Godzilla is the first summer blockbuster out of the gate, and if it is any indication of what’s in store for this year’s crop of bloated, studio revenue generators, then we’re in good shape. The new film is an absolute thrill – a slow-burning amusement park ride that is steeped in the best aspects of its genre. Much of the credit of its success falls to Gareth Edwards, the young director who made a statement in 2010 with his surprising, under-the-radar sci-fi thriller, Monsters. He’s a filmmaker who understands how to tease his audience and string them along, and that monsters are often scariest when they aren’t on screen. With Godzilla, Edwards don’t let his big budget take over. The special effects establish a visual tone – a dark, brooding mood runs through the film — as much as they seek to thrill and wow. And set with a film in which action takes place at a monumental scale, Edwards is continually forcing us into the center of the pyrotechnics with simple framing techniques. We see the exploding world through windows, goggles, peep holes, doorways, computer screens, television sets, and the result is a Godzilla that is monumental without losing its human scale.
You can tell that Edwards has a respect for the history of his beast. Godzilla is the hero in this latest film. The villain are a pair of “M.U.T.O.s” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), ancient parasitic beasts that feed on radiation. A mining company digging in the Philippines awakens the MUTO, which destroys a nuclear power plant off the coast of Japan before going into a 15-year-long dormant state. Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, the head of the nuclear plant who becomes obsessed after the accident with finding the true cause of the meltdown – the MUTO is a closely-guarded government secret. We flash forward and Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) flies to Japan to bail his dad out of jail. Still, Joe can’t stop poking his nose in the government’s business, and on the trip, Ford and Joe end up at the old bombed-out plant, just as the MUTO ends his snooze.
It’s a monster film set-up – flimsy, contrived – but we don’t really care. The real thrust of the plot is that the MUTO is heading to San Francisco via Hawaii, and Joe – an army specialist with a wife and kid in the Bay Area – is thrust into the military effort to contain the beast. That sets up a number of tense scenes – one involving a small boy Ford must protect in an airport shuttle, another that finds Ford on a perilous train bridge in the middle of the night (Ford covers a lot of miles in the film). In each, Edwards shows his restraint, unfolding each sequence carefully and laying down his big scares like a carefully planned trap. It all comes to a head in San Francisco when Godzilla emerges from the deep to do battle with the MUTO.
The people in the story keep us rooted to the thrill ride, and they lend just enough heart to make the tension and terror feel personal. But what really makes Godzilla shine is its almost painterly use of special effects. One particularly memorable scene involves a platoon of paratroopers who jump out of a plane into the center of San Francisco. As Godzilla and the Muto fight, the camera pulls out and shows us a spectacular wide shot of the city, the beasts thrashing about as a plume of black smoke encircles a smoldering sky. And then, the paratroopers, with smoke spilling from their feet, dropping like flares through the night. It’s Godzilla. It’s a monster movie. But it takes your breath away.