Was it a movie I saw since August 22nd, 2009: Yes, #293.
1) There’s a good chance that this fact will effect my opinion of the film, but this is the first and to date only Godzilla film I’ve ever seen. Not a bad intro to the franchise.
2) I like that this film pays respects to the character’s origins. Godzilla is rooted deep not only in Japanese culture but also history, with the original Kaiju being representative of survivors of the nuclear attacks which hit the country (his skin being based on that of survivors from those blasts). This film incorporates nuclear radiation in a meaningful way, has a strong Japanese setting (at least in the first act), and even features a meaningful scene recognizing the attack in Hiroshima. It’s more than just a pale carbon copy (as I understand the version directed by Roland Emmerich is received as) but is aware of what makes a Godzilla movie.
3) The film’s entire prologue does a very good job of establishing the film’s dark tone and occasional sense of mystery.
Vivienne [while inspecting the bones of a dead Kaiju]: “Is it possible? Is it him?”
Serizawa: “No. This is much older.”
4) Juliette Binoche as Sandra.
Binoche’s role in the film is brief but holy crap if she just doesn’t juice all her screen time for everything it is worth. In the few minutes we know Sandra her professionalism, priorities, skill, and investment in family became incredibly clear. It is her ability to get you so invested in her character in these few moments which makes her death all that more effective.
While Bryan Cranston’s total desperation and heartache in that death scene is an enormous factor, it is largely carried by the strength of Binoche’s unfortunately brief performance. The scene is perfectly paced and Binoche helps play each emotional beat perfectly. I tear up every freaking time I see it, especially at the fact that Sandra and her husband Joe get to see each other one last time while she’s basically dead. It is Binoche’s brief performance and her death scene which helps anchor the giant monster spectacle in real human emotion moving forward.
5) Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as Ford & Elle Brody (husband and wife) have this really great chemistry between them. It’s not so much a crazy hot chemistry as it is significantly deep. You understand the strength of their love, their connection, their trust, all in the way they act around each other. It would be a chemistry the pair would repeat (with some obvious differences) in Avengers: Age of Ultron a year later.
6) Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ford Brody.
The role of a human protagonist in a monster movie is wildly important but incredibly easy to have be a forgettable schlub against Godzilla. But Johnson does incredibly well to make Brody not only memorable but also get the audience invested in him. You can see Brody’s struggle and pain throughout. Over the course of the movie he loses his mother and father while at risk of losing his wife and son too. These lead to very simple motivations: take care of his family. This drives his every action, his every choice, to help and get to his family. The struggle is largely man vs nature (nature in this case being a trio of giant monsters who keep getting in his way) but Johnson plays it VERY well and helps elevate the film because of it.
7) Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody.
Cranston is arguably the strongest actor in the entire film. Very similarly to Binoche, his performance and character is the emotional bedrock on which the human story rests. The pain/turmoil he displays is so freaking raw and powerful that in every scene you are just drawn to him. You know exactly why he’s doing what he’s doing, how powerful his grief is, and it drives a fair amount of the early plot. Through Cranston’s performance and the writing surrounding it he’s able to even give the audience a fair amount of exposition in a way which is very telling of his obsession. All in all, it’s just freaking great.
8) There is this very nice sense of place to the Quarantine Zone that is established immediately. The overgrown plants and sense of tone all help make it seem otherworldly.
9) Director Gareth Edwards employs a controlled sense of pace, taking his time to set up the story and the conflict at large while never boring his audience. It’s a nice change of pace from standard giant monster movie fair that really just helps the film be its own thing.
10) Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa.
It could be argued that if anyone gives a better performance in this film than Bryan Cranston, it’s Watanabe. But that could also be because he has far more screen time. The actor is absolutely incredible here, with a soft but poignant pain which defines his every moment of screen time. Watanabe just breathes tragedy but not in a way which drags down the film but instead motivates much of the action. It is not all there is to him but it’s definitely a huge factor in his character. It is this sadness (first seen at its best when he mournfully says to kill the MUTO) that is so telling of his character and helps get you invested in his character. He’s just great.
11) I give this film massive credit for introducing new monsters - the two MUTOs - into an at the time sixty year old canon. The filmmakers could’ve easily made these monsters be boring/lazily designed creatures who only exist as something for Godzilla to beat on, but they end up getting a lot more screen time than the titular monster actually. The thought put into the design of both, what makes them different from not only other giant movie monsters but also each other, is what helps make them so good.
12) Ford’s motivation for the entire film can easily be defined by his father’s last words to him.
Joe: “GO home to your family. Keep them safe. Whatever it takes.”
13) Honestly, if they only had Ken Watanabe in this film to deliver two of its best lines I would’ve been so okay with that because he’s so great at it.
Serizawa: “We call him, Gojira.”
Originally the line referred to the monster as Godzilla but Watanabe asked to call him by the original Japanese name.
14) The entire backstory with how giant monsters exist in this world (how they’re ancient alpha predators who pretty much exist entirely off of radiation) and how the government agency of Monarch fits into it is all REALLY well done, actually. It could’ve easily been boring and shoehorned in but there’s a fair amount of thought put into it which helps to organically build this universe at large.
