In the junkyard sale that is the new Godzilla movie, you’ll find the discarded remains of Pop — adolescent cultural souvenirs, sci-fi mythology, ecological allegory, military defense scenarios, and almost camp genre-movie totems. If you think about it, this resonant junk can still matter to our well-being.
Like all movie monsters, Godzilla is a projection of our fears. He doesn’t have to appear on screen a lot, but when he does it must feel like a revelation, which is one of the pleasing tricks in the newly remade Godzilla by British director Gareth Edwards. The monster’s appearance is held back, although his existence is felt throughout the dystopian preliminaries where international scientists (played by “serious” actors Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Watanabe Ken) go to Japan to investigate seismic shifts, sinkholes, and electromagnetic pulses from deep within the earth.
Godzilla finally turns up after two “ancient alpha predators,” Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs), ravage cities in search of power plants and nuclear energy for food. His entrance has been prepared for, as grandly showcased as King Kong’s. He’s the realization of atom-bomb dread, a self-conscious political anxiety that goes back at least as far as nuclear-disarmament controversy (which the new film’s prologue originates with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). And the credit sequence’s timeline graphic, spotlighting Charles Darwin, suggests even earlier mysteries surrounding creation, evolution, and mutations brought about by mankind’s interference with nature.
Post-A-bomb Godzilla is something outside time; he resembles an enormous, scaly, squat-bodied, snub-headed dinosaur who exhales gas-blue flames. While he fights off the MUTOs who threaten the human populace, his single-minded wrath, though not necessarily benevolent, proves convenient — especially for us running, cowering human spectators. Laugh if you want, but the very idea of Godzilla grapples with secular disbelief.
Consider how the purely instinctive Godzilla always made a perfect doll figure for boys going through impudent/heroic adolescence. (That is, until the Jaws shark and extraterrestrial Alien offered grislier, more implacable icons for cynical, post–Vietnam War generations.) Old-fashioned ambivalence about Godzilla gives Edwards’s film an up-to-date concept; it successfully extrapolates the spectacle of modern-age horror, whether natural disaster or war. Wonders of industrialization and technology are reduced by the monster uprisings and their corny pitched battles to scenes of ruined, quarantined Tokyo, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and New York, almost unthinkable vistas of destruction that we can’t help comparing to 9/11 nightmares. By now, Hollywood’s surfeit of horror films and comic-book movies has accustomed us to CGI apocalypse, but this wholesale 3D extravaganza will surprise even the jaded. Director Edwards shows special skill for panoramic compositions. His camera travels across wide spaces or lifts up and up to terror-filled skies with anticipatory momentum; you might goofily crane your neck in awed expectation. Edwards uses contrast of scale to impress our perception of dilapidated buildings, shattered windows, or ever-bigger screens as satellites and TV cameras capture the ongoing chaos. (Spielberg’s terrifying War of the Worlds seems an obvious influence, just as the ironic image of a wrecked nuclear submarine in a tree recalls the tree-stuck helicopter in Apocalypse Now.)
Edwards brings the legacy of modern war movies into his own, original epiphany depicting a military action that starts with a paratrooper praying via his tablet’s Bible app. Then the skydivers descend into earthly hell with red flares attached to their ankles. The atmospheric miasma is striped like the flag, illuminated by desperate human will, a roiling vision worthy of J. M. W. Turner.
The monster genre is rarely used so imaginatively that its camp qualities are sufficiently transformed to express our subconscious and connect with real-world experience. In Godzilla’s one joke, a mother tells her son “Turn that TV off!” unaware that the televised monster attack is a live event. Here’s where Edwards recognizes the witnessing of disaster as common post-9/11 experience. The most resonant character is not a scientist or reporter but Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy disarmament expert direct from duty, whose encounter with Godzilla and the MUTOs recall his childhood trauma; it complicates the carefully laid-out reunion with his wife and child (Elizabeth Olson and Carson Bolde) and his obsessive scientist-father (Cranston doing his blowhard hamming in a fright wig).
Fortunately, Ford (whose boyhood toy is a soldier doll in fatigues that he passes on to the next generation) becomes Godzilla’s fascinating, humane counterpart, a principled anachronism. Taylor-Johnson is a projection of post-9/11 Western-alliance hopes with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan. (This British actor who trenchantly portrayed John Lennon in Nowhere Boy somehow looks American, like those soldiers we see in numerous homecoming PSAs.) What makes Godzilla more significant than just another summer blockbuster is Ford’s personal rectitude and his steadfast profile. The back of Taylor-Johnson’s neck and head are as unbowed as his spine. His wide eyes show a sensitive alertness the worried scientists lack. Courageous and daringly eager, he’s an action figure for a war-weary age, a more romantic representative of the Iraq-Afghanistan veteran than anything in The Hurt Locker, Redacted, or Zero Dark Thirty. Unfortunately, those movies were just newfangled monster flicks portraying American soldiers as monsters.
Edwards gives Ford a moment of heroism reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan (which by now is also part of our pop-culture heritage): Ford aims his pistol for the last time, feeling both sacrificial and resolute. What happens next is reliably Pop. But this Godzilla is Pop with a good amount of post-9/11 conscience. “You can’t bury this in the past!” warns a scientist, so this Godzilla update applies the thrill of the supernatural to the mundane anxieties of war, terrorism, destruction, nihilism. Too many films are resigned to those anxieties — which the Hollywood Left regularly exploits under the guise of mindless entertainment. This wrathful, summary Godzilla isn’t entirely mindless; its vision of the ineffable delivers us from the junkyard of Pop detritus and moves toward catharsis.
— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.