Let them fight.
The line is uttered by Ken Watanabe’s character as the movie enters its third act, and it is the key to understanding the value of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. From that point on, and after about an hour and a half of build-up, the movie gives over to its monstrous protagonist, as he engages in an epic fight against other two monsters on the streets of San Francisco. That is what we all came to see. Maybe I was damaged by the incompetent big-scale action of last year’s Pacific Rim and Man of Steel (both of which were released by Warner Bros., the studio behind Godzilla), but I didn’t expect to find the battle between two giant monsters to be as meticulously staged as what Edwards does in Godzilla. He builds tension and takes its time in a way that Hollywood blockbusters rarely do these days. This approach has earned him comparisons to Spielberg -the influence of Jaws and Jurassic Park is obvious- and it makes Godzilla feel like a gigantic symphony of destruction and awesomeness.
Because awesome is the best word to describe Godzilla. This is a description that should be worn as a trophy, because Edwards and his movie truly earn it. Now, here’s the part when things get a little personal. It isn’t uncommon for American audiences to cheer when they’re watching a movie in the theater, or to clap at the end of a screening, but where I grew up, this kind of behavior is virtually nonexistent. I will laugh and cry at movies, but I have never cheered. Well, I had never cheered, because the measured pace with which Godzilla took its time to build up to the climatic battle resulted in a moment so profoundly satisfying that not only did the whole theater cheer and clap, so did I. For the first time ever, and I believe that must count for something.
The thing about Godzilla is that not only does it know how to structure itself in order to reach the most primal levels of excitement in the audience, but that more so than any other tentpole movie released in the past ten years or so, it feels like the movie has a unified vision and a purpose beyond all of its effectiveness as entertainment. This is in keeping with the tradition of the original Gojira, from 1954, which featured the monster destroying Japan as a metaphor for the country’s tragic history with atomic energy. 60 years, and another nuclear disaster later, Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla takes a similar albeit broader approach to metaphor, as the monster not only represents nuclear power, but all kinds of natural disasters that are out of our control as human beings. Beneath its B-movie pleasures, Godzilla carries the bleak message that -to quote the late George Carlin- the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.
Not only is Godzilla notable for presenting such a terrifying, yet relevant, message, but because it seems like everything about the movie seems to be in service of delivering it. Some of the movie’s detractors have complained that the human characters are boring and poorly sketched out, and that the movie loses all interest in them in its second half. Both of these things are true, I just don’t think they are weaknesses. Sure, the movie might have benefitted if its supporting characters, which are played by such amazing actors as Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, and Ken Watanabe, had better material to work with. But as it stands, the movie starts as almost a character piece following Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, to then give over to Godzilla, making it clear to not let us forget that, in the large scheme of things, we are all puny humans, and this monster is beyond all of our control. The world doesn’t get destroyed in Godzilla, but not thanks to us. Every plan the humans try to use to stop the monsters fails horribly, so at the end, humanity keeps going, but the only thing it has gained out of the experience is that we are completely powerless.
Grade: 8 out of 10