“This was not from a natural disaster.” So insists nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), pointing to a set of seismic readings he took 15 years earlier. A cut to his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy lieutenant just this day returned from almost two years’ deployment in the Middle East, shows him standing amid the clutter in his father’s apartment in Tokyo, forlorn and flummoxed. “What are you doing?” he asks.
In fact, Ford knows just what his father is doing, because he’s been doing it since he lost Ford’s mother Sandy (Juliette Binoche), also a nuclear researcher, to an accident in the Japanese facility where they both worked. As frustrated as Ford appears, you might feel some empathy for Joe, as just minutes before, at the start of Godzilla, you’ve seen the moment Ford never did, as Sandy’s pale face hovers in a tiny secure door window, knowing she’s about to die a horrible radiated death, only asking that Joe look after their boy.
The trauma has shaped Joe’s relationship with Ford in ways made invisible by a “15 years later” intertitle, but that you can see instantly here, in the apartment: the son feels angry and abandoned, while the father is overwhelmed by guilt. Tearing up he insists, “I sent her down there, son.”
Ford, unencumbered by that image of her face but traumatized in his own way, insists that he, unlike Joe, has moved on; he’s married to the perfect Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), with whom he has a perfect little boy (Carson Bolde), in San Francisco. But still, Ford can’t begrudge his father all, and so he agrees to help him on one last effort to understand what happened “down there”.
As you know because you’re watching a Godzilla movie, “down there” in the deserted facility is also “down there” in many other senses: down there in corporate cover-ups, down there in human greed and fear, down there in immorality and militaristic overreaching—all hinted at in the movie’s evocative opening credits sequence, offering up footage of vintage submarines, sea monsters, and nuclear explosions. You also know, long before Joe and Ford might guess, that this mix of material and metaphor will find form in creatures that emerge from down there, the humungous Godzilla (350 feet tall) and also a couple of monsters for him to fight, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms).
Even as the story of Godzilla is familiar, director Gareth Edwards’ version is scaled to the present moment. The MUTOs and Godzilla are both causes and effects of the accident that killed Sandy (see: the enduring specter of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). Yet they’re opposites, as assessed by the in-place expert, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Where the MUTOs consume radiation (literally, they chomp on assorted warheads and stored waste containers in Nevada, creating appropriate chaos wherever they go), Godzilla, he says, will deliver balance.
While the US military, incarnated here by the stern Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), means to shoot the monsters, Serizawa sees the futility of such endeavors. It’s easy to share his view, as the film repeatedly shows little human soldiers lined up with weapons that seem to bounce off the hulking forms of the MUTOs, who are decidedly slick and mechanistic, like H.R. GIger‘s Aliens by way of an equally odious drones technology.
That’s not to say it’s as easy to share Serizawa’s faith in the good fight to be brought by Godzilla, if “good” might be used to describe to the destruction of whole cities in order to save human populations (it’s appropriate that so much of the movie’s action is rendered in muted tones, long or too-close shots that leave the landscape dark and obscured, thrilling in what you don’t see). This Godzilla doesn’t provide much in the way of humans who deserve saving, though the reaction shots include the faces of Japanese nuclear facility workers flailing as structures collapse and Caucasian children on vacation in Hawaii, suddenly fleeing from a tidal wave. (That the film also features a couple of preposterous reunion scenes makes clear the practical exploitation of supporting characters: their sentimental emotional arcs as flimsy as they can be.)
While Serizawa and his (underused) assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) share glances across briefing rooms or scurry into hallways to check on data the military folks won’t understand, you understand that his understanding is built on the same myths you’ve heard, that Godzilla the King of Monsters will come through, with fire breath and eyes that indicate recognition of others, if not precisely a soul or intellect.
It’s these eyes, not glimpsed until late in the action, that reveal the film’s most compelling notion, a notion that’s not so much about the monster as it is about what an action hero might be. For Godzilla’s eyes are not revealed to everyone who gazes up at him, surrounded by wreckage and scared of his fire breath or giant stomping feet (not incidentally, the movie’s seemingly simplest and best effect). Instead, Godzilla looks at Ford and they share a moment. In this moment, you’re reminded that Ford has spent the movie not shooting, not rushing about and jumping and yelling, but instead, defusing. Or more accurately, trying to defuse.
Defusing is his expertise, and again and again, he reminds people of his preferred title, explosive ordnance disposal technician, dedicated to preventing explosions and mayhem. More than once, he offers his services to various commanders, on the ground and in control rooms, who inevitably misgauge time and access to destructive weapons, and so end up putting their soldiers and the populations they mean to protect in one dire situation after another.
Ford’s ability and inclination to take bombs apart makes him the opposite of these commanders, the opposite of the military apparatus and, at last, a lot like his father despite all the estrangement and tragedy between them. Where Serizawa has faith in Godzilla to deliver balance, it’s Ford who seeks to deliver it himself. And that makes him at once strange and welcome, at the beginning of the explosion movie season to come.