The Conventions of the King
Something has been a-stirring for some time now. Maybe it's just my advancing age, or possibly my 60-plus movies a year regimen is taking its toll, but it's actually quite unusual now for me to get genuinely excited about a new film. Too many disappointments, too much cynicism, I suppose. However, when I learned that Gareth Edwards, director of one of my favourite films of recent years (2010’s Monsters), was to oversee a big-budget American Godzilla movie (a franchise I have enjoyed rather too much for nearly a quarter of a century now), my interest level spiked, and it has stayed spiked ever since.
It has been sixteen years since Roland Emmerich's first attempt at an American Godzilla – a film for which the word 'reviled' is probably not an overstatement – and ten years since Toho, creators of the great beast, decided to suspend production of Japanese-language Godzilla films following the release of the maddeningly uneven Final Wars, on the occasion of Godzilla's fiftieth anniversary. Sixty years on from the first Godzilla movie, there are clearly a lot of expectations for this film, and if nothing else you have to admire Edwards' ambition in attempting to combine the requirements of a typical Hollywood popcorn blockbuster with the very special conventions of a Japanese kaiju movie, not to mention producing something with merit as a piece of cinema, too.
Godzilla himself does not show up until well into the film, leaving the job of carrying the story to Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays Ford Brody, a young US Army officer whose life has been shaped by the death of his mother (Juliette Binoche, briefly) in mysterious accident at a Japanese nuclear plant some years ago. Brody has tried to move on, but his dad (Bryan Cranston) remains convinced there is some secret to the tragedy, and has been trying to sneak into the quarantine zone and find out what it is, forcing Ford to fly over there and try to sort him out.
They learn the ruins of the plant are incubating an enormous pupa-like object, containing a primeval creature which feeds on radiation. As luck would have it, they arrive just as the creature – dubbed 'Muto' by the attending boffins (Watanabe Ken and Sally Hawkins) – hatches out and engages in a little light rampaging. The Muto heads for the States in search of more fissile material, with the armed forces in hot pursuit. However, Watanabe has a suspicion that another, equally ancient predator may still be around, and keen to make lunch out of the Muto. Watanabe calls this creature Godzilla... but with the army and navy in trigger-happy mood, and signals suggesting a second Muto may also be on the loose, it looks as if the King of the Monsters may have a lot on his (glowing radioactive spiky dorsal) plate...
While it is almost indisputable that Edwards' Godzilla is a vast improvement over Emmerich's take on the story (a film which even Toho were publicly contemptuous of) , just how much you enjoy it may well depend on how steeped you are in the traditions and lore of Japanese kaiju movies. These are subtly different to the grammar and conventions of the American monster movie, for all that the two share a deep connection.
For one thing, Edwards understands that a classic Godzilla movie isn't just about a giant monster wreaking havoc and being attacked by the armed forces: it's about two or more giant monsters, more than likely with super-powers, ripping into each other on a grand scale. The inclusion of the Muto creatures means Godzilla has a couple of worthy opponents to take on in the final reel, which is one base covered.
Beyond this, though, the screenplay reveals a considerable knowledge and understanding of the genre – Max Borenstein's screenplay puts a new and rather exciting spin on the core Godzilla mythology, and finds a new way of incorporating the obligatory mention of the 1954 A-bomb tests. And both visually and in terms of the general shape of the story, it seemed to me that this movie owes a considerable debt to Kaneko Shusuke's Gamera: Guardian of the Universe – not a Godzilla movie, admittedly, but still one of the highlights of the genre. (There are a couple of tiny shout-outs to the Mothra movies too.)
There are moments here, too, which are as good as anything in past films – the build-up to Godzilla's first appearance is immaculately handled. Directors often talk about the big G as an implacable force of nature, but Edwards really gets this right – Godzilla's approach is heralded by fleeing wildlife, storms and tsunamis, and he really does seem like an impossibly immense avatar of total destruction. (Watanabe's performance – with just the right level of awed reverence – does as much as the CGI to sell this.)
On the other hand, the movie does subscribe to the current genre dogma that all giant monster fights must take place after dark and under conditions of poor visibility, which I found a bit disappointing. God knows what watching this film in 3D must be like, given the light-loss involved: a pitch-black screen and a lot of roaring, I suppose. It also seems for much of the film that Edwards is either being a total tease or trying to make an art-house Godzilla film – no sooner does a monster fight start or a city begin to be devastated than Edwards cuts away to something else. There is a very enjoyable monster battle at the end, but I could have happily watched a lot more of this stuff.
And it is all a bit po-faced, too. Perhaps wary of accusations that a film about an immense fire-breathing nuclear dragon could be considered a touch silly, the tone of the new Godzilla is very earnest. There is no winking at the camera, hardly any jokes, no sign of the more extravagant genre elements (alien invasions, time travel, giant mystic lepidopterae) that distinguish the best of the Japanese films. All Godzilla films are, on one level, absurd, but this film never quite summons up the self-confidence to relax and revel in this (perhaps slightly surprising, given one of the Toho execs involved is Yoshimitsu Banno, director of the bonkers 1971 Godzilla Vs Hedorah).
So we are left with a film which has many of the usual flaws of a Japanese kaiju film – primarily the incredibly thin human characters and dubious plotting – but none of its sense of fun or imagination. Some very fine actors are absurdly underused in Godzilla, especially the women (as well as Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen gets hardly anything to do as Taylor-Johnson's wife). The first act of the film is very nearly confusing to watch, as well, given this is supposed to be a Godzilla movie yet the plot focuses almost exclusively on the Mutos (I suppose you could argue that this is itself another sign of the film's reverence for genre conventions, given how much the later Japanese films focused on their antagonists' origin stories).
It would be wrong of me to say that this film lived up to my expectations, but then those expectations were immensely high to begin with. That doesn't mean it's a bad film, by any means. Any even halfway-successful attempt at an American Godzilla is always going to be a bit weird, and this film is halfway-successful at the very least. It's not one of the greatest Godzilla movies ever made, but its treatment of the character gets so many things absolutely right that it's almost impossible for me not to like it.