We live in an age of supposed impossibilities that are very swiftly being rendered possible by teams of dedicated, passionate and competent craftsmen. If you were to travel back a scant ten years and say that a vast network of interconnected superhero films would dominate the modern cultural consciousness, you’d be met with incredulous smiles and casual dismissal. If you were to travel back 19 years and tell fans of a certain up and coming Japanese game franchise that, some time in the relatively near future, a movie would be made that would buck the trends of videogame adaptations and stand on its own two feet, disbelief would be your only response. But if you were to go back to, say, 1998, after the release of Roland Emmerich’s decidedly disastrous take on Japan’s iconic radioactive monstrosity, and say that 21 years hence, a film would be made that actually does justice to not only Godzilla, but many other legendary kaiju who have cemented themselves as longstanding cinematic icons unto themselves? You would have been laughed at and shown the door. Michael Dougherty, branching out in a direction starkly different from his earlier releases, has embarked on this undertaking with one apparent goal in mind – to prove them wrong.
Set amid the backdrop of a humanity left shaken and wary by the events of 2014’s own Godzilla, to which this feature is loosely connected, Monarch – the organisation responsible for the monitoring and containment of Godzilla and others like him – suffers a costly blow when a group of eco-terrorists led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance) raid a facility in China to acquire a device that can kickstart their nefarious goals. From there, the movie constantly ratchets up to a big and bloody brouhaha between four of Japan’s most renowned movie monsters – Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and Ghidorah – as the inter-family drama between Mark, Ellen and Madison Russell, played by Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown, respectively,
After the lackluster outing of ‘98 and Gareth Edwards serviceable yet flawed revival of Big G, Dougherty and his crew have appeared to have sworn to make a film that does true justice to Japan’s walking embodiment of man’s folly. The director has made it abundantly apparent from the first that he has been enamoured with Godzilla, and that this is a labor of love.
This overflow of passion permeates the entire project, and not just in the depiction of these majestic and terrifying titans with a level of fidelity never before seen in the Western sphere; Dougherty went out of his way to confirm that Ghidorah’s old roar from the Showa era would be added for instance, and that is true. Aspects of the cinematography are nothing less than beautiful, with some of the shots almost appearing to be akin to paintings of divine creatures from the hand of a master. The references the film contains in many forms, from incorporating the distinctive horns of Akira Ikufube’s theme into Godzilla’s leitmotif to bringing back elements of the original 1954 film, are inserted without appearing forced or gratuitous. The score, composed by Bear McCreary, is one of the most meticulously-created and energising scores I’ve heard in recent memory, with each individual creature having its own distinctive theme that emphasises their core attributes. Godzilla’s motions and appearances are accompanied by thundering taiko drums and fierce chanting. Rodan’s bold presence as a fiery commander of the air is enhanced by frantic bongos, blaring brass and dancing strings. Mothra, bringer of hope, conciliator and giver of life, is backed by an ethereal, heavenly choir, and Ghidorah, towering, unnatural and utterly malevolent, infects the purity of the Heart Sutra with ominous, low tones and a suffocating feeling of dread.
The end result is not simply a loving ode to Japanese icons long overdue for solid Western representation – it is an elevation, the forging of a mythology as we bear witness to the rise of entities that were, and are, considered gods. Insofar as the depiction of these grand beings is concerned, they say that the third time is the charm, and in this case that definitely rings true.
However, such care does not come without a price. This is all, admittedly, undermined somewhat by a narrative which, while never confusing or of poor quality, is rather forgettable and generally exists as a reason to have these ancient beasts converge and face off against each other. Not that this is necessarily detrimental – the film has made it clear from the first that seeing these legendary titans throw down has been its core conceit – but it is undeniable that a human element has been a consistent aspect of these films. To see it watered down, despite solid performances, chiefly from Brown, Dance and Ken Watanabe who reprises his role as Ishiro Serizawa, is a tad disappointing. Regards this, too, while plenty does happen to the core cast, they are not terribly fleshed out or characterised, and the destruction that these titans wreak upon the globe is made distant by it being presented mostly through news reports and disembodied voices. The human reaction to these catastrophes is a vital part of the franchise, and it is a shame, here, to see humans sidelined, good as it is to see the film achieve its core goal. The chemistry between the main trio is believable, at least, and the cast are earnest in their acting, which at least salvages some aspects of this.
In addition, while the sight of seeing these creatures clash is a marvel to behold, the affair can become a little overbearing at times, the onslaught becoming too chaotic to parse. This is most apparent in scenes late into the movie, where shots become wild and frantic and occasionally difficult to discern. This is, at least in part, intentional, and it’s far from the blizzard of steel and the deafening cacophony of shrieking metal that so defined Michael Bay’s Transformers films, but as a sequel to this has already been greenlit, it does leave room for improvement.
The plot is not much to remember, but ultimately the film knows what it is – it is a battle for dominance, the right to be King of the Monsters, and in laying a solid foundation for a universe that can give these majestic and mighty beasts the respect they deserve, it succeeds with flying colours. The spirit of Godzilla is alive and well, and we have, at long last, found those capable of carrying the torch.