When talking about Godzilla, either as a film or a cultural icon, one must be careful to distinguish between the “King of the Monsters” who squashes cities underfoot and frequently does battle with other creatures of the kaiju canon such as Gamera and Mothra, and Gojira, the titular terror of the original 1954 Toho production that was subsequently re-edited, re-dubbed, and Raymond Burr-ed into the 1956 feature Godzilla. For five decades, all that audiences outside of Japan knew of Godzilla were the restructured 1956 version and the numerous sequels which traded subtlety for spectacle, using the name and legacy of Godzilla as little more than a springboard for mano-a-mano combat between men in rubber suits. (It’s in everyone’s best interest that we say nothing of the 1998 remake.)
The original Gojira, however, is a different beast entirely. When it was finally made widely available in North America in its original, uncut form fifty years after the fact, it was a revelation. As originally envisioned by director and co-writer Ishiro Honda, Gojira was actually a surprisingly thoughtful consideration of the fear and paranoia that haunted Japanese life following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a metaphor for the Atomic Age threat of nuclear holocaust, Gojira is indivisible from its origins in 1950s Japan; so significant is the character to its native culture that no less a filmmaker than Akira Kurosawa once wished to make a Gojira film.
The original Gojira isn’t at all coy about its subtext, with one character explicitly asking, “Isn’t Godzilla a product of the atomic bomb that still haunts many of us Japanese?” What makes the metaphor interesting, however, are the moral and philosophical questions which are raised as authorities struggle to abate the creature’s threat. Mutual Assured Destruction and the politics of engagement are invoked, as is the anthropological value in containing rather than annihilating such a creature; rather than figuring out how to destroy this radioactive abomination, one contingent advocates, “we should focus on why he’s still alive.” Most significantly, there is no admonishing, accusatory tone, nor an inflammatory finger pointed at the United States, despite the provenance of the atomic bombs which have unleashed this creature upon Japan. Instead, there is a sense of shared culpability and a desire to reinstate the balance between man and nature.
Gareth Edwards’s reboot of Godzilla wants to have it both ways, to be both a battle-of-the-monsters spectacle and a man-versus-nature allegory, and while it gets a little muddy on the latter, it’s nonetheless a surprisingly effective confection. Arriving only two months after Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s superb and inspired reimagining of the Biblical fable, Godzilla actually shares much in common with Aronofsky’s polarizing work, in that both films repurpose and expand upon established properties as manifestos against mankind’s failed stewardship of the Earth by exploiting the latent environmentalist tracts at their core. And while Godzilla may not hold its tenets as closely to heart or proselytize as fervently as Noah, both clearly reflect the anti-fracking, green movement, post-An Inconvenient Truth world in which they were conceived.
In a prelude that recalls the archeological dig from the beginning of The Exorcist, Edwards’s Godzilla begins in 1999 with Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), two scientists brought to the Philippines to assist with a mining operation. There, they discover a pocket of radiation that leads them into what appears to be an enormous fossilized ribcage housing two chrysalis-like formations; more disconcerting than the radiation is the discovery that one of the pods seems to have already hatched.
Meanwhile, in Japan, physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), the supervisor of the Janjira nuclear power plant, is studying a series of abnormal electromagnetic spikes that have been registering recently. He sends his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and a team of technicians to inspect the core for leaks, but while they are doing so, a massive explosion unleashes a deadly torrent of radioactive gas. Joe and the rest of the staff escape, but Sandra and her team are not so lucky.
Cut to fifteen years later, and Joe and Sandra’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now grown up with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son of his own. An explosives expert in the US Navy, Ford has just returned home from a deployment when he gets a phone call that his father has been arrested for trespassing in a quarantined zone near the Janjira nuclear power plant. The next morning, Ford is on a flight to Japan to bail out his father, who explains that he was trying to retrieve the backup files from his home office. Joe, still feeling intense guilt for Sandra’s death, convinces Ford to accompany him back into the quarantined zone; on the way, he explains that he has noticed the same electromagnetic patterns that preceded the explosion at Janjira, fueling his belief that it was not caused by an earthquake as was reported and that another potentially cataclysmic event is impending.
