The following review is SPOILER FREE
Gareth Edwards’ film ‘Monsters’ was one of my favourite films of 2010. Taking the familiar story of an alien invasion he managed to make a film unlike anything we had seen before. Beautifully shot, character-driven and with as much sympathy towards the alien creatures as the land they were invading, it was a mesmerising take on a potentially tired genre.
Hearing it was Edwards who was to breathe fresh life into the 70 year old Godzilla franchise was a thrill for film and monster fans alike. This promised to be as far from Roland Emmerich’s 1998 cheese-fest as was possible, and may even stick closer to Ishirô Honda’s 1954 ‘Gojira’. Honda’s film was a look at the potential effects of American nuclear weapons testing, and was as much about man damaging nature (and indeed other men, referencing Hiroshima) as it was about a rampaging giant reptile. Honda’s Gojira was ‘King of the Monsters’ and that’s the monster we all wanted to see return, not some Godzilla and Godzuki knock-off.
Thankfully Edwards’ take on the legendary creature is both thoughtful and beautiful, not a Michael Bay-esque explosion-o-rama. This won’t please everyone though, and indeed in the cinema screening I was in, the audience left distinctly divided.
This new take on the tale starts with a wonderful title sequence with faux-archival footage of a military strike in the Pacific, with the credits looking like redacted material from a top secret film. The story begins with Ken Watanabe’s Dr Serizawa and his scientist sidekick Vivienne (a sadly under-used Sally Hawkins) finding their way into a monsters tomb, complete with two egg cases, one seemingly still occupied.
We then join Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, the Brody family (complete by son Ford) who are living out in Japan and working in a nuclear power station. However, it is not long before disaster strikes the family in a scene echoing recent events at a Japanese nuclear power station, which showcases Cranston and Binoche’s acting chops. Fast forward 15 years and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is all grown up and has his own family as well as a demanding military career as an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) officer in the US army. A phone call soon takes him back to Japan, as he has to bail his father out after he has trespassed in the supposed nuclear quarantine zone.
This first half of the film follows the very human story of the relationship between the Brody family, including Ford’s wife (played with tenderness by Elizabeth Olsen), exploring love, loss and obsession.
The second half of the film is all about the monsters. As soon as Godzilla arrives on the scene there is a shift in focus, moving from the episodic family drama to a cross between a nature documentary and all-out creature-feature. Edwards and team manage to neatly side-step many monster movie clichés, which I found deeply satisfying but which may leave others frustrated as they are not given the resolution they crave.
Visually it is stunning, with a couple of key sequences which will no doubt be repeatedly copied in the future. Godzilla does look like a giant, armour-plated komodo dragon, familiar enough to not feel too otherworldly. Unlike the MUTOs, the other creatures that appear, whose physiology seems distinctly alien by comparison (indeed they were far more reminiscent of Cloverfield than anything Earth-dwelling) , and unlike the kaiju of Pacific Rim these monsters feel HUGE thanks to the canny use of lots of perspective shots, really making you feel insect-like by comparison.
The stand-out scene, and a potential future cinematic classic was where paratroopers halo drop in to the monster-zone, (which had partially been used in one of the trailers, somewhat lessening it’s impact). It still managed to be a breath-taking few minutes of cinema as Ford and his team free-fall from thousands of feet above the city into the heart of the action.
Edwards also takes some directorial risks throughout, shying away from obvious choices, making it feel a far more intelligent prospect than many a monster movie.
Of course the film is far from perfect. Some narrative elements drop off or simply make no sense (would the army really just hand a uniform and gun to a random man in civilian clothes based on his word), but such is the nature of the monster movie. If it was logical it wouldn’t be interesting.
Edwards’ take on Godzilla is not going to be a film for everyone, as in many ways it’s the anti-blockbuster blockbuster, and doubtless some people will find it ponderous and slow, but for me that was much of the source of it’s appeal. While last summer’s big film about big monsters, Pacific Rim, concentrated on the action in all it’s primary-coloured smashing and bashing glory (and was largely savaged by critics but found favour with audiences), Godzilla looks at some of the smaller elements surrounding the giant creatures, and is all the more interesting for it.
Like Pacific Rim this is a film that is best viewed BIG and LOUD, so go and see it in 3D on a big screen if you can.
Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla is the most thoughtful blockbuster you are likely to see this year, and is the monster movie I have wanted to see for a long time.
9 out of 10