It is easy for a Hollywood blockbuster to come out roaring and fighting, bumping its chest like an ape and declaring its right to be there but it so much more satisfying when the blockbuster decides to be more subtle, more keen and build towards the action reveal rather than just jettisoning it into our faces. Director Gareth Edwards understands this about the reveal, and in a very Spielbergian way, he builds up to it through subtlety and incredible atmospheric world-building.
Starting by giving us a simple history lesson through the main titles of the growth of the monster and how we got to where we are today, Godzilla never attempts to give away too much too early. Instead, we meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a scientist who is working in Japan on radiation and seismic activity. Joe and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) both work at the plant and encounter a weird reading of activity that leads to a radiation leak and a catastrophic meltdown of the entire plant and close-by city.
Fast-forward to present day when Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is coming home after a tour of duty and is greeted by wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde). But Ford is then soon taken away after his father is arrested for trespassing and requires Ford to come to Japan to retrieve him starting a chain of events and different locations (all including Ford in them) that are hit with attacks by monsters being hunted down by Godzilla.
In what was an inspired move casting up and coming Olsen in a “lead” role, she was brutally underutilized and relegated to being a poorly written damsel in distress rather than a character with any true substance. This leaves us without a good or likable lead character since Cranston (the only one in this movie giving a damn when it comes to acting) only appears for a good 15 minutes and Taylor-Johnson is able as dry as a piece of plywood. Ken Watanabe shows up to interject a little science with assistant Sally Hawkins in tow (and with about three lines) but outside of that, nothing memorable when it comes to human acting or fighting.
Which is okay because this movie is about the humans. The action star is the monster.
In a bold move by Edwards, he puts the monster front and center in the action and creates human counterparts that are helpless to do anything against any of the things terrorizing the cities. But Edwards also doesn’t ever just hand us Godzilla and allow us to sit back and watch him, oh no, he teases us. Much like watching the first hour of Jaws, Edwards never fully reveals the monster, only giving us hints and short glimpses of our hero.
I think what worked best about this movie was not the action or the story but the directing of Edwards and the fact that he was allowed to show restraint in a genre (blockbusters) that never seem to do that. This build up and eventual full reveal in the third act made for an awesome display of visuals and set pieces as Godzilla ravages the monsters and saves San Francisco (if not totally obliterating it at the same time). Following again like Jaws, Edwards uses Ford as a vessel for the audience to be on the ground with the monsters instead of making us like a floating camera in the middle of the sky. The action is always set at eye level and following what is happening on the ground rather than chasing after the massive monster battles happening around it.
This restraint, coupled with Alexandre Desplat’s hypnotic score, creates an atmosphere unlike most recent blockbusters and one that shows that creativity can still find its way into mainstream work. Godzilla is not only a display of what blockbusters can do when a little restraint is involved but also is a display of what someone with a creative mind and solid film skills can do with a topic thought to be warn out.