‘Godzilla’: The 20th Century Literally Comes Back to Bite Us in the Ass
Probably the smartest move the creators of the new Godzilla made is that they didn’t update the reason that the legendary monster is terrorizing the Earth. Though it would have been an obvious choice, Godzilla (and other accompanying monsters, which I won’t spoil for you) haven’t emerged from their slumber because of climate change or drone warfare or selfies. It’s good old fashioned nuclear power, that ancient enemy, that has created this mess. How positively retro! How 20th century!
Despite the fact that you can see this CGI-fest in IMAX, in 3D with the crazy surround sound and you sinking into those steroidal fancy theater seats they have now, there is a really classic feel to this “Godzilla.” It’s unapologetic about its love of monster movies (it happily steals a whole plotline from Aliens, for example). From the first opening credits, rolling against footage of nuclear tests and researchers in black and white, the whole movie screams throwback. But somehow that unironic nostalgia actually makes it seem fresher and newer.
The specter of nuclear holocaust that so relentlessly permeates the first Godzilla is present here too. These monsters are ghosts for our unfortunate past, emerging from their gravesites in Japan, Bikini Atoll, the American desert. Even the more recent past, the Fukushima meltdown, is visualized here. It’s also a solid vision of classic American (or maybe just human) hubris: when we discover that nuclear blasts only serve to make film’s monsters stronger, our solution is “Eh, whatevs, we’ll just get a bigger bomb, that’ll work.”
Besides that accurate assessment of how our American minds work, there’s not a whole lot of reliable “science.” But then again why would there be? The real disappointments are in Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Olsen is a problem only because they didn’t give her anything to do except be adorable and look concerned. Taylor-Johnson, the de-facto lead, is more of a liability. Ken doll-like, an all-American cypher, his lack of any discernible personality traits gets irritating after a while. But that’s ok because the actual leads in the movie are (in order):
1. Bryan Cranston
2. Bryan Cranston
3. CGI Godzilla
4. Ken Watanabe
5. Bryan Cranston again
How can one explain Cranston? He just does that thing he does, where you just want to give him all the awards, forever, just mail them to his house and be done with it. He’s not even in the movie all that much but he owns every second on the screen.
As previously mentioned, it’s the not obvious choices that make this movie work. Is there a shot of Godzilla lumbering through San Francisco while office drones look on, horrified? Of course! We’ve seen that a thousand times before. But there are also wonderful, new thing – shots of him swimming, almost leisurely, through the Pacific, with a military escort in the form of an aircraft carrier. All you see are the jagged ridges of his backbone, and he looks both overwhelming but also weirdly charming. Like, you imagine him sort of humming to himself under the water, sauntering across the Pacific Ocean to destroy the West Coast. At one point another monster takes a graceful nose-dive into the ocean, nabbing a ship like some kind of horrible bird of prey snatching up a salmon. And the scene where our Ken doll hero and about 20 other guys jump out of a plane, through cloud cover, into a devastated San Francisco is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on film. Not this year, not this season: ever, and that’s not hyperbole. It’s beautiful and frightening and thrilling and humbling all at the same time. It seems to last forever, yet it seems to stop too soon. It will make you cry a little, it’s so lovely.
These are wonderful scenes because they shape these creatures as somehow of this world, not really monsters at all. They are not aliens, they are Earth-bound animals with animal characteristics, just several hundred millennia out of date. And the tiny, puny men who have thrown themselves out of a moving plane seem in their moment of glory every bit the animals as well: flying/falling through the sky, their complexities stripped away. It’s a poetic new take on a classic monster movie chestnut: that man and beast, at heart, are the same thing.