The modern blockbuster has become firmly rooted in destruction on a massive scale; just last year a movie-goer could watch cities be obliterated in everything from Man of Steel to This is the End to Star Trek: Into Darkness to Iron Man 3 to Pacific Rim. This kind of disaster movie, while not new, is so pervasive that it has become the norm; so ingrained is September 11 imagery that it manifests in our wildest fantasy. “This is how we know devastation now,” we seem to be saying. “This is the only way we can go.” But while the imagery can capture this so well, the films themselves have struggled to evoke the more difficult-to-grasp aspects of this singular form of real-life horror. While something like Man of Steel knew how to show destruction, it had very little idea of how to understand it. Part of the reason for this was, as it has been in other films like it, that they generally approached the subject with the heaven burden of existing characters. Godzilla, however, was able to start with a mostly blank slate.

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That slate remains relatively blank throughout the film, yes, but entirely by design. It’s a film that uses bystanders as its entry point into chaos and humanity as its lens. It is only very superficially asking us to follow a hero’s journey; there’s no redemptive arc, there’s no one specific to save. As humanity is terrorised by enormous, chitinous beasts, everyone trying to escape their paths is equally important.

Director Gareth Edwards, who helmed the modest but promising sci-fi Monsters back in 2010, has assembled a group of human characters whose connection to events is stronger but who are not designated to be more important as a result. Many of them vanish for long stretches of time, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa the only consistent presences. Edwards knows that these characters’ proximity to the story is important, but constantly stresses that the story is not theirs.

The story is of Godzilla, King of the Monsters, presented here as a kind of arbiter of natural justice. Where the ancient creature has played many roles as villain and ally, here he represents a kind of counterweight to humanity’s excesses. Edwards’ approach is a thoroughly experiential one that asks the audience to feel themselves in the presence of these behemoths and to view the human element of the story as one of relative realism.

There’s no grandiose Independence Day speech, despite the nods in that film’s direction; there’s no kid-friendly iconography a la Jurassic Park even if the opening shot is immediately reminiscent of Spielberg’s film. These characters are either trying to understand what is happening or escape it. Thanks to the director’s masterful control over its tone, it’s more effective at this than anything of its kind in recent memory.

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Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s thoughtful framing and shot composition is such a refreshing change of pace that it is worth heralding regardless of the film’s quality. Be it from cars, buildings, trains or buses, or through binoculars or masks, Godzilla requires us to look beyond the foreground at the spectacle beyond it; a kind of view through human eyes from human constructs. Numerous shots exist to point out to us the daffy insignificance of much of human creation, whether it’s the tourist-ridden beach restaurant in Hawaii or an incandescent casino in Las Vegas, in which the people are so focused on gambling it takes a power outage for them to realise what is happening around them.

This is Godzilla’s chief thematic thrust, as was the case with Monsters. The destruction here isn’t arbitrary but included to point out our virulent capacity to corrupt nature. It’s no coincidence that key sequences are framed around the presence of children, the end-point of the allegory of our self-annihilation.

If all of this makes a big-budget tentpole sound overly lofty, the film has no shortage of utterly arresting set pieces. Godzilla is thunderous, if elegantly so, and packed with tensile atmosphere and dread. It presents a reality in which humans are pawns at nature’s claws but is still tenderly hopeful that a future exists in which co-existence is possible. And if there’s a more beautiful, perfectly-paced and terrifying sequence in a blockbuster this year than the air-drop through darkness set to György Ligeti’s “Requiem”, then I’ll be very surprised.

But it is, of course, not perfect; Taylor-Johnson’s is a dour, monotone presence characterised better in contrast to Bryan Cranston’s performance as his father than by his own. The rest of the all-star cast—including Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, and David Strathairn—have little to do, but that’s the way Edwards wants it, functional script and all. Whether or not this shifted focus proves alienating to audiences remains to be seen, but dullness is infrequent and momentum is otherwise only stultified by some curious editing choices.

Those with a penchant for intricately composed spectacle are in for more than a treat, as Godzilla wields a thoughtfulness and depth it can only be hoped other studios learn from. The film’s greatest investment is in its titular character, and his awe-inspiring screen presence proves that he remains King of the Monsters.

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Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.