Gareth Edwards gets so much right in his new take on Godzilla that it hardly seems fair to nitpick – not that I’m going to let that stop me.
Godzilla plays like a combination of the tone of the first film in the Japanese series – the truly intense dangers of nuclear energy allegory, Gojira – with the monster-on-monster mayhem of later Godzilla films like Godzilla vs. The Thing.
The film opens with an American couple and their young son in Japan. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) runs the nuclear power plant in the coastal city of Janjira, Japan; his wife, Sandra, works there. Tremors cause Joe to leave for work without time for his son’s carefully planned Happy Birthday Dad sign to be put up. Joe recognizes the tremors as a pattern that’s been moving toward the plant. Things go horribly wrong.
In 1999, in the Philippines, a sudden sinkhole of epic proportions below a mining pit gives rise to our first encounter with a gigantic creature later designated a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) – a gigantic skeleton. This sequence introduces Japanese scientist, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and his assistant, Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins).
Fifteen years later, Joe is arrested for being caught in the now-quarantined Janjira. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), just reunited with his family – wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) – from a military mission, is pulled away to bail out his dad. Joe, it seems, was in Janjira trying to get to their old house – he was evacuated so fast he never even got to fetch a picture of his late wife. Also, he had been tracking tremors of the same sort that they had picked up at the plant fifteen years before.
Ford, believing him crazy, dismisses him as ‘a lone crusader for truth.’ They spend the night at Joe’s apartment and, well, you know the expression ‘wall of crazy?’ Joe’s place is an apartment of crazy – every wall is covered with photos, newspaper clippings, maps and all sorts of stuff. He shows Ford enough stuff to get him to return to Janjira with him. The two are arrested, but not before Joe secures his photo and a handful of computer discs.
After all that set-up, Ford and Joe are taken to Janjira, where the discs are shown to contain data exactly matching new tremors that are growing as they move toward the facility. Enter the actual MUTO – only it’s not purely terrestrial; it has wings. Before you know it, the U.S. Navy is involved; buildings are getting reduced to rubble, and another MUTO is discovered – and the two are headed to a meeting in San Francisco.
Like Gojira, with its definite anti-nuclear position, Godzilla takes a very serious stand (without being too blatant about it). The most obvious and barbed scripted moment comes when Dr. Serizawa says that we are fools to think we control nature – nature controls us.
It takes a third of the film before we see so much as those familiar spines breaking the water and it is a thrilling moment. Thanks to the behavior of the MUTOs, Godzilla is positioned as the film’s hero but, as with the early Japanese films, he’s really a force of nature that does as much damage as his foes – theirs is a natural alpha predator vs. alpha predator relationship. When they fight, anything and anyone in their path is toast.
Again like a lot of the Japanese films, we have a cast of stock types – among them the intrepid seeker of truth (Joe replaces the reporter of some of the best of the series – like Godzilla vs. The Thing); the stalwart hero (Ford); the terrified woman (Elle); the scientists who know better than the military (Serizawa and Graham), and the military man (Admiral William Stenz, played by David Strathairn).
It’s good that so many terrific actors were cast for Godzilla because the characters are mostly one-note. Only having actors of such talent can squeeze any nuance out of them – and this coast does just enough of that to keep us involved until the monsters arrive.
The monsters are where Edwards really excels. The rest of the movie is very good, but it’s in the monsters, their motivations and encounters that Godzilla really steps up. Considering the incredible aliens that Edwards created on his computer for the low-budget masterpiece Monsters, we shouldn’t have expected anything less.
The MUTOs, based somewhat on the Praying Mantis, are not just terrifying, they’re genuinely creepy. The move unlike any monsters we’ve seen before and look completely at home in the world of Godzilla. Watching them nonchalantly chow down on radioactive materials is scary stuff.
Then there’s the Big Guy, himself. Godzilla is three-hundred-plus feet of stomping, thrashing, destructive force. When Serizawa says ‘Let them fight,’ any rational person’s first thought is ‘How could we stop them?’ And when Godzilla is finally shown completely, he just looks right. Giant lizard; spiny back; flexible, powerful tail – in 3D (which is only really deployed fully when the monsters are onscreen, and fighting); the detail is incredible (you can see every one of Godzilla’s scales, or the disturbing almost translucent variations is the MUTOs’ skins).
As for the roar, let’s just say that it’s the familiar roar with the volume turned up to eleven. Just his roar can make things shake like there’s an earthquake. There’s another aspect of Godzilla that also works – his deadly breath. The MUTOs eventually learn the hard way that the Big Guy needs a fifty-ton mint.
The battles between Godzilla and the MUTOs are awesome (in the sense of ‘awe’). It’s amazing that anything is left of San Francisco when they’re finally done. That, of course, is the largest part of what Godzilla fans want to see – and they get to see it in bone-crunching 3D.
Godzilla may be the most expensive B-movie ever made – and it kind of revels in that – so it feels like nitpicking to note that lack of depth in the characters, or the lack of some kind of ongoing comic relief (though there’s a truly inspired dig at Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla). By going more for the tone of Gojira – dark, intense – and ignoring the humor of the best ‘60s entries in the series, Edwards misses enough to keep Godzilla from being brilliant.
Still, it may not be perfect but it IS Godzilla. That counts for something.
Final Grade: B+
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers