Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards’ (Monsters) 2014 American re-imagining of the Japanese series of monster films, may be built in the mold of other big-budget blockbuster films and even the Godzilla franchise itself but like the titular beast it turns out to be a whole different type of animal. Much criticism has been aimed at the underdeveloped human characters and story but in the case of this film, those claims are irrelevant. The humans don’t matter, for Godzilla is a post-human blockbuster. It isn’t rare for a multi-million dollar studio tent-pole to have a perspective of spectacle stomping all over the plot & characters, but this is a film in which characters are defined by their insignificance instead of their actions. The filmmakers have crafted a confidently paced monster movie that flies in the face of the typical “multiple action set pieces strung together by exposition” template/formula of contemporary action-blockbuster films. The film devotes its first hour to the deep tragedy of a single family, before building outwards to an awe-inspiring climax that’s less dependent on what we’re seeing than on how we’re seeing it. The majority of the film, like most previous Godzilla features sees the “plot (and all the action)” shown primarily from a human point of view. Viewers are privy only to what father/son duo Joe and Lt. Ford Brody (Bryan Cranston and Aaron-Taylor Johnson, respectively) suspect, discover, and experience for themselves. As the film progresses, however, the perspective through which this story unfolds undergoes a slow shift towards an omniscient one.
The creative team of this new Godzilla understands that scale is not enough to fully express the smallness of the film’s human characters. Edwards’ Godzilla is the result of a creative team attempting to reconcile the essence of the original franchise with the demands of a modern blockbuster. This film may not need viewers to care about its characters, but it still needs to have some. The films’ solution is to use the human subplots as a connective narrative tissue for a story that is about to transition from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism. It’s the theme that is ultimately at the heart of the film with the gradual reorienting of the human story & characters until we (the people in the film & the audience via proxy) are reduced to passive observers as behemoths battle above, oblivious to humanity.
In Godzilla, nearly every human action is futile and/or fatal, at most they are relegated to the smallest of victories. Godzilla, who receives the most characterization in the film despite his limited screen appearances, is portrayed as both humanity’s reckoning and its salvation: he is the response to humanity’s unchecked parasitic relationship with our planet; his scale, power and obliviousness to humans is a reminder of people’s supporting role as stewards of the Earth rather than sole beneficiaries. It’s a thematic element reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and it is woven seamlessly w/ Godzilla’s traditional monster-movie trappings. It can be said that the human element of the film is lackluster, but it is clearly based on how Edward’s crafted his film: that humanity was purposefully crafted to be outright unimportant. After all, no one watches a monster movie for any of the characters aside from the monster. Edwards remains committed to that design and intent and he executes that vision almost perfectly and while some of his creative decisions may alienate the average blockbuster audience, it is subversive enough to stand out as a memorable experience.
In a blockbuster-filmmaking era of indulgent excess such as Transformers and Man of Steel, it can be easy for viewers to get desensitized to spectacle. We live in an era where anything & everything is possible on screen: anything that can be blown to bits will be exploded with a vengeance. Any creature spawned from the vast possibilities of imagination can be brought to life and given a concrete form. In making a film like Godzilla, Edwards certainly had a novel enough twist on the concept but it still begs the question as to how or if he can “wow” an audience who has practically “seen it all?” Edwards tackles that dilemma by going the opposite route of most big budget-spectacles: he made a disaster & monster movie that keeps the monsters & disasters off-screen for much of the running time. This film isn’t about the excess or indulgence, it’s crafted on a rhythm of tease & payoff. And when Godzilla, the crowned “King of the Monsters,” makes full appearances, the direction of the film never once fails to provide a composition designed to maximize a sense of scale. With the budget & technology only Hollywood can muster, the monster mash that has always been the main event of these films is fully realized in creative and fulfilling ways. The slow-burn of the poorly conceived human “drama” gives way little by little primarily to shape the film’s almost eerie atmosphere but mostly it exists to withhold and eventually give the eventual appearance of the creatures in this feature a truly iconic and seismic impact. The film is seducing the audience, not ravishing them.
It was brave for a studio tent pole to embrace that perspective and take. Some audiences, more accustomed to the hyperkinetic-excesses of late may refuse to embrace such a bold move and they wouldn’t be wrong to be turned off by much of the acting, dialogue and story and truth be told, the film could have cut a few of scenes here and there. Ultimately when the movie locks down its focus, it performs with an uncanny sense of efficiency and purpose. As a marker for when the movie is at its best, Edwards starts slowly aligning the human point of view with that of the titular monster. It’s symbolic of the humans finally seeing for the first time the big picture. In the end, the film serves as a resonant reminder that just because we’re the planet’s predominant storytellers doesn’t mean that the story should always necessarily be about us.