Godzilla is a movie which paints some fine and subtle things with the broadest possible brush strokes. It's a movie filled with bombastic spectacle-- something we're very used to at the movies-- but the difference here is that it's carefully constructed to be incredibly humane.
This is a movie that seems to be about the power and control we have as human beings, but is really about the just opposite. All the tricks of special effects action movies which are normally used to show one thing are here used to how the opposite, to brilliant effect.
Yes, some of this is made very obvious, to the point you could feel the message is indeed pretty shallow, but this isn't really the case. It's not heavy handed, trite, or (worse yet) preachy. Instead the movie does a ton of very subtle things and I hope I can point some of these out.
Over and over in this film we think we know what we're seeing, because certain ideas have been drilled into us over the years through other heroic films. The filmmakers are keenly aware of this, and manipulate it incredibly well.
Let's look at the scene at Yucca mountain. This starts predictably enough with a military convoy streaking across the desert. The scene starts from the approach to the front door, as it were, to the mountain. As we approach, we can think about the isolation and the hugeness of this place.
Yucca Mountain is something we've built, far away from anything else, to store nuclear waste. There's a road out to it, and only the military can use this road. When we arrive, there are enormous gates guarding it. The concrete structure is ominously large. The military cars drive in, and we get low angle shots to make us feel how big these trucks really are. Soon enough, there are boots on the ground and the soldiers are methodically and in a controlled, authoritative fashion searching each huge chamber where the nuclear waste is stored.
The inside of the mountain is dark, the hallways are wide, and the doors to each chamber are massive.
Let's stop here for a second. What do we expect? We expect, first, that the monster will be there. In fact we know this, because this is an action movie, and we've been told the monster was put here, and that's simply how it works.
The next thing we expect is that the soldiers will be ambushed. This is a scene from an Alien movie (or perhaps Prometheus). They will go in, and somehow find the creature feasting on nuclear waste. There will be a firefight, and it will not turn out well for our side. We know by now that they aren't going to win this one.
But something incredible happens. When a soldier opens a window to one of the chambers, light streams out. We might immediately expect, “the monster is in there, emitting radiation somehow” but it still seems too bright for that. What happens next is doubly unreal, as they calmly open the door. Of course we aren't shown what's behind the door, and we could never imagine.
The back side of the mountain has been ripped open, and the monster is just completely gone.
We see almost immediately now a high angle shot which shows all that massive concrete from a completely different perspective. Now, instead of looking powerful and ominous, it looks small, with what structure remains looking like so many broken apart toothpicks. We have been brought to an impenetrable fortress with only a front door, expecting a fight (or perhaps a massacre) and we've learned that the entire structure both dramatic and of the mountain is irrelevant to what's really going on. When the light streams in, it's immediately obvious to the soldiers what has happened, but we as viewers just cannot imagine until we see what they see. It's a brilliant stroke.
There are a lot of other examples like this, some more obvious than others. But let's look then for a second a the human side of the story.
The family at the center of the movie is Ford and Elle and their son Sam. Ford is a demolitions expert responsible for disposing of nuclear bombs. Almost from the time we hear what his job is we can imagine how this will play out, what his destiny will be-- he's going to be the guy to disarm the bomb and save the day. But let's look at some of the smaller things in play.
One of the first things Ford does is promise Sam that he'll be there in the morning. Next we have actually a lovely scene showing Ford and Elle catching up-- people will criticize the dialogue for being one-dimensional but actually there are some lovely details, and this is one. Far more beautiful to show couple talking together after a long time apart rather than just cut right to the sex, which is what any other action movie would do-- but anyhow that's a small point.
They are interrupted by a phone call, Ford's father, which is going to make Ford break that first promise to his son.
This is only the first in a string of promises Ford will not be able to meet. Here are some others: In Hawaii, he promises to take the train back and return a boy to his parents. He promises to Elle to be at the hospital in San Francisco by sunrise. He promises to a colonel that he's the guy meant to disarm the bomb if something goes wrong. He promises to his dying father that he will go back to his family to keep them safe, no matter what it takes.
These are all promises that we expect him-- to various degrees-- to be able to keep, and he breaks them all. The only rescue Ford manages is to save the boy from falling off of the train, and although he cares for the boy and keeps him safe, he does not return him to his parents. In fact he almost loses him.
It's striking how many times we see Ford himself being rescued or not really part of the action, considering he ought to be the hero. Even his final act of heroism is in a way very small and does not play how how we expect (and this is a really beautifully done scene, too, where he is helpless and rescued from the boat, and the nuclear bomb explodes off in the ocean.)
