Of the many things wrong with Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, one of the most irksome is Bay’s steadfast presumption that we need to spend time with his cardboard human characters in order for his giant robot exploits to have meaning. As with any rationale behind a grave sin, Bay’s reasoning contains a grain of truth: interesting characters do make for a story with more compelling action. Unfortunately for him, the humans of Transformers cannot be described as “interesting” in any honest or sane sense of the word. Nobody cares about their romantic travails or struggles with fearfulness. Far from enriching the story they inhabit, the humans instead make it more ponderous, diluting whatever lizard-brain pleasures are to be had from smashy robot explosions by constantly reminding us that all of it is really about them.
With this example in mind, I have good news and bad news regarding the remake of Godzilla. The bad news is that the humans in Gareth Edwards’ film are every bit as dull as the ones in Bay’s — perhaps even more so, considering that the caliber of Godzilla‘s cast throws the characters’ flatness into even sharper relief. The good news is that Edwards, unlike Bay, understands how to turn this flaw to the film’s benefit. Both films are cinematic junk food, but Transformers is a pulverized Nestlé Crunch Bar whereas Godzilla is a Toblerone.
Godzilla’s plot will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the franchise’s history. Strange disasters have been cropping up around the globe, most of them centering around sites that house nuclear technology. Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (named for the eye-patched scientist of the 1954 film but otherwise bearing no resemblance) reveals that the disasters are being caused by primordial behemoths who feed on radiation. Enter Godzilla, along with a new class of beast that resembles a skyscraper-sized cockroach. They fight, city blocks are leveled, and puny humans cower.
For the most part, the film works like gangbusters, largely because of Edwards’ talent for playing up the contrast between those puny humans and his massive monsters. In the original Godzilla, Ishiro Honda evoked this contrast through the use of scale models and an actor in a costume. Thanks to the wonders of modern special effects, Edwards is free to use shot compositions and small, well-chosen details to do the same. He consistently films Godzilla from the perspective of human characters; one early shot places us inside an airport lobby with a crowd of people as Godzilla’s scaly foot comes down outside, completely blocking the floor-to-ceiling windows all by itself. This visual strategy serves some of the same purposes as a well-written audience-surrogate protagonist: it involves us viscerally in the characters’ plight and permits us some access to their inner thoughts and feelings.
That said, it would have helped to have characters whose inner thoughts and feelings extended beyond the commonplace and cliché. It is hard not to pine for a Godzilla in which the humans’ awe and fear acquire new dimensions through finely shaded writing and the sort of acting that the likes of Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, and Sally Hawkins could have brought to a meatier script. (Bryan Cranston, as an engineer-turned-amateur gumshoe, still manages to find interesting things to do, thanks to playing the only character that seemed to even slightly interest screenwriter Max Borenstein.) Yet it helps to remember that even the 1954 film stuck Japanese national treasure Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Seven Samurai) in a role that was not exactly demanding. Gareth Edwards may not have intentionally populated his human cast with cardboard-cutout figures, but he at least doesn’t do violence to the tradition he’s working in.
Most importantly, he doesn’t make the same mistake that Michael Bay and countless other blockbuster filmmakers have made, which is to sweat bullets trying to make us care about his lifeless ciphers. Godzilla is the real star of the show here, and Edwards knows it. The people are in the movie only to give the audience a sort of vantage point: this is how enormous Godzilla is; this is what it would be like to witness a monster brawl in person; these are the cataclysmic stakes underlying that brawl.
By reducing people to mere bystanders in their own fate, Godzilla offers a perspective that is surprisingly rare in the disaster/monster-attack genre. Most movies in this genre place humanity at the center of their universes: if humanity ends, the story ends. People must struggle to avert their own doom. But in Godzilla’s world we are dwarfed by beings far greater and older than ourselves, and our own best efforts cannot halt oncoming destruction. This sense of scale, of humanity’s essential smallness and helplessness, differentiates Godzilla from the playroom apocalypses of films such as Pacific Rim or Independence Day. If help is to come, it has to come from somewhere outside ourselves. That Godzilla’s human characters are so flat, while the big lizard himself is so interesting, serves to intensify this impression.
Depending on the viewer’s summer-blockbuster preferences, it is either a disappointment or a relief when Edwards cheerfully subverts this thematic weightiness by calling it out directly: a tongue-in-cheek news headline at the end of the movie breathlessly asks “GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS: SAVIOR OF OUR CITY?” This subverting impulse runs throughout the entire film, and the tension between Godzilla’s crowd-pleasing instincts and its desire to pay tribute to the nuclear-power anxieties of its progenitor does not always work to its advantage. More often than not, though, Edwards’ mastery of pacing and spectacle overrides all other concerns.
What lingers in the mind after his movie ends is not the dull protagonists or the half-formed invocations of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Instead, it’s the scary, thrilling moment when Big G makes his grand entrance. The camera pans up, up, accompanied by the urgent musical score, until even the people in the audience are practically craning their necks back to get a load of this thing. The people onscreen are terrified, but the people in the theater can’t help but grin and think, Thank goodness you’ve finally come.