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New Release Review - Godzilla

New take on Ishiro Honda's classic monster movie.

Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn




15 years ago, Joe Brody's (Cranston) wife died when a "natural disaster" caused the meltdown of the Japanese nuclear plant the couple were employed at. Joe has spent the intervening years seeking answers as to what really caused the destruction and is arrested when found trespassing in the contaminated zone. His son Ford (Taylor Johnson), a member of an elite US Army bomb disposal outfit, travels to Japan to bail him out and is talked into accompanying Joe back into the contaminated zone to look for answers. There they are captured and taken to a secret research facility where scientists Ichiro (Watanabe) and Vivienne (Hawkins) have been conducting studies on something that is about to get very out of hand.
Many have complained about Hollywood rebooting movies made within the last century, yet this is something that's happened since the birth of the studio system and has resulted in some classic films. 1940's His Girl Friday is a remake of The Front Page, a film released only nine years earlier, while 1931's The Maltese Falcon was rebooted a mere 10 years later. In both cases the remake is far superior to its source. Hollywood's latest quickly turned around reboots have likewise been vast improvements. Rupert Wyatt's take on Planet of the Apes and Marc Webb's incarnation of Spiderman have thankfully wiped away the memory of Tim Burton and Sam Raimi's efforts from earlier in the century. It may not feel like it's been 16 years since Roland Emmerich unleashed his monstrosity on audiences, but Gareth Edwards has now successfully extinguished the lingering odour left by 1998's Godzilla.
Ever since Edwards blew us away with his 2010 mumblecore monster movie Monsters, the best sci-fi movie of this century, we've been eagerly awaiting his take on Ishiro Honda's classic creation. Going from the guerilla film-making of Monsters to a $160 million Hollywood behemoth is the equivalent of a Sunday league coach getting the manager's job at Real Madrid. Now that it's arrived, I can honestly say we have a natural successor to Spielberg.  
For roughly three quarters of Godzilla, my jaw was on the floor, my nails dug into the armrest of my seat. No other blockbuster in recent memory contains the sort of spectacle Edwards creates and watching his film made me understand how audiences must have felt back in the 1950s, the heyday of monster movies. Edwards acknowledges his debt to this era, opening the movie with a black and white montage packed with the sort of stock footage B-Movies relied on to convey military maneuvers. The storyline retrofits the atomic tests of the 1950s as failed attempts to destroy Godzilla, which thankfully spares the need for expositional scenes of Generals and boffins arguing over what they have on their hands. The dialogue we do get is quite poor but thankfully it's at a minimum as Edwards lets his pictures tell the story for the most part.
Homages to Spielberg abound. Our first glimpse of the title creature is a stunning update of one of the most memorable shots in Jaws and had this reviewer resisting the urge to stand up and applaud. Close Encounters' ship in a desert is reworked with a Russian submarine in a forest. And the firestrewn, out of control train from War of the Worlds is referenced in a tense scene on a dark Nevada mountainside. 
The greatest compliment to Edwards with regards to his obvious influence is that he understands Spielberg's use of light in a way none of his peers seem able to grasp. Like his self-created aliens in Monsters, the creatures here have pulsating, glowing body parts that make for some stunning moments when we catch glimpses of them through fog or beneath the surface of the ocean. Edwards uses light, or the lack of, to ensure we only see what he wants us to, what we need to. He also has Spielberg's knack of directing our gaze without moving the camera, through moving objects subtly in the frame. And, again like Spielberg, he makes great use of reflective surfaces. He's got Spielberg's knack for humour too, evidenced in a lovely moment involving Ford's young son watching Godzilla wreak havoc on a news report while his Mum (Olsen) obliviously lectures him about watching garbage on TV.
Yes, folks, we have a master film-maker on our hands. Take a bow Mister Edwards. But a great film-maker is only as good as his script and it's this element that keeps Godzilla short of being a truly great blockbuster. Thankfully, the script issues don't begin to hinder the film until the final act but for the last 30 minutes or so we're inexplicably left with no characters to empathise with beyond Taylor-Johnson, who, as a military man, doesn't allow us to fear for him in the same way a civilian character would. Elizabeth Olsen should have been this movie's Ann Darrow but her character is pointless, appearing onscreen for no more than a combined total of 10 minutes. That she's playing a paramedic, who is never called on to employ such useful skills, suggests studio interference in the cutting room. The same goes for her young son, who also disappears for the movie's climax, when we're left watching an admittedly stunning but not so engaging giant monster smackdown.
Edwards' film moves at a rapid pace, so an extra half hour of humans in peril certainly wouldn't have slowed it down and may well have elevated it to the level of his fellow Brit Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the one truly great sci-fi blockbuster of our time. It's odd how in an era when every blockbuster runs for an overlong 2.5 hours, Godzilla plays for two hours and feels 30 minutes too short. 
8/10


Eric Hillis

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