The last time Godzilla visited the multiplex, in 1998, things didn't work out so well. Before the lizard king was put to bed, he destroyed the better part of Manhattan, demolishing massive skyscrapers with a flick of his tail, and chomping on helicopters as though they were popcorn kernels. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, lay dead; we'd never know the exact body count, because — like so many victims in so many effects-driven modern epics — they met their fate anonymously off-screen.
Since the advent of computer-generated effects in the 1990s, summer movies have been victims of mayhem inflation. Back in 1996, Independence Day unleashed the first modern mass-devastation on the planet in what would become the growing genre of destructo-porn. The near-end of the human race would be visited upon theatergoers again and again in movies like Deep Impact, Armageddon, and The Day After Tomorrow.
Unthinkable numbers of people would meet their ends in these films, where mass death became Hollywood's coolest trick to wow summer audiences. Today, nothing less than the wanton destruction of an entire city — or better yet the planet — is the price of entry for a summer action film. From The Avengers to the devastation-on-steroids of the Transformers series, tumbling skyscrapers have become as familiar as bad guys with mysterious European accents. Last year saw perhaps the height of global devastation, as the planet fell under siege in Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and World War Z and even spilled over into comedy in This is the End.
Help has arrived, and from that very same giant fire-breathing reptile who, for 60 years, has been one of cinema's most efficient demolition specialists. But the latest incarnation of Godzilla has little in common with its over-the-top predecessor. Instead of mindlessly tearing up cities left and right, he seems older and wiser. In fact, the new Godzilla sends a pointed message to Hollywood — and audiences — that CGI destructo-porn has not just dehumanized the summer moviegoing experience, but made it a lot less fun in the process.
(Before we discuss the new film in details, a warning that minor spoilers lie ahead.)
The first difference between Godzilla's current visit and his last is who is driving the ship. In 1998, the lizard king was steered by perhaps the most prolific of all Hollywood demolitionists, director Roland Emmerich, who, at the time, was fresh off destroying the planet in ID4, and would go on to level it twice more in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
This time around, Godzilla is captained by indie director Gareth Edwards, whose micro-budgeted 2010 film Monsters was a case study in how many thrills could be wrung out of very little actual violence. And here once again, he does a whole lot with (relatively) little devastation. To say Godzilla is a movie monster you could bring home to meet your parents might be an overstatement, but summer moviegoers who have grown numb to workaday apocalypse will be amazed to find that in the lizard's hand, mayhem is doled out with a velvet touch.
Almost every moment of Godzilla is presented from an actual human being's point of view. Edwards doesn't need to level whole city blocks to shock the audience; he knows that it's scary enough that a giant lizard is parading through one's city. The power of that spectacle is allowed to speak for itself, without the entire continental plate being ripped in half to make its point. When the movie's monsters appear, it actually means something. There is something very flesh and blood about this threat in a way other epics never achieve.
While Transformers and Battle: Los Angeles' bad guys destroy every piece of civilization they see on principle, Godzilla and his giant flying parasite-creature foes proceed almost gingerly through mankind's creations, with what one might call a precision trail of destruction. In one sequence, Godzilla swims passively alongside Navy destroyers, almost like a dolphin bringing sailors good luck. He walks nicely down lanes cleared by his prey. Even his less-cuddly rival monsters don't go around smashing things up for the heck of it; they are pursuing a very clear agenda.
And when mayhem does arrive, we are rarely around long enough to revel in the destruction. Edwards frequently obscures his monster battles with smoke, cutting away just as they get brutal, or showing them only as remote footage on TV news, where even the television screens are glimpsed across crowded rooms. The studied detachment from the devastation feels like a rebuke to the Michael Bay school of diving into chaos head first, and wallowing in every last "ka-boom!" The restraint is almost unbelievable in a studio-financed summer blockbuster.
And with all that cartoonish violence kept to a minimum, the true human toll in these kinds of films — normally hidden from us — can come into relief. In one of the film's most disturbing sequences, a power loss causes airplanes to fall swiftly and terrifyingly into the ocean; it gives an unsettling jolt, instead of the easy thrills that summer movie-lovers have come to expect. And, as a result, it sticks with you after the film is over, as opposed to most blockbusters, which vanish from your consciousness by the time the best boy's name rolls by on the credits.
Godzilla will be followed by another summer of destruction (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Edge of Tomorrow,and Transformers 4: Age of Extinction all lie ahead). And when I sit through the next gleeful computer-generated melange of wholesale slaughter, it will be hard not to think of Godzilla's final glance at the camera as he slides back into the water and swims away. Maybe he just wanted to find another city to pummel. Or maybe that giant lizard was trying to show us the error of our mayhem-mad ways.