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OPINION: Long Live the King - A Retrospective on Godzilla (2014)

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Disclaimer: Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpoilerTV.

Author's Note: There are spoilers for the 2014 Godzilla film contained within this article but there are no spoilers for King of the Monsters, as at the time of writing I haven’t seen it yet. Please refrain from posting King of the Monsters spoilers in the comments below - unless they're hidden.

Rogue One director Gareth Edwards’ take on the unstoppable Godzilla is one of the most underrated blockbuster movies of the last few years, and a third viewing last night ahead of King of the Monsters only confirms this, regardless of how the sequel turns out to be. Unfairly criticised for its focus on the human characters over the kaiju, this film spends its time wisely grounding the monsters in the real world, or at least, trying its best to do so in relation to Hollywood blockbusters. It manages to both not only be a dark, gritty affair – with popular fan-favourite actor Bryan Cranston playing a character who is killed off in the opening act, but also a big blockbuster epic with moments that wouldn’t look out of place in Independence Day. But whilst these moments do come thick and fast especially in the final act, taking its time to get there may have been the best decision that Edwards ever did.

Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both play the role of the everyperson well and make their characters relatable – you want them to get back together by the end of the film and the longer they’re kept apart the more that looks unlikely, adding extra tension that pays off in the final act. Although a case could be made for both members of the Brody family being too far generic protagonists and to an extent that is true, the film makes the stakes believable and the relatable personal stance for both of them and makes you see the battles through their eyes. We see Brody lose his father almost immediately and there’s a real chance of him losing his family as well. By placing these characters against the backdrop of humanity’s struggle against creatures that come up higher in the food chain than it does, we get to see a test and repeat method of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to stopping the monsters with humanity running out of options as the film goes along. By navigating the characters’ paths in conjunction with the attempts to stop the kaiju, Edwards does a good job at balancing the two threads and making the stakes raise even higher, so that by the time the HALO Jump happens and the soldiers jump into a fallen city, you’re left to gape at the spectacle that feels made for a big screen. It’s no surprise that the most effective viewing for this film for me was at the cinema, and hopefully that experience will be recaptured in King of the Monsters. The time that takes Edwards to build up to the set-pieces makes them feel all the more rewarding and earned, and it’s rare that Godzilla's appearance ever feels cheap, if at all.

Signposted with clear acts and act breaks that keep the momentum driving forward whilst giving the characters and the audience time to breathe, Godzilla goes big when it wants to. The cinematography and CGI is just on another level that make the aforementioned scenes all the more impactful, and it’s a full credit to the work of the visual effects team that help this film look so good. If there’s one thing that both Godzilla and Rogue One have in common is that Edwards knows how to do a final act, and you should pretty much expect his A-game to come to the table there at this point. By holding back and teasing the audience, leading them along rather than showing us Godzilla immediately, Edwards is able to pick his moments carefully for a greater impact. That scene where the creature - whose screentime is limited to the point where it almost feels like a secondary character in the film itself - takes out MUTO with his atomic breath, it’s a fist-pumping moment that rivals some of the best crowd-pleasing moments in modern cinema history and that is no exaggeration. But is anyone really surprised that Evans is capable of delivering moments like these – when he is the man responsible for Darth Vader’s arrival to crush the Rebellion fleet above Scarif? Godzilla plays right into his wheelhouse as a director, especially following up from the small-budget, almost equally underrated drama that was Monsters.

Godzilla feels like a modern Independence Day movie perhaps moreso than Independence Day: Resurgence did. Whilst Resurgence is a classic example of blockbusters aiming for the spectacle rather than focusing on the smaller scale characters who save the day against impossible odds where there's always that sense of the fact that no matter what happens they're going to be just fine, The humans of Godzilla are up against an unstoppable force and most of the time, they’re either just trying to get out of the way of it or trying to stop it and failing - with few things going right for them at all. There’s no way Godzilla could be stopped – not even by nuclear bombs, as shown by the nuclear tests in the 1950s doing a good job at establishing just how terrifying this monster is going to be.

This is only reinforced by the fact that Godzilla is not defeated at the end of the film. If anything – Godzilla emerges victorious, applauded by those who he saved. Yet at the same time, despite the fact that Godzilla does save the day - the creature never loses that fear factor. The film taps into the scare of the cold war and nuclear bombs and pays homage to the science fiction classics of the cold war era and the original Godzilla 1954 masterpiece by showing what reckless use of nukes could lead to – acting almost as a cautionary tale, with Godzilla being discovered by the first nuclear bomb tests and has only grown more powerful since. It never fails to make things abundantly clear - just because Godzilla is a hero today doesn’t mean that the creature will be in the future.

Godzilla finds a way to keep the threat of the kaiju relevant in an age of superheroes. In 2014 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy were the two big Marvel superhero movies and Man of Steel had just aired a year earlier. Godzilla is more in tune with Man of Steel out of the three, but has more of an excuse for the wanton destruction of the final act that Man of Steel didn’t really have – or at the very least - it didn’t justify its need for the chaos well enough – there is no Superman to save the day. We’re never sure whether Godzilla is going to save the day – and if he does, is he going to stop there? And that level of unpredictability makes the creature all the more terrifying, so that even when the creature retreats to the water at the end of the film you know that the King of Monsters will be back.

There is a danger now in King of the Monsters – which I haven’t seen yet (this is an article that I very much wanted to get up without the shadow of the sequel affecting my thoughts), that by overloading on the spectacle and going for broke with the amount of monsters included in the film - it could cheapen the human drama and cost that Godzilla handled so well. Normally I’d complain about the short amount of screentime given to brilliant actors like Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe – a cast that on paper is up there with the best of them - but again, the actors use their talent to make the script sound incredibly convincing even when it treads into outlandish territory, which is often. In their small parts, they sell them all - to the point where nobody is going to question the logic of Watanabe’s character Dr. Serizawa, and suggesting to let the monsters duke it out is taken entirely seriously.

But perhaps above all, it’s a line that perhaps best sums up the intentions of the entire film and what it’s trying to show - “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” By putting the humans front and centre in Godzilla yet at the same time largely keeping their efforts to stop the monsters failures with great cost to human life aside from one or two minor successes that are both dwarfed in comparisons to Godzilla's, it illustrates that point perfectly, showing just how helpless it can be in the face of a greater threat that cannot be stopped. People expecting actors like Cranston or Binoche to have a larger part to play in the film were always going to be disappointed - there's a reason why the actors faces' were not shown on the poster at all, and Edwards' film was never going to be about Walter White coming up with a way to stop Godzilla.

It was about showing what humanity would do - much like Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park - when it is no longer in control.

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