Here be mild “Godzilla” spoilers.
Roland Emmerich’s ill-advised “Godzilla,” released in 1998, was touted with the tagline “Size Matters,” whose unsubtle “mine is bigger than yours” subtext meshed with Emmerich’s everything-bigger-than-everything-else approach. Size matters in Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” as well, but when the movie’s at its best, that’s as true of the tiny details as it is the towering monsters.
The events of “Godzilla,” written this time by Max Borenstein with story credit to Dave Callaham, play out at two radically different scales: Human, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s military bomb-disposal expert and various other fleshy bipeds running around trying not to get squashed; and monster, with Godzilla engaged in a millennia-old battle with a matched pair of chitinous creatures known as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms — don’t worry, it won’t be on the test).
In Edwards and Borenstein’s conception, it’s clear that Godzilla represents the unstoppable forces of nature, mainly because Ken Watanabe’s scientist says something to that effect every time the camera zooms into his face (which is several times more than it needs to). Godzilla, described as “an ancient alpha predator,” has come out of its slumber upon hearing the MUTOs’ mating calls, and seizes on the opportunity to wipe out its only competition once and for all.
While the MUTOs are identified as male and female, Godzilla is a singularity beyond the reach of gender, or pronounces: Like the Old Testament God whom Moses called simply “I Am That I Am.” (Lest that seem a reach, this Godzilla is also referred to as “a god.”) You can call it he or she, Godzilla or Gojira — call it your mammy if you want to — because this Godzilla does not give a fuck. He’s the honey badger of city-flattening movie monsters.
“Godzilla” does a terrible job of individuating its human characters, especially the female ones, most of whom feel like they were hacked away to nothing in the editing process: Juliette Binoche has a complete arc, but she dies at the end of the prologue; Sally Hawkins occasionally shows up at Watanabe’s side like an eager kid sister; Elizabeth Olsen, as Taylor-Johnson’s wife, is reduced to making gap-mouthed faces she could have polished off with half a day’s green screen work. But even the movie’s ostensible protagonist is a beefy nothing, engaged in a quixotic quest to stall the monsters’ progress towards San Francisco but failing to so much as get their attention.
The hardest thing to pull off in a movie about a 300-foot-tall lizard is a sense of size, or more precisely, mass: Make it too weightless, too digitally fluid, and it starts to look like a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a model-train Tokyo. Edwards uses a number of tricks to pull it off, usually emphasizing in the process how puny and insignificant human beings are by comparison: A foot sweeps between buildings in a demolished city, each immense talon larger than the people in its wake; a massive, scaled shape swims gracefully beneath an aircraft carrier, the people scattering on its deck looking like game pieces tossed aside by a bored child.
Edwards’ best trick involves a canny use of the 3D format: Several times in “Godzilla,” including the first time the camera pans up to take in its full height, Edwards positions human figures in the foreground, using the third dimension to pop them out of the frame so it seems as if the people in front of you have suddenly risen out of their seats. (I actually had to suppress a flicker of annoyance that someone had picked that precise moment to refill their popcorn bucket.) Paul W.S. Anderson did something similar in “Pompeii,” using 3D to distance a boy from the spectacle of his parents’ murder, but Edwards is after something less psychological and more physical — and it works, to the extent that Godzilla becomes a more tangible character than any of the people we’re theoretically meant to care about. It’s not really enough to hang a whole movie on, but it’s stunningly effective, and it gives us someone, or something, to root for. The problem is that once Godzilla is established as an implacable force of nature, there’s no reason to believe humans can affect what it does, except in the way a crushed butterfly might cause a hurricane halfway across the world. There might be nobility in humans struggling against their own insignificance, but “Godzilla” has monsters to get back to, and precious little reason to notice the ants at their feet.