Godzilla director Gareth Edwards made the wise choice to go old-school with his 2014 reboot, tapping into the venerable franchise’s most potent power source: our shared dread of disaster, both natural and man-made.
It’s funny — while watching Edwards’ nimble, evocative movie, I flashed on what is probably an apocryphal quote about the production of John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon. Legend has it that a more experienced filmmaker told Huston not to fuck with the book, and he’d have a great movie. (I couldn’t track down that quote online. If anyone remembers what was said, I’d love to know.)
In the same spirit, Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (from a story by Dave Callaham) didn’t fuck with Godzilla. They stuck close to the original formula, making great use of several far-eastern settings, including the creature’s original stomping ground (har, har), Tokyo, as well as an array of archetypes from B-movie lore: Bryan Cranston as a paranoid scientist obsessed with unveiling Godzilla and his titanic brethren; David Strathairn as a stuffy American admiral; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a stolid G.I. Joe who seems to always be where the monsters are, and who comes factory-equipped with every skill set needed to survive several ground-zero engagements with the massive beasts; Ken Watanabe as a Zen koan-grumbling scientist who can sense Godzilla’s intentions and whose expression remains stuck in a perpetual state of slack-jawed Spielbergian awe. (Kudos to the filmmakers for giving Watanabe the titular line, letting us hear Godzilla’s name in its original form — Gojira.) Most important, they borrowed from the later Godzilla movies and made the saurian titan the movie’s hero.
Oh, and they included a cute kid in a baseball cap. Hear, hear.
But let’s talk more about Edwards’ Spielbergian allusions and influences. There are lots to talk about. I was chatting with my lovely girlfriend Lauren Rock as well as with CC2K co-editor-emeritus Lance Carmichael after the movie, and we noted with pleasure the movie’s great many shots that redirected or reframed our perspective in a satisfyingly Spielbergian way. (One that lingered with me: As Elizabeth Olson’s doctor/wife character wanders the streets of a shattered San Francisco, her eyes light on the angelic form of a parachuting pilot emerging from the clouds. Instants later, the pilots doomed jet slams into a skyscraper, its systems neutralized by one of the enemy beast’s EM-pulses.)
But even more than Spielberg, I feel like Edwards’ Godzilla owes a lot to the storytelling spirit of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ limited series Marvels, which depicted the Marvel universe from the perspective of regular people. The vast majority of shots of the gigantic creatures in Godzilla are from our perspective, and that made a huge difference. We often see the monsters in the distance, or emerging from thunderheads, surrounded by heat-lightning. When Johnson’s soldier sky-dives into the war-zone generated by Godzilla’s battle, we step into his POV as he plummets down toward the ruined city, Godzilla like a moving mountain below. There’s a real sense of care and artistry to Edwards’ framing. It gave me an urgent sense of empathy with the people onscreen, even if the characters didn’t get under my skin the way, say, the players in Jurassic Park did. (That’s a minor quibble, but I make it all the same. Cranston’s character died just as I was starting to connect with him, and Taylor-Johnson, though he looked every inch a jarhead, didn’t quite register as such.)
But let’s go back to an image I mentioned earlier: moving mountains. While watching Godzilla, I was struck at how often the creatures disguised themselves as trees or mountains. One memorable set-piece follows a group of soldiers on foot as they scout a towering train bridge. Unbeknownst to them, one of the enemy monsters has concealed itself along a nearby mountain range. The image reminded me of the Forest Spirit from Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, lumbering along, its silhouette soaring over the treeline.
That connection with the movies of studio Ghibli, as well as Japanese culture at large, animates Edwards’ Godzilla, which uses our conflict with giant monsters as a metaphor for our need to find balance with nature. It’s no surprise that this new version of Godzilla adds natural disaster to its list of catastrophes we should fear. One of the beasts sparks a tidal wave that levels Honolulu, and I squirmed in my seat, keenly reminded of the devastation of the Japanese tsunami. The Godzilla movies (and their descendants, such as Cloverfield) usually make the monsters into avatars for our fear of man-made disasters — nuclear fallout, terrorism — but Edwards’ Godzilla adds climate change to that list, if only in the movie’s deep background and programming.