Serious-minded, restrained and often breathtaking, director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is deliberately and firmly planted in the less-is-more camp and I relished not only this approach but the film as well. In an era of movies that race to the finish line, fearing the viewer won’t sit still for scenes to play out in a more satisfying way, this new take on the now 60 year old Japanese cinematic /cultural icon will surprise ardent kaijū eiga fans in how similar in concept/tone/pacing to the Toho films it actually is. Mainstream American audiences, used to overdoses of cgi spectacle may find this Godzilla’s methodical pacing a tad frustrating at times.
Without going into all of the plot specifics let me just say that the film begins with some wonderfully acted and effective scenes between Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche (husband/wife who work at a nuclear plant) that provide an emotional foundation which creates a tone that lingers over the rest of the film. It’s as if the filmmakers, knowing that the film will eventually succumb to giant beasts battling, front-loaded it with the strongest character scenes. As the film goes on, the character scenes are divided up mostly between Aaron Taylor-Johnson /Elizabeth Olsen who play a soldier/wife and David Strathairn/Sally Hawkins/Ken Watanabe who play General/Scientists. These characters and scenes are decidedly less dramatic but are still engaging enough.
But enough about the humans.
The rest of the film belongs to the monsters and, in effort to mirror Toho’s usual story structure, it becomes Godzilla protecting the world from other monsters (here it doesn’t really have a name but is referred to as a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Edwards creates a genuine sense of majesty and scary-beauty to all of the scenes with the M.U.T.O. and (especially) Godzilla. Something as simple as Godzilla swimming under a bridge becomes a jaw dropping visual flourish. Instead of fast cutting and lots of explosions, Edwards goes the other way and sells so many scenes with nuance and surprising amounts of quiet. Also, unlike the disappointing Pacific Rim, Edwards gives us the proper amount of glorious long shots allowing us see these giant creatures in full scale with plenty of landscape around them. The last battle is a knockout that will especially appeal to and elicit adrenaline-charged grins from hardcore Godzilla fans.
I wish I could have seen Godzilla just a little more than the film allows and I think one or two more scenes in the daytime would have been great but, overall, this is a monster movie done right. Highly recommended.