Devoted summer-blockbuster audiences have seen more skyscrapers unceremoniously demolished on screen in just the last half-dozen years than they’ve seen two people hold hands. But how often have they seen any of those doomed structures appear to weep? Gareth Edwards’s thrilling reboot of Toho Studios’s proto-Greenpeace monster epic Godzilla offers no shortage of awe-inspiring, state-of-the-art set pieces befitting a modern daikaiju. But they’re apportioned out in a steady, almost contemplative crescendo of destruction that, through Edwards’s sense of balance and controlled spectacle, strongly resembles the magnificently elongated arcs of seismic activity generated by the film’s colossal irradiated arthropods. In form, it’s no wham-bam VFX sizzle reel replete with sputtering, ejaculatory climaxes. It’s the magnificently sustained equivalent of Ravel’s “Bolero,” with nuclear warheads in place of timpani rolls.
Early on, Godzilla establishes and plays with the subversive potential of the original film’s Atomic Age paranoia, displaying its opening credits as a series of hasty redactions superimposed over Bikini Atoll footage. The baton of obsessive distrust is then passed to Bryan Cranston’s physicist Joe Brody, who, 15 years ago, lost his wife (Juliette Binoche) and his faith in humankind’s benevolence when the Janjira power plant employing him collapsed amid a series of presumed earthquakes, an event depicted with echoes of the Fukushima disaster. Once the movie flashes forward to the present day with Brody’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, suddenly rigid and puffy under the apparent influence of CrossFit), returning home from deployment as a military explosives specialist, the twisted familial bond between scientific research and tactical armament has been established in the most literal of terms. It exists as an extension of the perceived natural order, one which Godzilla takes great pleasure in upending.
A haggard and crunchy-haired Joe tries to convince fellow scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) that the cyclical pattern of earth-shaking pulses that destroyed Janjira aren’t tectonic at all, and just as soon as their Geiger counters start making that noise that sounds appropriately like movie popcorn pinging inside the kettle, Joe’s fears are realized. Like Super 8, Godzilla teases its audience with knowing swipes from Steven Spielberg’s book of best practices, rewarding their patience, but faking them out by introducing first not Gojira, but instead his flying cockroach-like nemesis, a MUTO spore that has been feeding, while dormant, on the fallen power plant’s radiation for years.
Similarly, the new Godzilla itself feeds on the accumulated metaphorical baggage the concept has gathered in the interim from generations’ worth of fresh doomsday potential: the Tsar Bomba, pursuit of the God particle, the threat climate change poses to our copious settlement in coastal areas. Almost every one of these tangible threats to humanity’s continued existence has arguably been the byproduct of attempted progress, and Godzilla’s slyest revision to the template is to downplay its events as any sort of cautionary tale. While the so-called civilized world mobilizes its armed forces to, if not halt the impending monster showdown, then at least act as a buffer between the beasts and the teeming throngs of civilians, Watanabe’s Serizawa passively entreats to let nature take its course: “Let them fight.”
And fight they eventually do, in a stunning, poetic threnody of carnage that externalizes our own pursuit of destruction as an organic impulse on the largest scale imaginable. Just as the movie generally avoids positioning the MUTO as “antagonists” (excepting maybe one terrifying sequence on a railway bridge that calls to mind Jurassic Park’s velociraptors in the kitchen), Godzilla isn’t exactly mankind’s cuddly savior, no matter how many breaking-news banners instantly proclaim him to be. If anything, the film emphasizes the disturbing disconnect between the battle of the monsters and the scrambling humans below. The potential deal-breaker for many moviegoers won’t so much be that the film reduces its titular attraction to a supporting role, as some have already objected, but that he almost seems to be in a parallel movie.
But it’s precisely that sense of unyielding but malice-free randomness that distinguishes Godzilla and positions it as the spiritual inverse of the equally satisfying Pacific Rim (the film that prevented director Guillermo del Toro from helming this one), which never questioned the central role its heroes played in forming their own destiny. Here, Godzilla’s default disinterestedness and the film’s elegiac depiction of a sudden urban warzone—one which mainly eschews the triumphalism of ascending missiles in favor of shattered glass and base-jumping soldiers both falling from the reddened sky like teardrops as abstractions of Barber and Penderecki fill the soundtrack—add up to $160 million worth of roaring existentialism. Has a summer blockbuster ever dared a final shot more simultaneously pitiless and serene?