by Tony Dayoub
What's the cinematic controversy of the week? Is it that the prestigious Cannes Film Festival chose to open with a crappy Grace Kelly biopic? Or that somehow the end of the superhero film might be nigh because The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is sputtering before it's even broke $200 million domestically? Maybe it's the mixed reaction to the design of the outfit Batfleck will be wearing when he goes up against the Man of Steel? No, what's got critics (and any audience that might give a shit) divided is the fact that everyone's favorite kaiju doesn't stroll onto the screen in the new Godzilla until about halfway into the 2-hour movie. Is this really a thing?
I'll grant you that I didn't grow up watching the Toho Godzilla series that began in the mid-50s. I don't know if the new film directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters) breaks some sort of unspoken rule that kaijus must dominate the screen from the very outset. I'm not sure such a rule would even be broken since we are introduced fairly early to an insect-like MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) fairly early in the film. But the truth is, whether it fits with existing genre parameters or not, I don't care. One of the reasons I really couldn't get into the old Godzilla films was because it felt interminable watching some guy in a rubber suit lumber around a miniature model city as the movie cut back to anonymous Japanese citizens screaming out English dialogue badly synced to their moving lips. Your catnip, Godzilla die-hards, was my stinky cheese.
Here, in this American reboot of the Godzilla franchise, we have a fairly promising director using a panoply of not really very original film techniques taken from the modern suspense repertoire to actually instill thrills, excitement and anticipation over the inevitable battle royale between the heroic Godzilla and the gargantuan enemy MUTO that will cut a swath of destruction stretching from Japan to Honolulu to Vegas and back to San Francisco. Sometimes, it means Edwards places the camera low on the ground angled high towards the towering behemoths, with much of their bodies spilling outside the frame. Other times he sets the action under the dark shroud of night, giving a sense of the radiation that spurred the birth of the MUTOs by highlighting the otherworldly glow emanating from the creatures. This in order to set the ground rules for the film, to establish the kind of emotions the rather generic humans played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn are feeling as the viewers' surrogates. All the IMAX and 3D in the world cannot get you to feel the direct experience of living in a world where gigantic creatures walk the Earth alongside you, indiscriminately stomping on folks as they go about their business. But damned if Edwards isn't going to try and make you feel the way you would.
Godzilla does take a while to wind up. But so did Jaws, Jurassic Park, and any number of other successful monster films that I'd much rather Edwards emulate. That's something that was lost on horror creature aficionado, Guillermo del Toro, who just last year gave us the kaiju free-for-all Pacific Rim, a film that lost any teeth after the first couple of tussles depicted. It then had to resort to injecting quirky, tiny details into each fight in order to differentiate one from the other, humorous puns like a falling monster destroying a building but somehow avoiding the obliteration of a tiny Newton's cradle as it set its balls into motion. Besides, Edwards saves the good look at the monsters Godzilla fans want for the final, half-hour battle in San Francisco. And having already achieved what he wanted to with his voyeuristic, you-are-there techniques, pulls back pretty far with the frame to concentrate on Godzilla and his opponent. So far, in fact, that the human bystanders are reduced to ant-sized throwaways because really, they're not who you paid money to come and watch.
It's called filmmaking people. Thanks to Edwards, this Godzilla has loads of it. And those of you bellyaching about how slanted the film is towards more human-time than kaiju-time, can't be serious. I know because I'll be damned if I can remember what human drama was playing out among Godzilla's cast before the world descends into MUTO-fueled chaos. But I sure can't forget the atomic-tinged rage Godzilla unleashes by the time the movie reaches its grand finale. Go Go Godzilla!