Gareth Edwards' take on the classic monster franchise has much of what a great blockbuster should, and I wonder if it won't be a Jurassic Park for millennial teenagers. At the same time, in an odd and pulpy way, it serves as a telling snapshot of a whole host of modern cultural paradoxes: competing commitments to art, commerce, energy, the environment, empire, democracy, and to my surprise, faith.
A brief intro to the human component of the drama: Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, whose tidy expat life as a nuclear scientist in Japan was forever changed fifteen years before the main events of the movie. Now he comes across as a lonely conspiracy theorist, less malicious than a birther but as obsessed as a grassy-knoller, written off even by his own son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But, as you might suspect, Brody the Elder doesn't seem crazy for long.
The movie does some things very, very well. The soundtrack was composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat, who did the soundtrack for Tree of Life and has been nominated six times by the Academy. It's unrelenting fortissimo that stylishly incorporates Japanese drums, and knows exactly when to drop some BWAAMs. (Note: some outlets have misreported this noise as BRAAM. They are wrong.)
Gareth Edwards is a clear fan of Steven Spielberg, and if Super 8 was the ultimate sign of respect to Spielberg's alien tales, then Godzilla is a take on his monsters. The references and homages are everywhere. Little foreshadowing shots that focus on an iguana sitting on a log and toy dinosaurs on a table. Back spikes sticking out of the water like our favorite shark. And keep an eye out for the fantastic King Kong reference in one of the final fight scenes.
Edwards isn't just riffing, though. The airdrop scene has, rightly, been all over the posters and featured prominently in the trailers. It is hauntingly beautiful. The director described his vision for the scene as "angels descending into hell," and said he was channeling Dante's Inferno. The wide shot of a squad of paratroopers freefalling into a wasteland, leaving contours of red tracking smoke in the sky behind them, could have gone on for twice as long and the effect would only have been better. With a choir singing in the background and an army chaplain reading a prayer from a camouflage covered Bible before the drop, the scene is a hodgepodge of Gustave Dore and glorious Technicolor brought to you by cyberpunks.
And while this is probably the most somber Godzilla iteration, it doesn't fail to tip its hat to the camp and humor of its predecessors. There are clever satirical shots of vacationers in Hawaii and Las Vegas cavorting before the monsters arrive. And the abbreviation "MUTO" pokes fun at B-movie dialogue as well (David Strathairn's sincere delivery getting a chuckle from the audience).
There's an underbelly to this, though. Ken Watanabe's scientist character explains to U.S. high command that they refer to the monster as "Gojira," which is a nod and a wink to fans and film buffs. Gojira was the title of the original Japanese film, a combination of the words for gorilla and whale. American audiences misheard this as Godzilla and the name stuck. In the theatre, though, this line brought instant laughs from the audience—not because they got the reference, but because the pronunciation still sounds funny to American ears.