Let me calm things down a bit. The early reviews of Godzilla led me to expect something fantastic, and this movie isn’t that. It barely seems to have a script. Yet watching it, I felt something like the awe and horror that those Japanese moviegoers must have felt back in 1954 when they first saw the iconic, radioactive, city-destroying reptilian beast rear its fire-breathing head. That’s no small feat, considering what a jaded, battle-weary skeptic I am about these monster movies.
The new American version stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Lt. Ford Brody, a bomb defuser for the U.S. Navy who gets an early look at what the world is up against when he travels to Tokyo to bail his dad (Bryan Cranston) out of jail. A former nuclear plant manager-turned-obsessive environmental crusader, the elder Brody is hellbent on proving that something sentient caused the unexplained earth tremors that killed his wife 15 years before. Sure enough, a giant beast that the U.S. military dubs a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) hatches in Japan while another one hatches in Nevada, and both they and a reawakened Godzilla converge on the West Coast, where Ford’s family is right in their path.
Continuing the trend of the later Godzilla movies produced by Toho Studios, the movie casts the familiar beast as a hero, a development I’ve never been happy with. What started out as a nightmarish cautionary symbol of the dangers of radioactivity and scientific hubris has now turned into a friendly ally of the human race with an unfortunate tendency to level skyscrapers now and then. The Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe) who advises the military on the creatures says that Godzilla is here to “restore balance,” and the movie doesn’t even have the wit to suggest that the monster might one day come after us if we continue destroying the environment.
On the other hand, the MUTOs make for powerful villains, which the movie sorely needs. The director here is Gareth Edwards, who made an impressive debut four years ago with his low-budget alien-invasion movie Monsters. (He’s not to be confused with Gareth Evans, the martial-arts filmmaker who did The Raid films.) Edwards’ first effort was enough to make you wonder what he could accomplish with Hollywood money.
Oh, boy. Does he deliver here. He doesn’t just use fluid, roving takes to give us the scenes of carnage. He presents them in varied ways. Edwards often takes advantage of limited perspective –– the destruction of Las Vegas is seen in grainy surveillance footage, while Godzilla’s skirmish near the Golden Gate Bridge is seen through the windows of a school bus filled with children. Yet he sometimes does this just to strategically delay our full sight of the creatures. The first appearance of what turns out to be the male MUTO lit up by flickering searchlights is an authentically scary sight made scarier by a nasty surprise that the thing unloads just before it exits the scene. The female, who appears later, is even more so. With spidery limbs and turtle-like jaws, these behemoths knock out electrical power wherever they go. There is an artistry to presenting these things, and we haven’t seen monsters stage-managed so brilliantly since — dare I say it? — Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
It’s a pity that the humans aren’t done up with the same care. There’s no element of social commentary that less ambitious films of this sort routinely aim for, and there’s even less in the way of humor. The interactions between the scientist and the military descend into gibberish — indeed, the military could have spent the film at home binge-watching Real Housewives of New Jersey for all the impact they have on the plot. The characters are beyond flimsy, and the estimable likes of Cranston and Watanabe overact to try to compensate. Taylor-Johnson, who was excellent in scruffier roles in Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy, seems quite uncomfortable with this straitlaced character. He’s still better served than Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, who basically runs around San Francisco ducking for cover. That’s why this movie, for all its technical virtuosity, is less satisfying than a less accomplished but better written film like The Avengers.
Still, I held my breath whenever the monsters appeared onscreen. Spielberg imitators have been legion, and no monster movie has matched this Godzilla’s ability to conjure up the terrible splendor of its leviathans, not Pacific Rim, not Super 8, not the Marvel Comics movies, not Cloverfield, not the King Kong remake, not Independence Day, and certainly not the Transformers movies. This film taps into one of the primal reasons we go to films: to see the impossible materialize before our eyes and to be struck speechless by the sight. That’s the simple and yet rare thing that this movie offers us.
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ken Watanabe. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Max Borenstein. Rated PG-13.