The word ‘epic’ is bandied around an awful lot these days, both inside and outside the cinema. The entire Expendables franchise thus far – epic! Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ – epic! Danny Dyer in East Enders – epic! Displaced from its roots, the very nature of a cinematic ‘epic’ has lost its appeal somewhat in the face of this vernacular revisionism.
Once in a blue moon however something gargantuan comes along, screaming to the high heavens with the sheer force of its behemoth cinematic bulk. Slapping us square in the chops, chastising for forgetting what the word once meant. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is one such film; a staunch reminder of the vast, monolithic proportions that cinema can reach. Refreshingly this Hollywood incarnation of the 1954 Japanese original also manages to sustain a taught plot, without the eponymous beastie demolishing narrative intrigue with its thundering semi-aquatic trotters. Truly an epic achievement.
Opening in 1999, the film dives deep into the belly of a rather different beast – a Japanese nuclear reactor breakdown. Joe Brody (Cranston), some kind of big-wig scientist at the plant, witnesses the tragic death of his wife Sandra (Binoche) in the heart of the reactor. Tethered to weight of his loss, he becomes convinced of a government conspiracy that’s covering up what happened that fateful day. His enduring obsession leads us up to 2014, wherein his arrest for trespassing on the now heavily quarantined zone brings Joe’s war veteran son, Ford (Taylor-Johnson), across to Tokyo in hopes of bringing his father home to the good ol’ US of A.
Who’d have thunk it though, stuff goes pretty seriously wrong when the father and son outfit uncover the truth behind the plant’s collapse. The truth, unsurprisingly is Kaiju shaped and catalyses the sky-scraper knocking, tail-whipping and basilisk screaming action that litters the rest of the movie. On the subject of screaming, this film sounds absolutely incredible – expect Jurassic Park levels of spine tingling monster cackles and roars. More often than not you can hear the Kaiju before you see them, and Edwards does a fantastic job of building a sense of anticipation for each brawl in this manner.
In efforts to avoid the trappings of say the Transformers series wherein not much happens other than big things clanging against one another, Godzilla focuses on some more cerebral ideas, in this case Darwinism. While this is occasionally dealt with in a pretty reductive manner, with Ken Watanabe’s character saying things like “the greatest arrogance of man is to think we are in control of nature…” followed by dramatic slow zooms and such, it mainly works fairly effectively. Evolution and adaptation come unstuck in the face of monsters that feed on nuclear bombs, seem impervious to other forms attack and completely demolish buildings by simply by sitting on them. Strong performances from the likes of Bryan Cranston further help to set Godzilla apart – no Matthew Broderick in sight this time around, as luck would have it.
There’s a sense of mobility to this film that’s perhaps missing from earlier Hollywood and Japanese offerings. Globe trotting from Tokyo to Hawaii to California brings a sense of dynamism to the narrative; as the settings change so do our expectations. Managing to keep the audience guessing in a film that is essentially about a giant lizard messing about is genuinely quite impressive. It’s within touches like this that Godzilla builds a palpable sense of excitement for what’s on the horizon.
All told, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a rip-roaring addition to a franchise that’s as deeply entrenched within cinematic history as it is the hearts of its fans. Hopefully this one will enjoy an affectionate place in the latter and an oft-cited place in the former.
Godzilla is out in UK cinemas on Friday 16 May, 2014.