Joe and Ford retrieve Joe’s data, but are arrested shortly thereafter and taken to a facility within the abandoned Janjira plant. Overseen by Serizawa and Graham, the facility houses a chrysalis identical to those discovered in the Philippines. Joe’s premonition proves accurate when the chrysalis hatches, unleashing a giant winged spider-like creature which breaks free from its restraints and escapes the facility, creating a fair bit of collateral damage in the process. The Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO for short, heads east over the Pacific to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in the Nevada desert where another female MUTO is about to hatch.
The US Navy, under the command of Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), teams with Serizawa and Graham to devise a way to stop the MUTO before it reaches American soil. Together, they discover that another, larger creature has emerged from the Pacific and is also hunting the MUTO: Godzilla. Serizawa, believing that Godzilla has been reawakened to stop the MUTOs, urges the Navy not to interfere, insisting that, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around. Let them fight.”
And fight they certainly do, in grand fashion. Excluding the 1954 original and the 1998 remake, the raison d’etre for basically every Godzilla film has been to pit giant monsters against one another; it is this element which will draw most audience members to the theater, and on this score it succeeds admirably. Bucking the acrobatic trend of most recent CGI, both the creatures and the camera move with the appropriate heft. Edwards also favors longer shots which convey the struggle and the exhaustion of their gargantuan fisticuffs; as Godzilla gets trammelled by the double-teaming MUTOs, you actually feel pretty sorry for the big guy.
This ability to emotionally invest the audience in the patently unbelievable is the greatest accmplishment of Edwards’s film, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast he has assembled. Though the script’s efforts to flesh out and humanize its characters are admittedly pat and perfunctory, actors of the calibre of Cranston and Binoche lend a grace and sincerity to their roles that goes deeper than the words on the page. Elizabeth Olsen in particular continues to exhibit an almost preternatural ability to convey an entire holistic character whose existence extends well beyond her time spent onscreen. Without these performers, the characters are trite, but the cast is able, for the most part, to overcome these limitations and make their roles a little more than plot mechanisms.
The only real nagging problem with Godzilla is the superficiality and inconsistency of its environmentalist overtones. When the first brawl between Godzilla and the MUTO sends tsunami sized waves crashing through downtown Honolulu, it’s difficult to not be reminded of the news, reported mere days before Godzilla opened, that melting ice sheets in the Antarctic are set to raise the sea level more than ten feet. Additionally, a stadium filled with displaced residents of the areas destroyed by Godzilla and the MUTOs echoes the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and FEMA’s insufficient response.
Serizawa, refering to Godzilla, says at one point, “Nature has an order, a power to restore balance. I believe he is that power.” Here too, Edwards tries to have it both ways. His Godzilla posits the MUTOs as the dark side of nuclear technology and Godzilla as a mysterious avenger rising from the deep to defend the Earth from them. But Edwards appeals to the original Gojira in a credits sequence that alludes to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as in a backstory that has the long-dormant Godzilla initially waking from hibernation in 1954, thus tying him to the events and, by extension, the ideology of his first iteration. The equation of Godzilla with American military force — implicit, rather than explicit, in the original — is even reinforced by a series of shots that juxtaposes Godzilla with Ford after he (spoiler alert!) quells the MUTOs.
So what exactly is the “power” that Godzilla represents? Nature? The military-industrial complex? American hubris? If Noah is your vegan uncle who works at the local co-op, then Godzilla is something like your friend who hashtags things #HellNoGMO without knowing what the initials stand for and only buys gluten free even though she still drinks beer: she may mean well, but she’s a little hazy on the details.
The original Gojira was by no means a subtle film, but it was at least fully engaged with and consistent in its metaphors. In our desinsitized, wolf-crier, click-bait culture, however, it seems strangely appropriate that this new Godzilla should be so well-meaning and yet ingratiate only on the surface. But what a rousing and robust surface it is! If Godzilla seems, upon closer inspection, a little empty in the middle, it’s because at its heart, it’s just here to entertain, which is does in spades. That it wants to be timely as well shouldn’t be held too strongly against it. To paraphrase another big-budget franchise which tried — and failed — to imbue itself with a misguided political subtext, this is the Godzilla we deserve, even if it’s not the one we need right now.