Godzilla: a monster movie that isn’t a monster movie

I’ve been away from blogging for a month due to family illnesses. Sorry. I missed you. 

Monsters are rarely just monsters. As early as humans were recording for posterity the stories we told each other, in the early English epic poem Beowulf for instance, monsters have not only been written about but descirbed as something bigger than just themselves. Grendel  – the monstrous adversary in the early poem – appears to represent the feared foreign invader as much as he does an actual, or mythic, foe. On through the history of story-telling we have always created monsters which are far bigger than simply the ground they occupy. Which is why it’s odd, in the era of film as the dominant story-telling medium, that monster stories are considered the preserve of empty-headed festivals of increasingly meaningless destruction.

Which isn’t how Godzilla was conceived. A skyscraper-sized dinosaur-like creature, Godzilla was born as a way for a traumatised post-nuclear Japan to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki without talking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors need to talk, but can’t; stories about something so patently absurd are a good way to do it. Long before Godzilla became the meaningless children’s television cartoon series of my schooldays, it was something far more important. When Hollywood took on Godzilla in the late 1990s, it gave us something so meaningless and empty that is was actually more dumb than that cartoon serial. Spectacular it may have been; worth-watching it most certainly was not. So Godzilla was left so sleep.

Who better to wake him up, however, than a director who knows how to talk about something without talking about it. In 2010, a young British director (Gareth Edwards) made his first feature film, a shot-on-a-shoestring budget road movie called Monsters. It was set in a world where monsters were a reality and people avoided them by rule of law. Some cinema-goers demanded money back because the monsters promised in the title were barely seen in the film. They were, of course; the complainers had just been looking for scary reptiles when they should have been looking at the people. Humans were the monsters: prejudiced, manipulative, destructive, dangerous. This was a scary, thrilling film with a dash of hypnotic beauty, about the human capacity for projecting our own monstrosity onto others.

So it was a bold, clever stroke to entrust a reawakened Godzilla to such a director. From this new film’s startlingly brilliant opening title sequence, we know we’re in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing. The nuclear roots of Godzilla are acknowledged; we’re in the real life history of the real world, and Godzilla’s been tantalisingly out of frame for much of it. This incarnation is nuclear too – think Fukushima meltdown and tsunamis rather than an exploding bomb. Think of Godzilla eventually understood as a sleeping saviour from the real monsters rather than a senselessly rampaging beast. It’s a deceptively intelligent film; the performances are better than a vacuous script. The spectacle is … spectacular, but never dwarves humanity in the wrong way. This film doesn’t so much trample humans as put us in our place; awed, needful of saving and still capable of beauty.

Yes, there’s real beauty here. The monsters are well rendered (yes, plural monsters); but the real beauty is the way titanic struggles are subtly choreographed, events replayed in different contexts like repeating musical themes. The real highlight is one haunting sequence where a select group of the military skydive through smoke, skyscrapers and monsters into the heat of the battle’s destruction. It’s tense, terrifying and utterly beautiful. In the midst of all the destruction, there’s plenty of space for beauty.

This Godzilla sets out to awe, and largely succeeds in doing so, reminding us of our smallness without ever dehumanising. With a better script for an underused cast to work with, it could have been genuinely special. Instead it’s simply very good; despite pre-release prophecies of a box-office meltdown for the film, it’s performed well enough to have a sequel commissioned, with Gareth Edwards again expected to be at the helm. It turns out there really is a market for intelligent, beautiful and monstrous spectacle. We will never outgrow the need to talk about our monsters.

I saw this film in IMAX 3d. 

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

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