15) The film does a nice job of making sure each giant monster scene has a parallel human conflict to it. The kid on the monorail Ford has to keep safe when the MUTO hits Hawaii, for example, is a good example of this.
16) So one of the things this film does which I appreciate is also a great point of frustration for me and that is how little we so of Godzilla for so much of the film.
On the one hand, it is very Jaws esque. That decision helps to convey the scale and significance of Godzilla. Each time he appears on screen you can FEEL the stakes rise, you can feel the dynamic of the scene change, and that’s pretty great.
On the other hand: I WANT TO SEE GODZILLA FIGHT GIANT MONSTERS! IT’S A GIANT MONSTER MOVIE FOR PETE’S SAKE!
I’m very conflicted about this.
17) This is nice.
Vivienne [on the second MUTO]: “It’s far bigger than the other one.”
Adm. Stenz: “This one doesn’t have any wings.”
Vivenne: “A different sex?”
Serizawa: “A female.”
It’s easy when making not only one giant monster but a species of an original giant monster to have them all be carbon copies of each other. But to put thought into differentiating between the sex shows an intelligence in the filmmaking which I certainly appreciate.
18) Remember the respect I mentioned that this film pays to its original source material?
Serizawa [showing Stenz a broken watch]: “Eight fifteen in the morning. August sixth, nineteen-forty-five.”
Serizawa: “It was my father’s.”
The original Godzilla came out only nine years after Hiroshima was bombed. Not only that, but a Japanese tuna fishing boat known as the Lucky Dragon was exposed to/contaminated by nuclear fallout from the US Castle Bravo nuclear weapon test in March of that year. Godzilla as a character originally served as a metaphor for nuclear weapons; a destructive force which is beyond nature and humanity have little control over stopping. The fact that this film not only recognizes that but openly discusses Hiroshima - if only briefly - is an important respect to pay to its predecessor.
19) The phone call between Elle and Ford not only speaks to the strength of their relationship but also shows off Elizabeth Olsen’s ability to portray raw human emotion brilliantly.
20) So there is this brief pan over jammed traffic with a downed plane while we hear reports over the radio and I think that tiny moment does an incredible job of establishing the effect of these monsters on everyday people.
21) I actually really like the military’s representation in this film, more than any other film that comes to mind. They don’t Michael Bay it by glorifying the armed forces to the point where they’re action figures or ridiculous action heroes. But it also avoids vilifying the military or dumbing them down to the point of stupidity. Everyone involved understands the weight of their decisions and David Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz has this constant eagerness to hear better ideas than what he’s coming up with because it’s not about his ego. It’s about saving as many people as they can and I like sort of the simple elegance they convey the armed forces with in this film. I hope some of that made sense.
22) Okay, is Ford nuclear or something? Because he’s like a giant monster magnet! No matter where he goes, there are giant monsters!
23) The scene on the golden gat abridge is very nice, primarily because it does the Spielbergian thing and shows the action and drama through the eyes of the kids on the bus. I like that.
24) I’ve mentioned the intelligence put in designing the MUTOs already, but particularly the mating ritual shown between the male and female is very strong. It feels natural, organic, and makes them more than just destructive forces but actual animals.
25) Remember how I said Ken Watanabe has the two bets lines in the film? Well, besides, “Gojira,” we get this iconic beauty:
26) The halo jump.
The halo jump is possibly the best set piece in the entire film and not because the action is strong but because of how freaking haunting it is. There is this absolutely stellar atmosphere which is created by the strong visuals, sound design of Ford’s breathing, and Alexandre Desplat’s eerie score. You KNOW they’re past the point of no return just because this scene is so freaking awesome.
27) I love the little moment when Godzilla’s eyes and Brody’s eyes meet. It’s like, “Yes, these are the two protagonists we’ve been following this entire time, and they connect!” I love it.
28) When Godzilla is able to use his freaking atomic breathe for the first time, that’s really when the monster vs monster action kicks off. The ensuing fight is truly badass, culminating in one epic finale which has you asking: “Why didn’t he open with that?”
29) You can tell when a film has a great climax because when it’s over, all the tension will leave your body. You just relax and take in the ending. For me, that’s how the ending of Godzilla is. Once he kills the last MUTO and lays down for a quick “you think I’m dead but I’m just napping” nap, I just take in the rest of the movie.
Although you may find issues in how little of the titular monster we actually get to see, odds are you’ll get a kick out of Godzilla. There are a handful of absolutely amazing performances (Binoche, Cranston, Watanabe) which help root a very strong human drama which gets you invested in otherwise forgettable characters. And when Godzilla does show up on screen it is utterly badass. By sacrificing some of the sheer fun the giant monster movie genre can have the filmmakers are able to create a well paced, dark, mysterious, and intriguing film which is at the end of the day still really freaking good. Again, I’ve never seen another Godzilla film, but I definitely recommend this one.