As Dr. Ichiro Serazawa (Ken Watanabe) discusses the plan to get rid of the two MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) that threaten the western United States, he says, “Let them fight.” There’s not much else you can say going in to a film like Godzilla, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Godzilla is one of those film franchises that needs no introduction, enduring various iterations over the years. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters, future director of an unnamed Star Wars project), Godzilla carries on the tradition, never failing to satisfy with eye-popping visuals and intense drama.
Going in, everyone knows that ultimately, this film is about a giant monster fighting other giant monsters. You don’t need much more than that as far as plot synopsis goes, because 90% of moviegoers already know that’s what they’re in for, and the other 10% don’t want to see it anyway. What is warranted to be said about the most recent Godzilla excursion is that it does drama and suspense better than any blockbuster in recent memory, and certainly better than most other kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”) films.
When you think “Godzilla” tons of things come to mind. If the first thing isn’t “giant lizard crushes city” and probably some Asian man yelling “It’s Gojira!,” I’m not sure if you’ve heard of the franchise. Part of what makes this film work so well is that about half the time you see either Godzilla or one of the MUTOs, you see them indirectly–be it through a television broadcast, binoculars, or a reflection off of some glass from a car window. Additionally, about 90% of the time a monster is onscreen, it’s not directly with a human actor. This works for two main reasons; first, it keeps the emphasis on the monsters, and not on the men; and second, it helps to heighten the sense of sheer scale when the monsters ARE compared in-frame with a human. When the monsters are framed with the actors, it’s nearly always in a way that accentuates just how massive the creatures really are. A personal favorite shot of the film (no spoilers, I promise!) was when Godzilla swims underneath an aircraft carrier in a top-down shot. Aircraft carriers are among the largest vehicles built by human hands, and seeing Godzilla underwater, swimming under this steel behemoth is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
Now, when I say Godzilla does suspense better than most recent blockbusters, it might seem odd. How do you add suspense and believable drama to something where everyone pretty much is certain of the outcome? Simple. Remember when I said that the monsters are shot in a way that emphasizes their scale? It’s a combination of that stylistic choice, and usage of perfect audio cues. Where most modern blockbusters would ramp up the music at this point (looking at you, Transformers and Pacific Rim) to make it feel epic, Edwards does just the opposite. He cuts most of the audio, creating a tense atmosphere that inspires awe time and again. There’s an excellent moment where the main human character Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is walking in full combat gear, and virtually makes eye contact with the great beast. Edwards pulls back to a long shot and lets the moment sink in virtually in silence, before Godzilla disappears again into the smoke. Spooky.
Finally, any film review would be remiss in not mentioning the themes of environmentalism and nuclear war that the original 1954 Gojira contained, and Edwards’s modern take is no different. In the recent Godzilla excursion, the MUTOs feed off of excess radiation, in places like underground uranium deposits, and Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository. They literally consume the radioactive mess perpetuated by mankind in order to grow stronger and reproduce. It’s a strong theme throughout the film that nature has a way of balancing itself against the terrible things humans put the earth through, and Dr. Serazawa stresses this to the military trying to control the monsters. His point is eventually proven: man does not control nature–nature controls us.
The Godzilla name brings with it a base level of expectations of awesome fighting monsters and tons of action and this recent excursion into the franchise delivers on all that, and more. With a sequel already announced so soon after the film’s release, I’ve got to agree with Dr. Serazawa: Let them fight, indeed.