Gojira, birthed by the nuclear age in 1954 with his first appearance in Ishiro Honda’s film released through the legendary Toho studios, dubbed and recut with new footage under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956 for the American market, celebrates his sixtieth birthday this year. With over thirty filmed appearances and now approaching retirement age, can even a revered cultural icon, this visiting foreign dignitary from another land, another age, be relevant in the modern blockbuster era?
Budgeted at around $160 million, this is approximately three hundred times the resources director Gareth Edwards had at his disposal for his previous film Monsters, the critically acclaimed tale of two mismatched travellers attempting to make their way home across the infected zone where extraterrestrial organisms existed in an uneasy encroachment on the previous inhabitants of the area, but the confidence and scope demonstrated by Edwards fast tracked him to Hollywood glory.
More forceful and driven than the calm meditation of that debut, the redacted title sequence acknowledges the investment in the history of the character, black and white photographs and footage and secret documents giving way to faded colour film from Cold War experiments in the Pacific basin, testifying to the power of nuclear bombs, a glimpse of the surfacing leviathan attesting to an even deeper agenda.
The repercussions of these explosive events echo into modern times, starting in the Philippines 1999 in where an open cast mining excavation has located a radiation pocket; while investigating further, a collapse in the valley floor led to the loss of forty miners, but the rescue mission uncovers something unexpected, a vast and ancient skeleton and indications that something large and powerful may already have escaped from the pit.
Across the East China Sea in the Japanese coastal city of Janjira, Joe Brody (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) is concerned about the aftershocks of “the Philippines incident,” publicly reported as an earthquake. Packing their young son Ford off to school, he asks his wife Sandra (The English Patient’s Juliette Binoche) to recheck the sensors on the reactor floor to confirm his belief that the disturbance is ongoing. While he prepares to confront the senior executives with his concerns and ask that they initiate safety protocols the tremors suddenly magnify and a full scale alert is initiated, Ford watching helplessly from his classroom.
Fifteen years later, Ford (Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the United States Navy, living with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson, currently filming The Avengers: The Age of Ultron) and young son when he is summoned to Tokyo, his father having been arrested for trespassing on the quarantined area of the Janjira disaster. Still obsessed with the events of that day and blaming himself for the death of his wife even though he was the one who raised the alarm, Joe is convinced that what occurred was not a natural disaster, that the powerful tremors were in fact a form of echolocation.
The more balanced of the two, Ford has dealt with the loss of his mother only in as much as he has buried it deeper, but he allows himself to be persuaded by his father to accompany him to their old home in Janjira. Joe hopes to recover the data he was analysing prior to the disaster, Ford hopes it may allow his father to finally lay the ghosts to rest and move on, but instead they find that animals which should not be able to survive are thriving in the area, that there is in fact no contamination, that the quarantine is a lie to cover up a more devastating truth.
While fortunately avoiding most of the inherent stupidity which drives the plot of blockbusters other than the shortsighted design of a power station with only a single safety door, the sacrifice of the epic is the requirement that it be less personal than Monsters; for example the relationship between Ford and Elle shorthanded by a scene of them snuggling on the sofa as the music swells rather than being earned, the corresponding scene of him tucking his son into bed more honest, Taylor-Johnson being father to two young daughters himself.
If there is a narrative contrivance it is the reliance on Ford’s pretty eyes to be the constant unfortunate witness, always conveniently present at each incident; when the military tracking devices fail, rather than hoping for sightings of the wayward monsters it would have been sufficient just track to him as he and the MUTOs will inevitably cross paths, but nothing is as important as the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms themselves, and here the film does not disappoint.
In a modern twist on the inspiration of the original, the memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seared into Japanese consciousness, Gojira is believed to be an ancient alpha predator which subsisted on radiation, hibernating in the eons since natural levels reduced; that we have woken it is our nuclear legacy. While the unnamed parasite which has been gestating in Janjira is a nightmare monster which would give the bugs of Klendathu a run for their money the true revelation is as the unstoppable terror of a tsunami gives way to the magnificence of Gojira’s first appearance.
Crucially, the creatures, particularly Gojira, have personality, the audience becoming spectators in a million year old fight between the god and the parasite which challenges our supremacy of the planet, knocking jet fighters out of the sky on a whim, and only what is directly witnessed is shown on screen.
Much of what occurs is hidden from sight, blocked by the heads of those closer to the action or concealed behind closed doors but in the same way that Sandra’s death is unseen, the concealment never implying that inevitability can be bargained with, a contrast to the hope expressed by Doctor Serizawa (Inception’s Ken Watanabe) that Gojira will restore balance, a somewhat optimistic reach on which to pin the survival of the entire human race.
With escalating levels of mystery with an unstoppable forward momentum, Godzilla is a natural continuation for Edwards, building on the experience of Monsters but moving it to another level. Reminders of his debut are everywhere; the illumination of exploding ordnance in the hills at night, the jungle lit by tracer bullets and fire, the river of debris, the borderline military porn with fleets of helicopters and jet fighters over ruined cities and the massed ships in San Francisco bay, though if it were a true B-movie these would all be stock footage boosting the profile of the armed forces rather than expertly created digital effects. Importantly, the vast destruction is not fetishised in the same way it was in Man of Steel, with often only the aftermath visible or important scenes playing in parallel, the drama rising as the buildings fall.
Having personally created all the effects for Monsters, Edwards is comfortable both enhancing scenes and dropping in entire digital backdrops environments to play the action against. Understanding how the process works and communicating his expectations to the vast team now under his command in their own language, including special effects guru John Dykstra, it is under his guidance that the king of the monsters has had his crown restored.
Godzilla is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX