Photo: Courtesy of Warner Brothers.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Beer is not an editor, or rather, he is an editor of images at R29, not words. But, his die-hard commitment to the legacy of Godzilla is what convinced us to let him take on this task. He won't review this from simply a cinematic perspective, but from the perspective of a boy-turned-man who loved the narrative of an impossible force of nature meeting the futile attempts of humanity. So, take it away, Chris...]
In a recent interview, Elizabeth Olsen voiced her concern with staying true to hardcore fans of the Godzilla franchise in her role. I, R29's resident Godzilla nerd, took her to task. I attended a press screening to see how valid a concern this was: Would we once more be subjected to a Hollywood vision that ignores all source material in favor of selling tickets? Or, would our favorite monster be given the loving care and respect he deserves? With a heavy sigh, I accepted such a great task. [EDITOR'S NOTE: In other words, he flipped his lid.]
When Warner Brothers announced it was making a new Godzilla film, I felt conflicted. I'm very protective of what I love. On the one hand, I was beyond euphoric that a significant part of my childhood had grown up with me. While the 6-year-old me enjoyed Godzilla vs. Gigan, the 27-year-old me looked forward to a darker interpretation. I worried about how awful it could be. Or worse, it could be like last time, where it was simply not Godzilla. (Imagine seeing a Hunger Games movie where Jennifer Lawrence doesn't use a bow — she just eats, pouts, gives birth to a bunch of velociraptors, and then dies.) So, while I've spent the last year awash in anticipation — from the cast announcements to the beautifully cut trailers to the "leaked" images hinting that this was going to be faithful to the source material — I went in with a solid amount of trepidation. While director Gareth Edwards' last film Monsters is really quite incredible, the task he is faced with — realizing a beloved icon in a way that will appease casual moviegoers to die-hard fans — is near impossible. That said, I still can't believe how utterly happy this movie made me — both the child and the adult versions of Christopher Beer were having a blast.
It became clear fairly quickly that this is a film made by a fan. Godziila enters surrounded by flames, which illuminate the darkness behind him. A discordant choir fills the soundtrack for this scene, while the camera barely captures more than just a piece of him at a time. The king has returned.
Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson) is a soldier returning home to his family, only to be taken away again when his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), goes crazy in Japan. Apparently, 15 years ago, an accident at a reactor there left their family broken, and ever since, Joe has been obsessively trying to debunk a supposed coverup of the events. After being arrested in a quarantined zone, they get taken to exactly what they were looking for — a mysterious energy project, led by Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), which ends up producing a terrifying (and I mean that) creature resembling a spider-bat crossed with the queen from Aliens crossed with the bugs from Starship Troopers. Things go predictably awry, and Ford is forced to tag along for the ride, in which Serizawa and Graham reveal that humanity has created an imbalance by tampering with things it doesn't understand. Lo and behold, an old god-like monster, Godzilla (or Gojira in Japanese, a combo of "gorilla" and "whale"), is the force of nature that will come and restore order. From here, we follow all of our characters down different routes as they tail their monster toward a rendezvous in San Francisco, where a showdown will determine how screwed over the human race is on a scale of 10 to 11. This showdown, by the by, is worth the price of the ticket.
The film is like a slow burn. Sure, there are little tastes of monster action throughout, but nothing is quite like the finish. Edwards is a remarkable filmmaker in that he's able to tantalize us for so long without leaving us hanging or giving too much away — a real feat. This skill carries over not only in the pacing and plot, which at times feel nicely minimal, but into his visuals as well. Every shot makes use of the various grounds in the composition, and in my opinion, gives a whole new way to see giant monsters on screen. I think the reveal of the first monster, the winged MUTO, was one of the more thrilling moments I've had in a movie as of late.
Visuals aside (and really, I could spend this entire review writing about the imagery), I also appreciated that the film took place in a timeline similar to the others in the franchise. Godzilla is already an established phenomenon; there was no silly or unnecessary origin story or backstory. The giant monsters seemed to be treated like natural disasters, rather than a science project gone wrong. I can't imagine a more positive note to start on (besides the two Mothra references I spotted in the first half hour — keep your eyes peeled).
Godzilla managed to even deliver a very human story. It's a simple one, but the cast brings it to life remarkably in the short time some of them are on screen. Elizabeth Olsen, whom I'd really seen flex her acting muscles in the "single-camera shot" Silent House, once again shows how she can convey much doing very little.
Tiny Chris Beer proves his love affair with Godzilla has been long lasting.
One of the most important themes behind the Japanese original was the antagonism of weapons and nuclear energy, and it's a theme that hasn't been present in any blockbuster since. I was very happy to see that the central theme was modernized. Amusingly, the film paints a picture of how the U.S.' regulations of who can have nukes and who can't backfires dramatically.
For the sixtieth anniversary, watching Godzilla felt like seeing an old friend. He appears aged; he moves and reacts almost like a cantankerous Bruce Willis. I half expected him to look at the camera, sigh, and say "...I'm getting old." To me, this was one of the loveliest tributes to the series and the biggest piece of fan service. As we have grown up (read: aged), so has our monster.
The latest Godzilla film is truly one for the fans — especially Showa fans. There's a childlike sense of splendor to it, and is a great homage to all the prior "versus" films when we would sit on Saturday mornings and root for him to save the world.
Rather than create another geeky tangent, I'll close with this: I consider myself both a student of film theory and a purveyor of B-movies. This new Godzilla film hits both sides of that spectrum without going too far into either territory. I can understand some people being either upset that it wasn't monster-mashing the entire time. To me, however, this balance was exactly what I had wanted; it's a really well done sci-fi monster movie, and it just happens to be a faithful Godzilla flick at the same time. To me, as a longtime cinema junkie and a hardcore Godzilla geek, this movie was perfect. (Okay, one TINY complaint is that his iconic theme music is suspiciously absent).
There is a moment in that massive final showdown that is lovingly made for fans — in which everyone, myself included, cheered like it was a rock concert. For a bright shining moment, I got to be a kid again. I invite you to do the same.