goal is to elicit sympathy, but really mankind is nothing but a redshirt in a wildly pessimistic script which highlights how our place in the food chain is far from the top. Borenstein creates a whole slew of capable characters, all professionals who are very talented at what they do. Yet nothing they do has the slightest impact on this story, except perhaps digging deep enough in a quarry in the Philippines to cause its collapse and the return to the world of a couple of these giant monsters. Other than that, the human race could be edited out of the picture without affecting the monsters' actions in the slightest.
It's telling that the film's score makes use of György Ligeti's 'Requiem', most famously used as the soundtrack to our discovery of the monolith on the moon in '2001: A Space Odyssey', the moment in that film in which mankind learns it isn't in charge after all. The arrival of Godzilla in this film is very worthy of comparison.
Ostensibly we're tasked with following Bryan Cranston as an American engineer called Joe Brody who's responsible for a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his son Ford, who grows up to become an explosive ordnance disposal tech for the US Navy; and Ken Watanabe as Dr Ishiro Serizawa, the lead scientist for Project Monarch, a secret international coalition that has been studying monsters since the fifties. Those A-bomb tests weren't tests, they were attempted solutions.
But, really, we don't care about any of them. They flit around trying to make a difference but never do. They learn things and make successful leaps of intuition but none actually help. The only impact any of them had on me was through Watanabe's ability to pronounce the title of the film correctly and that Lt Brody's name suggested a famous line of dialogue from another monster movie. 'You're going to need a bigger boat,' would have been very appropriate here. One of the MUTOs chews on a Russian sub and swallows a train whole; the USS Saratoga only fares better because it's ignored.
But it's not a human story, however much it dons that disguise, it's a monster movie. Edwards does his job on that front well, directing a picture that successfully translates a Japanese icon into an American one while paying a great deal of respect to the original 1954 film, if not its many sequels. Beyond homages in details like Serizawa's name, it reminds us how Nature is far more powerful than we are, whether it's in the form of giant monsters, the radiation they eat or the natural disasters they generate.
In fact, with the monsters almost oblivious to the presence of anyone else worth attention in their picture, the human race finds a way to create a new problem of its own, one that would create more human death than Godzilla and the MUTOs combined and this focus our minds back to man-made disasters. The 1954 'Godzilla' was a meditation on mankind's entry into the atomic age; this one follows its lead but also references more recent incidents, not only the Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami, but also the Fukushima failure and even the 9/11 attacks.
It's his respect to that film that allows Edwards to succeed at making a Godzilla movie, certainly enough for him to be asked back to make a couple more. By comparison, its much-maligned American predecessor, the 1998 'Godzilla', is really looked down upon less for being a bad movie and more for being a terrible Godzilla movie. It had no respect and so became little more than a 60s sci-fi B movie with a vastly inflated budget. This film highlights admirably how much that one did wrong.
In the end, Dr Serizawa gets the last word, as is appropriate for a Godzilla film respectful of its roots. While he's little use as a scientist, he's spot on when he suggests that 'Godzilla will restore balance.' That turns out to be true, whether we're talking about the character in the film or the film itself.