Pacific Rim. Star Trek: Into Darkness. Godzilla. Poor San Francisco can’t seem to catch a break come blockbuster season. The lure of icons such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown (and their distance from 9/11’s New York) inevitably beckon destruction-oriented filmmakers to its western shores. This time, Godzilla director Gareth Edwards has crafted one of the most visually stimulating and unabashedly iconic action films of the decade, largely through repeated juxtapositions of scale and an avoidance of familial tropes. As far as cinematic wonder goes, more than Pacific Rim, more than any of the recent crop of superhero films, Godzilla is this young generation’s Jurassic Park. And it is far, far better.
After an ominous opening scene in the Philippines the film cuts to Bryan Cranston’s idyllic Japanese home. Among the first words we hear from him is the name “Takashi” (a nod to Gojira’s Takashi Shimura). It is 15 years in the past. Both Cranston and his wife, played by Juliette Binoche, are engineers, and Cranston is arguing on the phone with a co-worker at the nuclear power plant. There have been recent unaccountable seismic tremors. Inevitably, disaster strikes. While Cranston survives, Binoche does not. Their final, poignant exchange is the first and last emotional buoy offered by the film.
In the present, Cranston and his estranged son Ford (played by Kick-Ass’s Aaron Taylor-Johnson) return to the now-quarantined location that fractured their family. The underground tremors have started again, and the cause they discover that night is the first of two towering MUTOs, “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms,” this one fitted with wings.
Counter to popular opinion, I found Cranston’s early death to be one of Edwards’s shrewdest decisions, because by far the most atypical — and highly productive– aspect of this blockbuster is its near-total disregard for family. To put it in other words, no one really gets to have one. First Cranston watches his wife die. Then Cranston’s son watches him die. Ford, now an orphaned Navy lieutenant whose specialty is disarming bombs, essentially navigates the film alone. While several of his lines involve an obligatory mouthing of the words “my family,” referring to a wife and son, we get all of five minutes of screentime with the three of them sharing the same frame. They are a distant hope in the movie rather than a constant, screeching, helpless, about-to-die-and-must-be-defended presence.
As a viewer, the above is a kindness, but it also means our hero needn’t spend the majority of his time awkwardly trying to win or protect anyone of emotional value; for two hours, he is simply trying not to die. There is no need to “get the girl”; Ford is already married. He needn’t win his father’s approval; his father wins his and then perishes. For all intents and purposes, Godzilla is two things: the hero and the monsters. It invests emotional resonance almost exclusively in its harrowing action and suspense, and it is understandable why this may not be enough for many. I’ve previously touched upon the difference in action of blockbusters devoid of romance (e.g., G.I. Joe: Retaliation, White House Down). Briefly, it provides fewer action-unspecific opportunities for the audience to cringe (recent Spock/Uhura dialogue) or dismiss the film outright due to “a lack of chemistry.” It untethers the action of the film from the failings of skeletal characters, who are in Godzilla unfortunately abundant.
By far the film’s biggest failing is its dismissiveness of supporting characters. Ken Watanabe, here playing the Resident Asian, is reduced to a series of inane sound bites and furrowed brows. That Ford, our cookie-cutter American hero, temporarily adopts a Dominican Bucky does nothing to ease the discomfort of viewing a San Francisco somehow lacking in people of color.
However, while Ford is a product of the military, in Godzilla he is not a propagandized vehicle for the military. He stands alone, unattached to the brothership of kin or a military unit. There are guns, of course — pointless, pointless guns — but the film lacks the overt thrust of previous years’ draft-baiting behemoths; it makes people shooting at the unfamiliar look both useless and boring.
What the film does well is thrill unarmed. Men lie supine on elevated train tracks as a MUTO observes them from below. We watch others leap out of planes and into the statistical improbability of their survival. In short, there is an emphasis on the power of individual scenes rather than narrative sequences. Paired with tremendous sound design, these moments are nothing short of poetic. Shots of a train derailing and sailing into black waters, for example, are closer in nuance to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping than any number of Godzilla’s cinematic peers.
Which is to say the following: sound saves this film. (As does humor. What else can one make of the dystopian-“When Doves Cry” music video outtake of one MUTO courting another with a long-stemmed hydrogen bomb?) Akira Ifukube’s Gojira score is one of the most widely revered auralscapes in the arena of monster films, which makes Alexandre Desplat’s triumph as Godzilla’s composer 60 years later all the more jawdropping. Counter to my complaints last December about the homogenous low-end belching of recent action scores, Desplat employs diverse, frequently non-Western instruments and motifs from start to finish. On the technical end, there are countless aural rack focuses between the sound effects of mayhem and the subtle devastations of the score. While the majority of the conversation regarding juxtaposition of scale has been of a visual nature, the aural interplay of diagetic catastrophe and nondiagetic grace is its own cinematic achievement, particularly in a genre so ensconced in turgid walls of noise.
No argument for or against this film can avoid the topic of destruction. Its last half hour is dedicated almost exclusively to the anticipated fight between Godzilla and the two MUTOs. Amid fires and the rippling sheets of falling buildings, Godzilla appears to viewers as a sentinel of impenetrable ash. The difference between this final battle and the Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian demolition-braun of Man of Steel is in the absence of millions running for their lives. San Francisco’s victims are prepared, desperate for their shelters to make it through the night. Do any of these people believe a nuclear bomb can destroy monsters that feed on radiation? Probably not, and neither does the audience.
Despite an engaging display of hand-to-hand monster combat (hey, it’s harder than it looks), Godzilla’s lack of motive for saving humanity comes across as poor writing gone worse, the inevitable oversight in plot symptomatic of so many CGI erections (every action film has one). After Godzilla saves the city and lumbers back into the sea, any frustration with Ford as a character playing a human — rather than the other way around — is replaced with frustration over Godzilla used as a deus ex machina in his own film. Endings aren’t easy, but laziness with a titular character is just begging for criticism, especially after coming so far.