Director: Gareth Evans
Writer: Max Borenstein
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Did you know that since the King of Monsters made his film debut in 1954, there have been 28 Godzilla films made in total? That’s six decades of romping and stomping over Tokyo and battling skyscraper-sized moths, dragons, bugs and aliens. He’s sometimes a friend to man, sometimes a foe.
You may well wonder what it is then that newcomer Gareth Evans, in only his second feature film as director, can bring to the franchise. I can tell you that Evans’ adaptation sticks to the script and delivers a monster movie that is very respectful of its heritage but if there’s a point of difference it is this. In all the preceding Godzilla films, with their origins in men rolling around hitting each other in rubber suits, surely none have ever looked more beautiful or elegant as this.
This is a film in which destruction often occurs in slow motion, where combat is lit and framed to look visually striking, almost balletic. There are shots in the film that are down right beautiful. The scene with the red flares being set off in the dead of night in Hawaii that slowly illuminate Godzilla. That moment when the paratroopers fall from the heavens, lighting up the night sky. For a film that’s ostensibly about a giant lizard hitting things, it sure is gorgeous to look at.
Evans has assembled what has to be one of the most talented cast of actors put together for a creature feature. You’ve got Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen in supporting roles. Cranston in particular absolutely nails his performance and when people finish talking about the big guy, they’ll talk about his turn as Joe Brody, a grieving American nuclear engineer who loses his wife to a disaster at a power plant. Brody believes the death was no accident and that the truth has been covered up by the Japanese military. Cranston is a terrific character actor and although his role in the film is minor, he does an excellent job establishing the tone of the film and drawing the audience in.
Ever since the first film was made in post-war Japan, Godzilla has always been awakened by and inextricably linked to nuclear disaster and so it is with this film. Only Godzilla’s not alone. There are other giant creatures that have surfaced too. Giant praying mantis looking things that are also drawn to nuclear energy. The Americans name them Massive Unidentified Target Objects or M.U.T.Os for short.
Godzilla and the M.U.T.Os all surface in different parts of the globe but soon the humans identify a convergence point in San Francisco’s Bay Area. The stage is set for one almighty showdown. The King of Monsters, the M.U.T.Os and the full force of the American military. The poor Californians don’t know what hit them.
If there’s a word to describe the pace of the film it would be patient. It’s never slow though. There is always a monster about or a nuclear reactor melting down or something going on. Only Gareth Evans is extremely frugal with playing his hand and initially, we are only teased fleeting glances at the monsters. We see as much as the humans see. When Godzilla heads out to sea and submerges into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, we don’t get to go with him. We stay on land with the scientists and army men, in awe of his size and power.
One little detail I liked is how consistent the film is with emphasizing the insignificance of man. At one stage, a sage Ken Watanabe invokes a warning to a military general. “Man’s arrogance is thinking that he controls nature when it is the other way around.” Periodically, the military will attempt to attack Godzilla directly, through the use of missiles, fighter jets and war ships. I can’t recall a single instance of Godzilla even acknowledging their presence. They are pitifully deficient against his might. When Godzilla approaches San Francisco by sea, he is flanked by a contigent of war ships. They may as well be a school of fish for all the attention Godzilla gives them. This is a film about two mighty natural forces being pitted against one another. The humans are just spectators along for the ride.
Considering Gareth Evans’ first film Monsters had a measley budget of just $1 million dollars, with special effects handled on his own laptop, this is a surprisingly sure footed and confident big budget debut. Evans’ take on Godzilla is a significant improvement on the rather shabby Roland Emmerich version from 1998. Evans’ Godzilla makes the King of Monsters look like the legend he deserves to be. In this film, the monsters are monumental, the humans are likable and the end result is a quality monster movie that should hopefully find a wide and appreciative audience.