There are other interpersonal scenes which I think are really touching too. Elle, a nurse, breaks down on the phone to Ford and admits she is scared, but only once she is out of sight to anybody else. She's a first responder putting on a brave face, and it's a small but insightful detail (do we ever see first responders in disaster movies break down and cry?)
There is the scene earlier on when Ford is telling his dad to come home with him, in sort of the role of a son who knows what's real and what isn't, and is asserting some authority over his father who has gone a bit crazy. There is a reversal, where Ford seems to transform from being a soldier in charge and return to being a son, almost melting into a boy again.
So it's not exactly fair to criticize the writing as one dimensional-- sure the dialogue is in broad strokes (it has to be) but that doesn't change the depth that is there, even in brief moments.
Another great point, and something crucial I think to any story: every character always makes believable decisions.
So many action movies think they can get away from this, because the rest of the story is fantastical. But we'll more easily accept a 300ft, million-years-old protector of earth than we will someone who willingly endangers their child.
When Elle waits for Ford, but at the last minute puts her son on the Bus, that's not typical action movie fare (after all-- how will Ford save both Elle and Sam if Elle and Sam are not together?) but it feels like what a mother and partner would do.
A lot of action or disaster movies have little sense for human deaths. One of the ugliest things I've ever seen in a movie is the end of Star Trek: Into Darkness, when the ship crashes into a fully populated San Francisco for no dramatic purpose at all (Starfleet HQ would have worked just as well), clearly killing perhaps a million people, and then to have the filmmakers “memorialize” the September 11 victims at the end. This is perhaps among the most crass thing Hollywood has ever done.
In Godzilla, on the other hand, we are never made to feel that human lives are valueless. In spite of the personal narrative going on with Ford and Elle (and others), we never have to believe that their lives are more important than anyone else's.
In fact there are also no “bad guys” in this movie, no humans who are on the side of the monster or otherwise intentionally making things worse, nobody who we see get killed in a way we are meant to feel satisfied about.
Literally no person dies in this movie where it feels they are part of an indiscriminate “bunch”. In fact at one point we very deliberately hear a news broadcast that “thousands” have died.
This is not the filmmakers killing a thousand people for sport, it's the filmmakers reassuring us that the cities that we're seeing destroyed are evacuated. “Thousands” is absolutely the smallest number we can imagine given the scale of destruction, and is in line with other disasters (Fukushima, September 11) that the film seems to at least indirectly want to reference.
Destroy the buildings, yes, certainly, but not when they are full of people.
And Godzilla itself shows of course great empathy with even those humans attacking it, such as when it lifts the side of the bridge so as to move the tanks away (it doesn't attack the tanks or throw them into the water) or when after it's tail attack it realizes it's caused a building to collapse, and puts itself in the way so as to save the people in the shelter below.
In the small details too I think Godzilla is tremendously imaginative.
It was awesome to see a design so faithful to the original, and in general the monster designs were actually understated compared to what we often see.
It was also simply wonderful how slow the reveal was, and how tantalizing the monster battles were at times, for instance the brief scene where Godzilla is first fighting the MUTO, which is cut off by a closing blast door of some kind (NOTE: This is seen in the trailer, but they made a SPECIAL CUT for just the trailer to ONLY show Godzilla, not the MUTO! Wow!)
Unexpected things, first a flaming train, then a flaming tank, coming out of the dark during the bridge scene (this seems to evoke Apocalypse now.)
The pilot parachuting in near Elle, and the look on her face seems to say “is it Ford?”, when a split second later his plane hits the side of the building. So many other beautiful scenes, not the least of which was the very final shot.
I'm no film expert but I realize that showing humans as out of control is the whole point to Godzilla. But it's worth nothing how completely this permeates the film, not just in terms of gigantic monsters which are inevitably 10 steps ahead of any human effort to contain them, but in terms of the small everyday situations we might find familiar, decisions we make that lead to circumstances unfolding outside our control.
We've probably all made a promise to be home on a certain day and had to break that promise. This is actually maybe the only thing Ford is trying to accomplish throughout the entire movie, it's the quest his father gives him at the very start. Remarkably he does not really entirely succeed.
There's a lot to love and a lot to ponder about Godzilla, which has been very carefully and lovingly made. Somehow I feel it's a truly worthy successor to what the original movie was meant to be.