Precisely 60 years since Toho’s Gojira burst from the ocean to terrify Japanese audiences and became King of the Monsters! for a worldwide audience, the radioactive reptile has gone through various iterations; a total of 28 Japanese movies and already one American attempt in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film that Toho themselves were so displeased with that the monster featured is not officially “Godzilla” but a standalone Kaiju called “Zilla”. Gareth Edwards was the unlikely yet inspired choice for directing Godzilla Version 2.0, headhunted purely from his horrific, yet beautiful and restrained home-made monster movie of 2010, cunningly titled Monsters. After endless publicity (which I made every effort to avoid), the day has finally come – is this a return of the King of Monsters himself, or another unwelcome, overgrown iguana?
The film’s opening credits make it clear that this is a straight-faced take on the story, and that the nuclear origins remain intact. With plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in-jokes set against the partially fictional archive footage this film manages to make even the opening credits exciting. Straight in to the main plot, everything moves at a constant pace without ever feeling rushed – there’s plenty of time given for reflection and genuinely emotional scenes, but never too much to slow down the action or dissipate the increasing sense of impending doom. The globe-trotting plot makes the threat seem much more real as the destruction focuses on more than just one city, but also allows some brief clever reflection on the numerous natural disasters of recent years, showing how the horrific devastation in one city is little more than a news headline in another. Admittedly the image of gargantuan monsters destroying cities is never going to be realistic, but the important thing in this film is the reaction. The fear, the panic, the desperation, all the way up to the military’s mixture of bullishness and helplessness make it feel genuine, if it wasn’t for the protagonists always managing to find themselves in close proximity to main events. Without “Hollywood coincidences” practically every action movie ever wouldn’t exist, but more than once or twice they are really rather convenient (for us at least – the characters themselves must’ve be bloody tired of their bad luck by the end).
As for Godzilla himself everyone knows the adage that ‘less is more’, but with such a film it’s important to realise that not enough can be terribly frustrating. Suffice to say that, eventually, this film will satisfy those wanting to see wide shots of the rampages. There is enough restraint to make every shot of Godzilla & co. exciting, without leaving you wishing you’d seen more at the end. As every piece of marketing has heavily implied, the world has more to worry about than Godzilla alone, and without spoiling any details, the design of “it” is quite unique and genuinely rather unsettling. The Japanese movies very quickly came to be all about the final face-off between Godzilla and whatever was invading his territory, and there are no disappointments here. My friends and I clearly weren’t the only Godzilla fans in the cinema as I caught a few other people punching the air at certain moments (and remember, this is Britain where no one ever expresses excitement).
All the cast are great in this, even if characters can sometimes be a bit “2.5-dimensional” – not cookie-cut, but not fully-fleshed either. It sweeps this under the carpet quite effectively though, with a wide range of different 2.5D characters that interact well through the film, with only a small handful of “action movie cliché” lines and some decent discussions hearkening back to the nuclear themes of the original movie. Genuinely brilliant effects show Godzilla as much more than a man in a rubber suit, while incredibly large he is considerably smaller than the art department took the liberty of depicting him in the above poster. In fairness, a monster that big wouldn’t make much of a film as he’d flatten the city if he decided to take a nap.
This is a film that doesn’t let the pace or grimness slip for the whole two hours. It may seem overwhelming but that’s surely better than it being boring (or reducing itself to featuring baby ‘Zillas slipping on marbles). This has taken everything that was wrong with Emmerich’s version and a lot of what was good about the Japanese films and thrown it in with a great cast, and a Godzilla-sized budget to produce a film that will satisfy Hollywood action-types as well as Godzilla fanboys, a film that is as good as we could have hoped for; with strengths where expected, a small number of predictable weaknesses, but at least as many unexpected strengths; and undoubtedly a film that’s great deal better than we had feared. The King of the Monsters has returned.