Gareth Edwards' Godzilla sets itself a task that, in an age of CGI and summers clogged with big-budget tentpoles, is basically impossible. It wants to dazzle and awe its audience with sheer spectacle, even though they should at this point be completely inured to computer-rendered visions of city destruction, giant creatures and ear-crushing roars and groans. Incredibly, it succeeds. Like so many films of this scale, it's easy to level some complaints about the characterizations of the puny humans. But Edwards is smart enough to make that part of his mission statement. More than anything, Godzilla is about how puny we are. When we get our first (of relatively few) full-on looks at the creature, Edwards wants us to tremble, and tremble we should.
It's already been much-discussed, but Edwards' ploy is to keep the monster off-screen for pretty much the entire first hour, then dole him out in delicious little chunks for the rest of the movie. This is not quite a Jaws situation, where the more we see of the monster in the last act, the less he's actually terrifying. Edwards and his visual effects team have created a genuinely fearsome beast; they just want you to lean forward in your seat every time you get a look at him.
Whether conscious or not, it feels like a response to the straightforward, knock-down drag-out monster slugfest that was Pacific Rim, where director Guillermo Del Toro spent an entire movie trying to find ways to keep his robot vs. monster fights interesting and diverse. Del Toro did not entirely fail there, but the film was an inarguably wearying experience, and left me convinced that there was simply no way to make such city-destroying antics awe-inspiring anymore. The ridiculous and unnecessary building-leveling spectacles of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness last year did not help in that regard.
Godzilla has a very slow, steady plot build, beginning with a catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear plant that devastates the life of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (who grows up into the muscular if compact soldier-man Aaron Taylor-Johnson). There's plenty of mystery to be uncovered and ranting and raving from Cranston that no one believes (but everyone should, of course, heed), and soon enough Ken Watanabe drops by to deliver all the background exposition in that weighty, brooding tone we've all been secretly craving.
The first half is mostly in the hands of this grim-faced ensemble (Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen are also around). The second half is mostly in the hands of the monsters (yes, there's more than just Godzilla stomping around), and at that point, Edwards' attempts to keep us interested in the annoying people-ants swarming around begin to grate. It doesn't help that I am no fan of Johnson, whose dopey-serious face seems painted on. I am much more a fan of Olsen, but she is afforded no chance to develop as a character, to the point that the film's brief check-ins with her on the ground feel almost patronizing.
But oh, that monster. Godzilla is no skyscraper-sized pest as he was in Roland Emmerich's 1998 headache of a film, dashing around New York and knocking over buildings like a careless housecat knocking over glasses of water. Every time Edwards' Godzilla rears up, you stiffen with excitement. Every time he roars, Edwards wants you to feel it and wince. Wherever else the film struggles, every time we cut back to just a glimpse of the giant lizard, it gets you back on board with the whole shebang.
It helps that the film is beautifully photographed (if, like so many 3-D films, a little dark at times) by Seamus McGarvey and scored by Alexandre Desplat. Edwards, whose indie hit Monsters essentially served as an audition for this movie, recycles some of his best tricks on a grander scale. The set-piece featured in the teaser trailer of soldiers skydiving from 30,000 feet into San Francisco as Godzilla stomps around them is his masterstroke, but there are a half-dozen other sequences that are almost as smart.
Most importantly, this is a film where the devastation of cities and the increasing woodenness of its human characters is all part of the mission statement. The army and the scientists continue to make plans around the monsters, trying to stop them, divert them, and destroy them, but in the back of our minds we know they will all fail. "The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around," Watanabe intones at one point, a Zen koan that feels almost contractually obliged for a film like this. But Edwards believes what Watanabe is selling, and does his best to convince us that we're specks in the grand scheme of things while still letting us have fun. What more could you really ask of the king of the monsters?