Let me get this out of the way; Gareth Edwards’ new Godzilla movie is terrific. I didn’t expect to like it. I’ve never been much of a Godzilla fan, frankly, and the lousy1998 Matthew Broderick film didn’t help. But Edwards found a way to reimagine the story in human, character-driven terms. The results are exciting, exhilarating. Generally, massive CGI fight scenes featuring huge creatures are a bore, as, for example, in the Transformers movies, where Transformers grapple and it’s impossible to say which is the good Transformer, and which one is the evil one. Or care. Not this Godzilla. There’s a fight scene between three monsters in which intervening humans are almost entirely ineffectual, and it still manages to be marvelous.
It’s not really a monster movie; certainly not a monster-imperiling-the-earth movie. Or rather, it sort of is–Godzilla is huge, pretty well impervious to human weaponry, destructive, dangerous and scary. And the other two big monsters in the film, called MUTOs, are likewise terrifying. But Godzilla’s not malevolently disposed towards humanity. And actually, neither are the MUTOs. They are, sort of, our creations–nuclear testing both awakened them and nourished them–but their imperatives are those of nature. They want to feed and they want to breed. And we humans, we’re in the way.
Gareth Edwards has only made one other feature film, the 2010 independent film Monsters. It’s about an alien invasion, but it’s from the point of view of a journalist who agrees (reluctantly) to escort a tourist through an area of Mexico thought to be ‘infected’ by these alien creatures. It was a terrific sci-fi film, made with a limited budget, very much character-driven, and ultimately one that concludes that the invading aliens are mostly just trying to survive in a hostile environment, and that what they want is just what all species want: food, shelter, reproduction.
This Godzilla rests on a similar paradox. One of the reasons it works is its focus on characters. It stars terrific actors, indie-stars and character actors–Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe. Even its Studley McMuffin main character, Ford Brody, is played by the British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, good-looking, sure, but also a fine actor. And we care about the characters. There’s a scene early in the movie where Bryan Cranston, as head of a Japanese nuclear energy facility, has to shut a safety door on his wife (Binoche), killing her, to save everyone else in the plant. It’s an emotionally devastating scene, powerful and compelling, and it makes us care immensely about Cranston’s character, and also about Taylor-Johnson, who plays his son. The film is full of scenes like that. The film takes the time to make us care about the people.
But simultaneously, it’s a film about how little we homo sapiens matter in the larger scheme of things. Godzilla and the two MUTOs, the three main monsters in the movie, are going to do their thing–survive, eat, reproduce– no matter how many shells our tanks fire at them. So this is a film about people we care about, people who matter to us and who we root for, but it’s also a movie set in a world (our world!) in which human beings don’t really matter all that much at all.
(Except to screw things up. It’s a film about that, too, about the idiocy of nuclear testing, about the Bikini atoll and Frenchman Flats and what colossally arrogant clod-hoppers we all were, thinking we could split atoms and blow up islands without consequence.)
Ford Brody, the character played by Taylor-Johnson, is a navy lieutenant, tasked with ordnance disposal. And there are lots and lots of soldiers in this movie. And without exception, the soldiers in the movie are courageous, dedicated, exceptionally well trained, and differentiated as characters. And their service completely doesn’t matter. Much of the movie involves conversations between Admiral Stenz (Strathairn) and the scientist, Dr. Serizawa, played by Watanabe, ‘what do these creatures do, what do they want, how can we kill them’ conversations. And plans are made that seem sensible enough, and those plans are executed with precision and intelligence by highly trained, exceptionally competent military personnel. (One of the film’s most spectacular scenes, a nighttime HELO drop, is absolutely breathtaking). And none of them work at all. Nothing we do makes the slightest difference.
That’s not entirely true. It’s still a movie. SPOILER ALERT: Our hero does manage to save mankind. His actions aren’t part of any larger military plan and are, in fact, entirely improvised, but he does act bravely, and he does save the day. But only sort of. The hero of the film is Godzilla. And he saves the world spectacularly and it’s really emotionally satisfying and an exceptionally cool scene. But he doesn’t do it because of his love of humanity. He may not even be aware that mankind exists. He saves the day because he’s an Alpha Predator, and that’s what happens at the top of the food chain. END SPOILER ALERT.
I could poke holes in the plot, if I wanted to. (In fact, my wife and I had a good time after the movie doing just that). And I could point out that Elizabeth Olsen (a terrific actress), doesn’t really get to do much except hope, forlornly, that her husband will show up. And that we spent some time trying to figure out if it passes the Bechdel test. (It sort of does, we decided). But those are minor quibbles. Godzilla is back, and he’s as huge, and powerful, and morally ambiguous as ever. As morally ambiguous as Nature itself. It’s a stunning movie.