I am not a Godzilla guy by any means. I have seen more Gamera movies than I have seen Godzilla movies. Hell, I have seen more PACIFIC RIM movies than I have seen Godzilla films.
What I'm getting at is that I've never seen a Godzilla film, so I have no idea if any of them have been any good or if they're all cheese-fests like Gamera. (Sing it with me, "Gamera is really neat! He is made with turtle meat!") What I can say is that the Gareth Edwards-directed Godzilla that opened last Friday is actually a very strong summer action film, probably better than most expected. One of the many reasons it works is that it cares more about the human characters than it does the three monsters laying waste to multiple cities.
There is a critical distinction between how Edwards treats his human characters and how, say, Michael Bay treats his. (For one thing, Elizabeth Olsen isn't photographed from behind, bending over a motorcycle.) Bay regards them as merely his way into the story and then once he places them there, all perspective is tossed aside while we soak in pixels clashing pixels, rendered at a higher degree than ever before.
One moment in particular stands out as the embodiment of that style. There's a point in the story where Las Vegas comes under attack from a creature called a MUTO. A lesser filmmakers would have made this a fifteen-minutes VFX orgy showing the MUTO tearing into the MGM Grand, tossing the Eiffel Tower mock-up into Planet Hollywood and then smashing the Bellagio into the synchronized fountain. You can probably see this in your mind's eye - money shot after money shot; big IMAX-sized destruction porn, windows shatter, building pulverize - the full Bay-hem.
That's not what we get exactly. If that whole sequence lasts two minutes, I'll eat my hat. Better still, so much of what we experience (note the use of that word instead of "see") comes from the perspective of the people IN Las Vegas. We're inside the casino when it's smashed, not watching it as we would a breaking news report from a chopper feed. Our first view of the full swath of destruction comes from a shot that originates inside a Vegas hotel suite that's had a wall ripped away.
This style continues through much of the film. Every now and then Edwards allows himself to indulge in a beauty shot that takes in a more omniscient perspective, but by and large he's very careful to make sure we're emotionally in tune with the human characters in the scene, be they main characters or just day players. The film essentially takes one of the best elements of Cloverfield and assimilates it into this summer tentpole.
The script - with a story credited to David Callaham and screenplay by Max Borenstein - compliments this by attempting to make the human characters more than cyphers. I'm not going to claim that the players are as fleshed out as, say, Jaws's cast. Indeed, there are players that barely rise above the distinction of "military guy" and "scientist carrying the backstory ball." It helps a lot that the stage is set by Bryan Cranston, who is about as fantastic an actor anyone could hope to cast. He plays a man who was a supervisor at a Japanese nuclear plant fifteen years ago when an "incident" happened. The official story is that an earthquake caused an explosion and radiation leak there, claiming many lives and forcing an evacuation. Cranston's character doesn't believe that and spends the next fifteen years trying to put the pieces together.
When we pick up with him in the present day, it's after he's been arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area. His son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, comes to bail him out and the two end up breaking into the quarantine area together. It's here that they learn there's no radiation and that the Japanese have been keeping a creature in the reactor all these years. Conveniently, all hell breaks lose soon after, setting up the rest of the film.
It's hard to undersell just how critical Cranston is in his relatively small role. He takes the role of the "crackpot" scientist as seriously as if he was playing Walter White again. I couldn't help but think of how a Roland Emmerich or a Michael Bay would have treated this character as a punchline. He'd have been a totally bonkers loon with the ultimate joke being that he was right all along - think Randy Quaid in Independence Day or Woody Harrleson in 2012. Picture for a moment, Jeff Goldblum in the Cranston role and you'll see how easy it would have been to go for the quirky choice. This film needed Cranston, much in the same way the first Superman film demanded the gravitas of Marlon Brando to set the stage properly. It's all a matter of fixing the right tone.
Once Cranston checks out, Ford becomes our POV character, through another convenience in that his route from Japan is that of the Muto. (The two pretty much could share an airport shuttle.). Through him we experience a major attack on Hawaii - which follows much of the same POV style I discussed above - and eventually a bold mission in San Francisco, which has become the battleground for two Mutos and Godzilla himself.
There's not much character development to be found here, but the script knows how to set up clear stakes and establish a ticking clock. (Hell, there's a scene at the end of Act Two that might as well be called "The Ticking Clock.") We know from about halfway into the film that the three creatures are converging on San Francisco, and an attempt to lure them away with a nuclear bomb (the creatures are attracted to radiation) only ends up making things worse when the device ends up in the hands of the monsters, in San Francisco, with no way to terminate the detonation remotely. The first few attempts to solve the problem consistently end up making the problem worse, which is always a good way to go in screenwriting.
The tension builds on itself nicely and the simple genius of Edwards's decision not to beat the audience senseless with VFX orgy after VFX orgy pays off in the final showdown because the viewers aren't yet numb to the destruction.
I have a mild quibble with the end, which doesn't even try to explore how the devastated cites will pick up the pieces after this. Also, as thrilling as it is to see Godzilla just tear into Muto, I really don't buy the news hailing him as the "hero," nor do I think he'd be allowed to just disappear back into the ocean after all of this. If anything, the wild devastation of at least three cities should make any nuclear countries even more eager to bomb Godzilla to pieces, especially if he's doing them the favor of fleeing a populated area. The film's got a decent ending, but a good coda would have gone a long way.
Gareth Edwards seems to belong more to the blockbuster world of Spielberg rather than the world of Bay and Emmerich, and we are all much better off for it.