One of the great challenges in making a film like Godzilla is what to do with the human characters, and it’s an issue that’s inspired much debate in the last couple weeks. Ultimately, a $160 million film about a giant lizard monster is almost always going to spend far more time killing thousands of CGI humans than it will making us care about the motivations and emotions of our protagonists. As useless and troublesome as they may be, the humans are there to provide audiences with a way in to the action, and the best blockbusters use this concept to their advantage. I would argue this new Godzilla is one such film, and in many ways it approaches its subject matter in a similar fashion to what you see in Spielberg films like Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. Spielberg is a master at making audiences feel as though they are experiencing these extraordinary events right alongside the human characters, thus creating the illusion of shared experience and a genuine sense of wonder. The characters in many of his blockbusters are no more fascinating than those in Godzilla, but he exploits their ability to be the “portal” audiences use to enter the world.
The Spielberg comparison is an easy one to make whenever you see a film like this, but there are sequences in Godzilla—directed by Gareth Edwards—where the similarities are unavoidable. The characters here are types, to be sure, but the film is made in such a way that we’re able to see each moment through their eyes. That, along with Edwards’ slow, deliberate reveal of what precisely we are dealing with, makes for enormously effective blockbuster filmmaking. The audience always feels as though they are one, two, perhaps several steps behind, even though anyone who’s ever seen a movie can probably guess where the film is going. There are no genuine surprises in Godzilla, per se, but Edwards has pulled off the considerable feat of making the predictable feel fresh, or at the very least reinvigorated.
Edwards’ first film was Monsters, a $500,000 indie that showed incredible promise without ever once indicating he was capable of some of the sequences we see in this film. This is a considerable leap forward in terms of scale and profile, but Edwards is able to stage some of the most startlingly assured blockbuster setpieces I’ve seen in quite some time. So often in films like this the compositions can feel haphazard, but Edwards is meticulous in the way he constructs both individual shots, scenes and the film as a whole. This is a generation full of filmmakers who aspire to make movies like Spielberg did, but Edwards feels like the first one who was actually taking notes. He is very careful in the way he establishes his world, and when the titular monster finally gets his close-up, it’s a truly rousing moment. When he arrives, his reputation precedes him. Godzilla is certainly no triumph of acting or writing, but it is a triumph of directing. When you’re dealing with a movie like this, that’s 85 percent of the battle.
In fact, the reason I don’t particularly care that the humans are one-note is because I did not need them to be. They serve their purpose well, though I won’t deny that Godzilla can sometimes feel like a waste of truly talented actors. In particular, performers like Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins are given almost nothing to do beside look concerned and scared about the events unfolding in front of them. (Watanabe wears just a single facial expression pretty much the entire movie.) Even the actors with more to do, like Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston, are forced to step aside and let the giant creatures do their work. It would be even more annoying if those creatures weren’t so darn good at that work.
Godzilla is given a solid dose of modern relevance by cleverly playing off tragedies such as the Fukushima disaster, and this gives the film a reason to exist beyond just “big lizard scream and go boom.” If there is a central theme to the film, it is the almost Herzog-ian notion that nature does not give a crap about humanity and will one day swallow us whole. This is an idea Watanabe bluntly verbalizes at one point, but Edwards impressively backs this up with his style. Much of the action is filmed from the point of view of someone on the ground, and the audience often feels as though it’s been placed in the path of a giant monster uncaringly stomping toward its goal. Just as there isn’t much character to the humans, there’s no real attempt to give the monsters much of a motivation. This is not a case of E.T. wanting to go back home. These beasts have their sights set squarely on Earth, and we homo sapiens are little more than ants beneath nature’s magnifying glass. In the world of Godzilla, there is only one way to survive: get the heck out of the way.