By Shane M. Dallmann
As a (almost literally) life-long G-fan, I looked forward to Gareth Edwards’ take on the Toho phenomenon with perhaps more curiosity and anticipation than any other film in G-history. We were more than familiar with what happened when the Devlin/Emmerich team tried to give us Godzilla (I knew we were in trouble when they proclaimed that they were going to give us what we had “really” wanted all along): some say the ’98 film just didn’t happen, while Toho’s canonical take says that it happened, all right, but that it was a case of mistaken identity.
I was more than intrigued with how Edwards was going to treat the material thanks to his debut feature MONSTERS (which was far more about the humans than the title creatures). Toho obviously liked what they saw, and without further testing, Edwards was essentially given carte blanche (and the keys to the most up-to-date effects candy store imaginable) to do a G-film as he saw fit. So… would I accept this as a true G-film? And if so, would I finally have to put aside my decades-long assertion that a G-film simply HAD to have suit actors and miniature sets?
Well… yes. And yes. But that second “yes” comes with an explanation all the same…
As with many an authentic Toho production, there’s the 1954 original and then there’s this movie. Allow me to set the stage briefly. Imagine that the Bikini Atoll atomic “testing” wasn’t the incident that awakened Godzilla in the first place. Let’s say it was actually an attempt to take him OUT upon his discovery and that all it did was make him even more formidable. The facts of the case have been successfully covered up, but the lid is about to blow off big time.
The first new rumblings start in 1999, where dedicated American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) suffers a devastating loss but survives a disaster at a Japanese nuclear power plant. He becomes an obsessed Ahab but isn’t even allowed to know the true nature of his white whale. And in the present day, his continuing quest eventually snares his military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who wishes that Dad could just “let it go” but reluctantly finds himself assisting the cause. Ford’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) is a nurse faced with the responsibility of protecting her patients and her own young son on her own when Ford heads off to Japan. Ken Watanabe provides the historical/emotional link to both the big G and Hiroshima as a character named “Dr. Serizawa” in tribute to the Honda original, and he’s assisted by Sally Hawkins, who… okay, she doesn’t really get to DO an awful lot.
Make no mistake–there is PLENTY of human drama happening here, but all of it is legitimately tied in to the spectre and legacy of Godzilla, making the deliberately-paced build-up to the “big reveal” quite worth it as handled by Edwards. Not that “nothing happens” before Godzilla’s arrival on dry land–far from it. By now, most everybody knows that Godzilla is NOT the only monster in this new movie (you do NOT get surprise appearances by Rodan, Ghidrah or any other recognizable Toho characters, but you’ll find the name of Mothra written down if you know where to look); and Serizawa realizes, too late, that the past handling of a certain discovery in the Phillipines is about to give rise to kaiju mayhem on two separate continents!
As for the rest… I’d rather not describe it in detail. I’ll tell you that Godzilla does, indeed, make one hell of an entrance (perhaps the best since that in 1964’s GODZILLA VS. THE THING). At that point, the film makes its one mis-step (in my opinion, anyway) by slowing down for yet another “breather” before resuming the action… but again, it’s worth the wait… and just when you’re wondering “Hey, isn’t Godzilla supposed to…?” It’s been a while since I heard a packed theatrical audience applaud like THAT…
And there it is… it’s all about what Godzilla is supposed to BE and what he’s supposed to DO, and Gareth Edwards “gets” it like nobody outside of Toho Studios ever did before. From atomic terror to unstoppable force of nature… from destroyer to savior… Godzilla is showcased with awe and respect throughout–and it’s quite simply true that today’s advances in special effects have finally allowed both the mass destruction and the kaiju battles to appear 100% authentic. You’re not thinking about or recognizing “CGI” here… you’re watching living, breathing, organic creatures raising believable hell. Which brings me to the explanation I promised about the role of suit actors earlier. No, we don’t have the rubber suits anymore (look closely during the opening credits for an amusing reference to them all the same), but the art form has NOT died. It has EVOLVED. The kaiju in this new movie, as with all true Godzilla movies, are STILL played by actors–only now they’re taking advantage of state-of-the-art motion capture technology and learning from the best in the form of Andy Serkis himself.
(I wish Roger Ebert had lived to see this as he constantly pounded on the special effects whenever he knocked a G-film: he even junked Honda’s original…!!)
And there you have it. As is the case with even the very best tribute films, I can’t proclaim the new GODZILLA to be “better” than the rest simply because it owes absolutely everything to what went on before. But Gareth Edwards has done the seemingly impossible by successfully assimilating the true “G” effect and never allowing it to be swallowed up by technology unimaginable in the days of Ishiro Honda. The new GODZILLA is a more-than-worthy addition to the saga and stands shoulder-to-shoulder to the best of Toho.
(One last thing: I saw the film in 2-D and didn’t think I was missing out on anything significant by not plunking down for the conversion–if you feel differently, let me know.)