Legendary’s Godzilla did something few movies manage to do these days; it surprised me.
I went in expecting a more modern Godzilla 1985 with an enemy kaiju thrown in to make Goji the lesser of two evils. What I got was something much more fascinating, and something that I never would have thought possible; a film that combines Godzilla’s heroic side with a dark seriousness that has previously only accompanied his villainous roles.
From the opening sequence retelling the discovery and nuking of Godzilla in the 50s, stylishly shot in archive style and propelled by the brilliantly intimidating score, the tone is set; this is a fearsome, no-nonsense film that has no time for cheesy jokes or self-mocking references. It’s even scary at times. And I love that. It’s an immensely refreshing change for the genre.
So far so awesome, but also just what I’d anticipated.
But from there, it ripped free of my expectations; characters I thought would live died, and vice versa. And Godzilla, instead of being a rampaging engine of destruction, became a noble, heroic figure. The only times he ever destroys anything not named Muto is by accident; like the Heisei Gamera, he’s good at heart, he just gets so caught up in fighting the bad guys he forgets he’s smashing things underfoot. By the end of the film, a TV broadcast is proclaiming him “saviour of the city”.
And they didn’t just transplant the Toho Godzilla into their movie either; they created their own unique beast; a sympathetic, misunderstood monster who can be ferocious and powerful, but who seems to have little interest on focussing these traits on mankind. We’re simply getting in his way.
Like G54 and GMK, this is a topical Godzilla as well; echoes of the Fukushima disaster are palpable in the tsunami and nuclear plant destruction scenes, radioactie waste comes back to bite us in the arse, and the Muto's EMP ability accentuates just how vulnerable we are to the disruption of the technology we rely on.
Speaking of the Mutos, they’re a worthy addition to the genre menagerie; creepy in design, menacing in presence, and different enough not to feel like a derivative rehash of any previously seen kaiju.
Like Gamera 3, however, the film keeps its narrative firmly grounded from a human perspective. Thankfully, as with G3, the acting and characters are strong enough that this doesn’t really hurt the film. In fact, it makes the kaiju appear that much more impactful by juxtaposing them with gritty reality and placing the audience in the character’s shoes. There was one scene, (where a build up to a fight scene cuts away and only shows a glimpse of the conflict on TV) where I did feel a bit cheated by the limits of this approach, and I was worried that this would extend to the final battle as well, though thankfully this fear proved unfounded.
So it’s not perfect; I also wish Godzilla’s heat ray wasn’t so sparingly used, and the human drama, while solid, wasn’t quite as compelling as in G54 or Gamera 3, but it’s hard to begrudge a few minor shortcomings it the face of all that this film accomplishes; doing justice to an iconic character, making giant monsters seem completely serious and realistic, and most impressively of all, making heroic Godzilla no laughing matter.
In this age of cynicism and predictability, it's nice to be surprised.