The true triumph of Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla is in its distinct perspective of size and space, elements that have been increasingly scarce in recent summer seasons at the movies. In retelling the Toho staple, the director renders the likes of Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson near-insignificant witnesses to the gargantuan beasts and erupting, rampaged landscapes that his camera passes gracefully over, recalling Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness at times. There are plenty of heroes in Godzilla, from soldiers and scientists to nurses and teachers, but neither the director nor writer Max Borenstein condescend to make any amount of good-hearted and hard-willed human beings the more powerful force—or focal point of the thrilling action—in a contest against a 80-story-high prehistoric alpha-predator.
This is an even more impressive feat considering the fact that the radioactive guest of honor doesn’t show his mug for nearly an hour, not long after a winged M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) emerges from the hotbed of a declassified nuclear facility in Tokyo. Before the M.U.T.O. takes flight, however, Edwards’s film forms a familiar but no less sobering vision of mankind’s self-involved arrogance, as Joe Brody (Cranston), a supervisor at that very same nuclear facility, must watch his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), succumb to the devastation of the M.U.T.O.’s very first rumblings. In these early sequences, Edwards already begins to express a sly, sharp sense of visual scale and parallels, the best of which being the cut from the long drag of destruction from Godzilla’s unseen tail to a child dragging a winding birthday banner behind him.
That child grows up to be Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson), a soldier who doubles as the film’s singular human fulcrum, a constant witness to the bedlam enacted as Godzilla hunts the flying male M.U.T.O. and its eight-legged and very-pregnant counterpart. Borenstein’s script underplays the heroism of Ford and his armed-forces brethren, preferring rather to focus on the personal will to survive. In fact, the near-inescapable stereotype of the young yet wise soldier saving his helpless wife and son is bucked here completely, as Olsen’s Elle, Ford’s wife, ends up taking on decisions just as tough as those her husband is grappling with, miles away from one another. Their ends are simply to preserve their lives, just as Godzilla’s goal is ultimately to preserve the planet and his dominant status as, per Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, a god on Earth.
The allusions to prime Spielberg are myriad, and the film clearly has a close kinship with Jaws, another film that saw the safety of many threatened by a monstrous manifestation of the shallow fears of a few. Edwards’s tendency to incrementally reveal his creatures through thoughtful use of scale, which the director experimented with in his promising debut, Monsters, comes off fully polished here, but not without some wondrous moments of near-poetic visuals, such as a late shot where Godzilla’s tail stirs and writhes in and out of a cloud of black smoke. If Godzilla lacks slightly for the small-town detail and punch of class warfare that enlivens Spielberg’s masterwork, the tremendously effecting sense of space and tricky, near-percussive editing easily make for battle sequences and overhead long shots as audacious, revealing, and alluring as the conversations between Roy Schneider and Richard Dreyfuss are prickly, funny, and potently human. Even in its more expository passages, Godzilla is cradled in the unshakeable feeling of a genuine visionary at work, walking tall and at his own pace in the footprints of a roaring classic.
Godzilla receives a terrific A/V transfer from Warner Home Video, one that boasts the visual and audio clarity befitting one of the most attentively constructed box-office hits of 2014. Every screech of the M.U.T.O. and roar of the lizard god gives the system a workout, but the quiet scenes between Ford and Joe are just as beautifully dense with atmospheric sound that captures the exquisite auditory detail of Edwards’s world. And the imagery comes off even more symphonic on the small screen, the clarity of the transfer bringing out crisp detail in nearly every shot, whether featuring Godzilla making his way across a vast ocean, his back scales sticking out of the water like a movable island, or the quarantined, overgrown Tokyo city that Ford and Joe sneak into. The destruction looks aces too.
Unfortunately, the extras are only cursory in showing the behind-the-scenes or design work that went into Godzilla. The interviews with cast and crew are quick and unrevealing, and the making-of stuff feels included primarily to prove that the film didn’t suddenly materialize out of thin air. The entire first set of cobbled-together extras is made up of passable but generally unneeded backstory of the monstrous creatures in the film and the MONARCH project. There are some brief moments of fun, but for the most part, these extras feel obligatory.
Gareth Edwards’s astonishing Godzilla strides like a behemoth on Blu-ray, thanks to a top-shelf A/V transfer, though the extras are sadly as inconsequential as the crowds rushing around our unlikely hero’s massive feet.