Godzilla is an anti-blockbuster, repurposing and reinventing the grammar of big budget disaster films to produce a film that is aesthetically and ideologically compelling, if inconsistently entertaining. A dense evocation of the tragic scale of environmental and nuclear cataclysms, the film’s steadfast refusal to focus on its human characters, instead contemplating global devastation, is hardly crowdpleasing but demonstrates a refreshing clarity of vision rarely seen in this genre.
The destruction on display in Godzilla is hardly unique to high-priced, special-effects-heavy cinema. Indeed, in the last few years we have been greeted with a smorgasbord of ruined cityscapes – The Dark Knight Rises, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Man of Steel, The Avengers – where the efficacy of a climax is predicated on how much damage is wrought. What separates Godzilla from the pack is its insistence of widening the scope from an American perspective.
Where these films traffic unashamedly in September 11 imagery, Godzilla looks beyond the borders of the United States to ruminate on more recent global disasters (though, it must be said, the film resonates with the potent echoes of the events of September 11). The two opening locations – Philippines and Japan – tip their hand to the film’s references to environmental disasters such as the typhoon that devastated the Philippines last year and Japan’s 2011 earthquake/tsunami. The latter is evoked in countless ways: a Godzilla-impelled tidal wave that inundates Hawaii or the rotten remnants of a quarantined Japanese city, evacuated after the collapse of a nuclear power plant, a barely-disguised analogy for Fukushima.
The spectre of nuclear technology hangs over Godzilla; screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham recognise the vitality of the 1954 film stemmed from its titular beast’s role as a terrible distillation of the power of nuclear weaponry. While cheesy sequels and Emmerich’s ill-advised 1998 remake polluted that well, this film finds fresh resonance. It’s not just Fukushima; we also have an explicit reference to Hiroshima alongside nuclear submarines and nuclear waste. These disparate elements – typhoons, tsunamis, atomic bombs – might suggest a confused film, but the film aims not to evoke one particular disaster but all of them. Director Gareth Edwards has set out not to produce a disaster movie, but the disaster movie.
Four paragraphs in, and I’ve yet to mention a single actor. That’s not accidental. Godzilla’s human characters are skeletal sketches that exist more as audience surrogates than fully-realised characters. The primary protagonist, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is as generic and clean-cut as his name. Son of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who oversaw the aforementioned power plant collapse, he’s a military man with a talent for defusing bombs and a preference for heroism. His character arc, if you can call it that, is little more than a combination of two objectives: “help everyone whenever I can” and “get back to my family (wife Elizabeth Olsen and son Carson Bolde).” He – and his family – maintain key roles in the narrative through a mixture of lousy luck and convenient coincidence. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn are included primarily to deliver necessary exposition. It’s easy to dismiss this as poor writing, but the simplicity of the characters in this film is instead indicative of the film’s post-humanist philosophy.
Like so many films, Godzilla is heavily indebted to the father of the modern blockbuster, the fundamentally humanist Steven Spielberg. While Edwards might consciously pay homage to Spielberg’s back catalogue – the opening scenes are an unashamed nod to Jurassic Park, and the appearance of Godzilla’s immense fins ploughing through the water is unmistakable reminiscent of Jaws – he consciously inverts Spielberg’s people-first formula. Spielberg’s trademark shot is the reaction shot, the observation of the observer. When faced with a spectacle (whether tremendous – the brontosauruses in Jurassic Park – or terrible) we are shown the reaction first, the unbelieving, awed expression of an actor surveying something surprising.
Edwards uses the same shot occasionally; one of the film’s most memorable shots is a fleeting close-up of an unnamed extra’s face as he tumbles to his death. But more often – and more significantly – he places his camera behind his characters in critical moments of spectacle where Spielberg would observe the observer – often to the point of blocking the spectacle in question. This invites the audience to try to peer around these characters, in much the same way that Edwards’ de-emphasizes the importance of characters in the wake of immense devastation. The severe blandness of Ford Brody is not accidental, but a conscious effort to remove personality from a story of destruction greater than any individual human experience.
Edwards – along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (who’s familiar to disaster films, with The Avengers and World Trade Centre on his resumé) – does not limit his innovations to such subtle, significant decisions. His camera regularly surveys the action from realistic points of view; through the cracked windows of a flooded shopfront or shards of urban wreckage. The last act is painted in thick black ink rent with gashes of malevolent red, like an eruption from hellish, subterranean depths. Edwards creates indelible images, often greater than the film that houses them, and they are elevated by a fearsome soundscape. The sound design is top-notch, but special credit must be granted to Alexandre Desplat’s towering score, which stretches blockbuster conventions to breaking point and beyond, shattering into a shower of delicate slivers. Godzilla himself is awesome in the original sense of the word, reimagined as a deific force of redemption; nature incarnate, both benevolent and destructive.
Godzilla’s failings are primarily narrative ones. The opening of the film has a seductive forward momentum, which somewhat evaporates with some bold – though perhaps misjudged – narrative and editing decisions as we shift into the second act. The narrative thread unravels into discrete, ragged filaments; but there’s too much clarity. The middle section of the film drags flabbily as military plans are detailed in unnecessary detail, which sacrifices the first act’s immediacy and sense of scale.
The film’s final half hour presents immense, jagged tableaux of devastation, but is somewhat confused. Monster-on-monster moments provide the giddy, popcorn-fuelled thrill one expects from these films, but this indulgence of blockbuster tendencies is at odds with the thematic thrust of the film. For a film that is consciously evoking modern tragedies, it feels almost inappropriate to present moments that induce spontaneous applause.
As an anti-blockbuster, a film that cruelly swipes at the audience’s attempts at identifying with its characters and presents immense tragedy instead of fleeting fun, I’m uncertain if Godzilla will be embraced by audiences. My own opinions are mixed. As a piece of entertainment, it’s not entirely successful, but its frequent feints towards entertainment muddle its strongest element: a clear-eyed evocation of the enormity of disaster. But that goal, to aim for something more than empty spectacle and sparkling special effects, marks Godzilla as a different kind of beast to the modern blockbuster.