Remakes, reboots, and sequels may be – as a general rule – driven by commercial prospects rather than artistic considerations, but not all remakes, reboots, and sequels are made the same. Some, like Batman Begins a decade ago, right the many wrongs committed by its predecessors, while others, like Gareth Edwards‘ (Monsters) smartly conceived, expertly executed Godzilla – the Big G’s first big-screen appearance since Godzilla: Final Wars sent the title character into temporary retirement a decade ago – simply sidestep an earlier aborted attempt like the better-forgotten-than-acknowledged Godzilla pre-millennial remake/reboot* directed by Roland “Master of Disaster” Emmerich (White House Down, Anonymous, 2012, Independence Day). While comparisons between the two attempts at bringing Godzilla to English-speaking, mainstream audiences are (and will be) inevitable, the less said about Emmerich’s aborted misfire, the better. To paraphrase a friend’s excited, but no less accurate, response seconds after the credits rolled on The Dark Knight six years ago, this is the Godzilla we deserved (and wanted, assuming we knew what we wanted) sixteen years ago.
Contrary to what the Godzilla-centered marketing campaign suggests, Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein take a slow-build, slow-burn approach to revealing the Big G in all of his CG glory, waiting well into the second hour before offering moviegoers a complete snout-to-tail look at Godzilla. Even then, Edwards cuts away in mid-encounter, a decision likely to frustrate some moviegoers eager for instant gratification. Of course, Godzilla delivers the effects-heavy set pieces audiences have come to expect from big-budget, summer blockbuster wannabes, but at a pace and tempo out of sync with contemporary summery blockbusters. An admitted Spielberg admirer, Edwards borrows, sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily, from early, pre-schmaltz Spielberg, specifically Jaws (delaying Godzilla’s first appearance repeatedly or showing Godzilla partially or shrouded by smoke and debris) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (visually and narratively, but going into additional details risks entering spoiler territory). It’s “cinematic foreplay” to Edwards, but whatever you call his narrative approach, delaying gratification helps to build anticipation for Godzilla’s first onscreen appearance.. When we do see Godzilla, he does everything but disappoint.
Godzilla stumbles, however, where so many previous, pre-reboot entries have: In the human characters used to draw in audiences and keep them engaged between set piece battles. It’s not through lack of effort, however. Working from Max Borenstein’s screenplay, Edwards’ focuses on two generations of the Brody family (“Brody” serves as an explicit homage to Jaws), Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a middle-aged nuclear engineer, his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a scientist like her husband, and later, their twenty-something son, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an officer in the U.S. Army and a bomb disposal expert returning home to San Francisco from an unspecified mission abroad to his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), a nurse at a local hospital, and his four-year-old son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Godzilla starts off with the senior Brody as the viewpoint character – the way in, through, and out story wise for the audience – but shifts partway to Ford and remains there until the end credits roll.
Edwards and Borenstein certainly deserve credit for trying to ground a film about a gigantic, prehistoric monster in a recognizably human story of survival against seemingly impossible odds, but relying heavily on disaster movie tropes like the separated family (Ford and Ellie) and a journey or odyssey (without the Homeric subtext or thematic weight), and a series of increasingly implausible story turns that keep Ford front-and-center on the action to take down Godzilla as he makes his way across the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco (where, inevitably, the Golden Gate Bridge receives a predictable thrashing per long hallowed kaiju tropes). Ford’s bomb-defusing skills come in handy repeatedly. Those skills, however, prove to be the undoing of practically everyone around him. Ford miraculously survives one life-threatening encounter after another while his mostly faceless comrades don’t survive. Then again, moviegoers will know better than to grow attached to any character that doesn’t get top or even secondary billing.
The point A to point B plot functions – barely, it should be added – as the connective tissue necessary for the set pieces involving Godzilla. No one, of course, has or will ever see a film with “Godzilla” in the title for the human characters or their non-Godzilla-related conflicts. That said, some character development or character depth would have added the necessary emotional weight to make the outcome of the last encounter with Godzilla more than superficially meaningful or dramatically resonant. Given the cast, though, including an admirably committed Sally Hawkins as a scientist studying oversized fauna for more than a decade and Ken Watanabe as the serious-minded Japanese scientist (his character takes his name directly from the original film’s central character), David (David Strathairn as the head of the U.S. military response, among others, it’s difficult not to think about another, better unmade Godzilla film.
Still, Edwards succeeds where Emmerich failed: In bringing the wonder and awe, and the large-scale spectacle to a character that devolved from his semi-terrifying origin sixty years ago as the representation or personification of (Japanese) nuclear fears, anxieties, and post-war trauma to become the campy punchline to a long-running joke. Edwards’ Godzilla takes his cues from the not-infrequent depiction of the King of the Monsters as a pitiless force of nature – or in the words of one Toho producer, Shogo Tomiyama – a “god of destruction,” an apt representation of a malleable character that reflects deep-seated, contemporary fears and anxieties.
* You remake a film; you reboot a series or franchise.