By Gary Dowell
It’s been ten years since Toho Studios put the Godzilla franchise in mothballs after the release of the sub-par 50th anniversary feature Godzilla: Final Wars. The feeling was that everything that could be done with the world’s most famous giant monster had been done, and that a rest (and better special effects) was needed.
Of course we all knew he would be back, so it is no surprise that the big guy has popped up again in time for his 60th birthday. What is a surprise — and a pleasant one at that — is that Toho chose to partner with an American studio (Warner Bros.) after the disastrous 1998 film by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, and that Warner Bros. had the faith to tap an unknown rookie director and opt for a more restrained, intelligent approach to the material.
It has turned out to be a smart decision: Gareth Edwards, whose intelligent micro-budget indie debut Monsters (2010) earned him this gig, and screenwriter Max Borenstein achieve a delicate balance of human drama, disaster movie action-spectacle, slow-burn tension, and B-movie allegory both reminiscent and worthy of the 1954 original. of the 29 movies to follow that definitive classic, this one feels the truest to the source.
Edwards invests his story with an epic scope that makes it feel as big as its namesake. Early Godzilla films presented the monster as a warning against nuclear proliferation, later turning the rampaging beast into global guardian of sorts; this mild redesign posits that the post-WWII nuclear tests conducted by the United States in the Pacific were really an attempt to contain or kill the giant evolutionary throwback.
After a brief prologue set in 1999 establishes that something has awoken from ancient slumber in a Filipino quarry and is on the move. Cut to Japan (of course), where engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) fails to convince his colleagues at the local nuclear power plant that something strange is afoot before an unseen force destroys the premises and causes the death of his wife (Juliette Binoche).
Flash forward to the present day, and Brody is obsessively trying to uncover the truth behind the incident, much to the chagrin of his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal expert in the US Navy. In a clear-cut case of “Be careful what you wish for”, the Brodys are around in time to witness the rise of the beast that caused the tragedy, as well as the return of an equally enormous and ferocious monster out to hunt it. As these titans rage across the Pacific and the California coast (famously hilly San Francisco gets quite flattened), Ford struggles to protect his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son from afar.
Edwards and Borenstein do their best to provide a human element, and the actors do what they can to make their characters interesting, to varied results. Ford is a cipher and a generic hero designed as a proxy for the viewer, and Taylor-Johnson struggles with fleshing him out. The same is true of Olsen’s thankless role as an ersatz damsel in distress. The supporting players manage better, especially Cranston, who makes the most of Joe’s personal tragedy in his limited amount of screen time. The same goes for the required stock characters found in this sort of fare — soulful scientist Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and grizzled soldier Admiral Stenz (David Straithairn) — who are elevated just above two-dimensional status by virtue of the actors playing them.
The monsters and the mayhem are the main draw here, of course, and Edwards borrows a page from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, teasing us with glimpses of the Big G before he makes a full appearance nearly an hour into the movie. His opponents get more slightly screen time, which builds them up as worthy adversaries for the behemoth anti-hero, whose presence looms large over the story whether he’s onscreen or not. The result is a well-timed adrenaline rush of a final act. It’s an impressive creature design, a redesign that streamlines rather than radically alters the beast and gives Godzilla palpable personality and attitude.
More importantly, Borenstein and Edwards sidestep the camp elements that have dogged the franchise for most of its 60 years (which doesn’t mean it is humorless); however, they do so without feeling the need to rationalize every little detail or keep it too grounded in reality. Godzilla has always been a slice of B-movie hokum, and it still is. This time, it’s quality hokum worthy of our inner nine-year-olds.