Celebrating the Slow Burn of Gareth Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’

Gareth Edwards has always played by his own rules, which allows him to attain uncannily human and affecting results in all his movies. The filmmaker’s 2014 American reboot of Godzilla is an underrated example of this conscientious and personal brand of storytelling. Particularly noted for its slow pace, the movie deliberately holds off on revealing its titular creature until the very last moment, choosing instead to focus on human efforts to navigate the effects of chaotic kaiju destruction.

Understandably, this caused a critical stir back in the day. How could a film — especially one with this title — get away with barely showing its eponymous protagonist? However, Edwards’ method actually works superbly. His singular commitment to the slow-burn creates a robust, intuitive story that throws audiences directly into the overwhelming action of its premise.

It all starts with the screenplay. David Callaham (The Expendables), David S. Goyer (Batman Begins), Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island), Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) were all involved in penning the Godzilla script. For the most part, each writer worked to link the film’s exciting creature feature characteristics with appropriate allegorical subtexts to represent a distinguishing look at modern (Western) life.

But, in particular, Darabont honed in on specific emotional aspects of the film; a vision that lined up with Edwards’ own perfectly. The filmmaker was then able to capitalize on the narrative’s inherent tensions and ensure that Godzilla crescendos to a suitably grand climax and packs a real punch.

Edwards’ character-driven slant combines with the sheer excellence of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, generating a palpable sense of anticipation through the use of stark visual cues. For the most part, audiences see and feel their way through the events of the film across multiple locations spanning two ends of the Pacific Ocean. There is a lot of ground to cover, but the movie never loses us as we follow the extraordinary carnage left in the wake of Godzilla and the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (or MUTOs) it tracks.

Sometimes, the kaiju are implicitly acknowledged. For example, after an opening credit preamble featuring archival footage that orients us to Godzilla’s origins, we discover that a MUTO has hatched and escaped a mine in the Philippines. Although no one sees it outright, it leaves a trail of devastation towards the open sea. We then find ourselves in Japan, where the cataclysmic collapse of the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant is largely viewed through the eyes of protagonist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). He loses his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the catastrophe. No one sees the MUTO responsible for the plant’s desolation, but we feel the weight of the disaster’s aftermath as Joe and his young son Ford (CJ Adams) look on helplessly.

In comparison, even when viewers are actually treated to a glimpse of Godzilla and the MUTOs later on in the film, this is done from the viewpoints of regular human characters who are powerless to stop the unpredictable havoc caused by these kaiju. Godzilla doesn’t simply rise from its watery depths and battle a fellow giant head-on from the get-go. Instead, its definitive entrance in Hawaii is precipitated by minute tangible, experiential details that lead to overwhelming upheaval.

Before Godzilla’s arrival in Hawaii, Dr. Serizawa had already predicted its showdown against the MUTO. He anxiously waits to see Godzilla first-hand from a vessel out at sea. Meanwhile, a little girl stands on the shoreline of a beach and observes the water recede. This alerts adults to a potential tsunami warning, and everyone scrambles to take cover. Eventually, when Godzilla’s iconic dorsal spikes emerge from the waves, they are first observed through Serizawa’s binoculars before the kaiju swiftly swims past, knocking several other ships out of its way towards the island.

Godzilla’s approach quickly floods the coastal town, and many civilians drown in the fallout. Those that survive observe Godzilla trekking through the streets, at which point the audience is then allowed to indulge in its creature design bit by bit. A series of red flares are fired from a rooftop, lighting up Godzilla’s scaly hide. Military personnel then rapidly open fire on the kaiju, providing an extended well-lit look at it before it disappears beyond some buildings, its tail swishing away. Finally, Godzilla reaches its destination, determined to cut off the MUTO’s destructive path. Its heavy footfall suddenly appears in-frame before the camera swiftly pans upwards to reveal the roaring kaiju in its full glory.

Rather than showcase what would presumably be an epic face-off then and there, Godzilla deliberately holds off on the goods, electing to cut back to its human characters. Whenever this happens, the audience especially gets up close and personal with Ford (now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson as an adult), who has functioned as their direct conduit to the action and terror so far.

Other tangential characters in Godzilla collectively raise the stakes in the narrative; a young boy separated from his parents on the train, holidaymakers forced to flee towards uncertain safety. That said, Ford anchors the human element of the film through and through. The movie focuses on the character’s fluctuating sense of identity, beginning from the time he loses his mother in Janjira. His later career as a U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician indicates a generally heroic slant; someone who is entirely willing to walk into the face of danger. Moreover, Ford’s priorities involve his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son, Sam (Carson Bolde). He clearly loves them both, but his job keeps them apart for long periods.

This serves as an unfortunate parallel and potential cautionary tale to Ford’s initial distant relationship with his father, Joe. The former desires to forget the trauma of his childhood, while the latter still insists on uncovering the truth about the Janjira disaster 15 years later. Thankfully, regardless of these differences, Ford and Joe make peace just before Joe passes away from his own injuries after severe MUTO devastation. This is enough to kick Ford into gear, and he decides to do “whatever it takes” to return home amid the giants’ rampages.

Ford’s cause, primarily fueled by pragmatism and underscored with shades of a straightforward hero archetype, certainly adds to the immersive quality of Godzilla. Edwards’ film is a pure survival story, and he is our eyes and ears throughout. Additionally, Ford’s unwavering bravery aptly encourages viewers to root for his valiant if perhaps futile efforts. He personifies humanity’s goodness in the film, and we long for him to come out of the battle unscathed.

All this mounting tension breaks with Godzilla’s own reveal as Earth’s inadvertent defender. It appears for a final showdown in San Francisco, seemingly interrupting citywide efforts to evacuate children across the Golden Gate Bridge. Once again, armed personnel thus indiscriminately shoots at it, doing so without much regard for the buses ferrying citizens to safety. Godzilla proceeds to earn serious savior stripes when it takes the artillery fire to save innocents.

Furthermore, the kaiju and Ford form an eccentric tag team against the MUTOs. While Godzilla works doubly hard to fight off the two antagonists, Ford’s decision to set a precious nest of MUTO eggs alight is involuntarily helpful; it provides enough distraction for Godzilla to gain the upper hand. Later on, when Ford’s life is in direct peril, Godzilla essentially returns the favor with its classic radioactive beam. The two even share a surprisingly quiet moment of connection that reads like some form of mutual understanding and respect.

Godzilla observes its kaiju battles through a complex lens of differing perspectives, slowing down its story in favor of fostering a real personal viewer-character connection. It may take 35 minutes for the first MUTO to make its full appearance in the film. And the movie’s titular creature only truly leaves its watery abode an additional 20 minutes later. Nonetheless, because of taut storytelling and curious character dynamics, we are left with a rewarding experience of catharsis and a sense of awe and reverence by Godzilla‘s finish line.

Sheryl Oh: @sherhorowitz Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Particularly loves writing stuff and things with a feminist bent here at Film School Rejects.