In the most general sense, tone is the way that a movie feels. Is a movie scary? Is it funny? Is it serious, or is it silly? Tone is something that can vary wildly between movies, even within the same genre, and can even change within a movie from scene to scene. Most audiences are tuned into issues of tone and are affected by them even if they can’t find the words to describe it. I talked a little bit about this in my The Amazing Spider-Man 2 review, but this discussion is even more pertinent in regards to Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla.
If you remember, I stated that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a very bad movie that I assumed a lot of people would give a pass to. Godzilla, on the other hand, is a very good movie, but I’m afraid that there will be a lot of people who will have problems with its tonal qualities and not ‘get’ what Gareth Edwards is trying to do with it. It turns out I was wrong on the Spider-Man front given the HUGE box office drop off it’s had in subsequent weeks. I hope I end up being wrong about Godzilla as well, but if the audience I sat with is representative at all of the general public, this movie is not going to go over well.
The issue, ultimately, comes down to this: are we supposed to root for Godzilla?
By now, I’m sure you’re aware that Godzilla is not the only giant monster (or kaiju) in this movie. I actively avoided marketing material beyond the initial teaser trailer, and I still knew that the King of Monsters would be squaring off against at least one other kaiju in this film. It’s safe to assume that Godzilla is going to be the “hero monster” in this equation, and yet this movie takes on a tone that is more serious in nature than the unabashed silliness of many of the later entries in the Godzilla series. Godzilla is depicted here as a force of nature. His entrance into the film coincides with a tsunami and the destruction he eventually causes in San Francisco is monumental, and the film plays all of these things straight. There’s no coating of camp to downplay the loss of life that follows in the wake of Godzilla, so how are we supposed to feel? Are we allowed to root for Godzilla or are we supposed to be afraid of him?
The answer to that question is yes, and this is where I fear the film will lose some people. While many of the later entries in the series embraced silliness, the original Gojira is actually quite grim. Less than ten year’s after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, they make a movie about a monster that destroys Tokyo with atomic fire. Godzilla is definitely the antagonist of that picture – one brought on by the hubris of man, but an antagonist all the same. Even in the rightly despised 1998 film by Roland Emmerich, Godzilla is “the bad guy.” This new film, however, abandons the silliness of the later entries for a more grounded take, but it retains the idea of Godzilla being the “hero monster” unlike the other two “serious” entries (yes, I just called Godzilla ’98 a “serious” movie; something is clearly wrong with me). I can see how this could potentially confuse a lot of movie goers. The film never goes out of its way to give the audience permission to have fun with it, it just expects the audience to know as much. Unfortunately, because the film has a more grounded tone, I think a lot of people will mistake it for being serious or gritty.
In some ways, “kaiju 101” is kind of a prerequisite for this film, and I would recommend to anyone reading this review to watch Pacific Rim and Gojira before going out to see this. Both movies will give you a better understanding of what Gareth Edwards is trying to pull off here, but failing that I’m going to try to use a movie you’re likely already familiar with to help set the stage for Godzilla. That movie is Jurassic Park.
There is A LOT of Jurassic Park in Godzilla, and in many ways Spielberg’s film can help to unlock the tone of this one. As Dr. Alan Grant, Lex, and Tim are getting ready to spend the night in the upper branches of a tree, a group of Brachiosaurus shows up, and Grant assures the frightened Lex that “they’re not monsters, they’re just animals.” This happens shortly after the group narrowly escaped being eaten by a T-Rex. Godzilla functions in much the same way. Though we may refer to kaiju as giant monsters, Gareth Edwards treats them as being nothing more than very large animals. They’re motivated by instinct rather than a sense of good vs. evil, and because they dwarf us so completely in scale, we’re almost of no consideration. We’re scared of the T-Rex early on in the film, and yet we can still understand when it comes back later and saves our heroes from the Velociraptors. In this new film, Godzilla is the T-Rex.
Godzilla is a very Spielbergian film, but while Spielberg – THE master of tone – was able to move the audience back and forth between scary and fun without them even noticing the seams, Edwards doesn’t quite have that same level of mastery. The tone of the movie is almost perfect, but the way it communicates that tone to an audience is not always the most clear.
If you can understand that point, and understand that it’s okay to be scared of and cheer for Godzilla, you should be able to have a great time with this movie. Gareth Edwards’ previous film Monsters is another kaiju movie that is far more concerned with how humans deal with these giant monsters than it is with the monsters themselves, and Edwards’ brings a lot of that same sensibility here. The kaiju are much more in the spotlight in this one, but it’s all filtered through the lens of people. Considering that so much of the action here is made in a computer, it’d be really easy to do what many blockbuster spectacles do and position the virtual camera in completely implausible places in order to better capture the action. However, Edwards avoids the temptation to fill his movie with a bunch of “money shots” and instead films the action almost exclusively from ground level with a few select helicopter shots to punctuate it. I can see this being a turn off for some people who will likely complain that it’s “boring or pretentious,” but this is absolutely the right choice for the film. It helps to reinforce not only the scale of the kaiju, but also the way this is fundamentally a human story.
Edwards also achieves this by investing a lot in his characters. Bryan Cranston is as reliably great as ever, and Ken Wantanabe gets some decent work in his unfortunately small role, but the lead in this one is Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Johnson is serviceable here – neither great nor terrible – but the character he’s playing is one that’s worth investing in despite not being as strong a performer as Cranston or Wantanabe. Most importantly, the plot evolves naturally out of character motivations rather than just being a series of strung-together coincidences. There are a handful of times when the film employs questionable, or even downright poor logic (why is a monster that eats radiation traveling to San Francisco when it woke up in literally the most irradiated spot of land in North America?), and while these issues are sure to give the awful folks at CinemaSins something to gleefully rip to shreds, none of it hurts the movie. At its heart, the film is concerned with character, and any lapses in logic are in service of keeping the plot centered around its characters rather than having the characters merely react to the plot.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this review talking about caveats and how I can understand why some people aren’t getting into this film, but here at the end I want to make it very clear that I genuinely loved this movie. Gareth Edwards proves that he was the perfect person to helm this by both honoring the source while refusing to be conventional. Despite any problems the film may have, I enjoyed it immensely, and that’s coming from someone who is new to this whole kaiju sub-genre. I expect that lifelong fans will adore it even more so than I did. My only concern is general audiences who may not know what they’re getting into. I’m hoping this review helps give you the proper context to enjoy this movie, because if you can get on board with what Edwards is trying to do here, you’ll see that Godzilla is something really special.