Sixteen years have passed since the last major Godzilla film and though Roland Emmerich’s embarrassing 1998 effort has been disowned by Toho, the famous Japanese production company, it still looms over the once prolific franchise. There have only been two lackluster Japanese-made releases to satisfy fans in the meantime, but after a recent resurgence in monster movies Toho and their legendary monster make their Hollywood return.
After making a successful debut with the gripping, nuanced and profound post alien invasion drama Monsters, British filmmaker Gareth Edwards was entrusted as director and returns, bolstered by a monstrous budget that’s at least three hundred times larger than his previous, to resurrect one of cinema’s biggest icons.
It’s clear from the moment it begins that Edwards was the right choice as the lame humour of Emmerich’s childish attempt is replaced by a far more serious tone. Edwards’ Godzilla is a big summer blockbuster with all the extravagance of last year’s Pacific Rim, but is more akin to the classic monster movies of old with its slowburning pace as the director strives to deliver a faithful reincarnation of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original.
Edwards has regularly cited Jaws as a major influence on his style and it’s his similarly restrained approach that was the success behind Monsters. Like Spielberg, Edwards establishes his “monsters” as background characters, which gives them a more mysterious nature. Jaws isn’t about a shark in the same way that Monsters isn’t about aliens, they are both about how humans react to life threatening situations and how fear and paranoia spreads through a community; whether it’s an idyllic holiday destination or US border region of Mexico. While this subtle approach was achievable on Edwards’ low budget, independent project where he could command full creative license, replicating this while adhering to the studio pressure of a Hollywood blockbuster is a far greater task, especially once you decide to keep such an established cinematic legend in the shadows.
Similarly to Monsters, Godzilla focuses on its human characters more than its monsters. Much of the action in the opening two thirds is veiled by thick smoke and Godzilla is revealed slowly over the course of a “people amongst the chaos” survival narrative that’s told from several different perspectives. The ensemble cast manages to create authentic characters to supplement Edwards’ realistic approach, but unlike Monsters a weak script leaves them uninteresting, particularly as the narrative progresses towards its inevitable showdown. When the finale arrives we can admire its epic scale, but without any emotional connection, it’s hard to be truly blown away.
Edwards’ Godzilla is a valid effort that successfully takes the movie monster back to its roots, but despite a fantastically atmospheric build up, a detailed and fascinating mythology and a handful of exceptional moments, it lacks the dramatic heft to match Edwards’ Monsters or the edge-of-your-seat thrills to stand out from any other recent Hollywood product.