The King of the Monsters doesn’t appear until halfway through Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, but that feels just about right in this 2014 franchise reboot that straddles a precarious line between taking the material seriously and catering to series fans by embracing its inherent silliness. The 1998 Roland Emmerich version notably did neither, and was widely derided by both critics and audiences in the process.
Edwards’ film, on the other hand, is just about as good as a modern Godzilla movie could be. It isn’t an easy task: as cities are leveled and hundreds of thousands (presumably) die in mainstream blockbusters like Transformers 3, The Avengers, and Man of Steel, the real modern monster movie would have to top them in sheer, devastating terror.
The Toho-created Godzilla, on the other hand, is a goofy, lovable guy in a rubber suit, and that’s just how fans like him; any change in appearance or demeanor is likely to incur the ire of wrath of the faithful (indeed, the pseudo-realistic lizard-like creature in the Emmerich film was laughed off the screen). Complaints are already rolling in about the “fat” Godzilla of this version (apparently, he’s been supersized for American audiences), but after 60 years and a decade since the last film in the series we can cut the big guy a break for packing on a few pounds.
Otherwise, Edwards gets just about everything right in this $160 million blockbuster – a relative bargain at $65 million less than last year’s heavyweights, Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger – that provides both a serious-minded look at staggering monster terror alongside knowing winks to the series’ undeniable cheesiness. It works surprisingly well – for most of its running time, at least.
Ultimately, Edwards can’t quite have his cake and eat it too: as San Francisco crumbles under imagery that (consciously or subconsciously) evokes memories of 9/11, and the film starts to favor more light-hearted monster movie thrills over serious-minded terror, the fun wanes as the morality of this entertainment is called into question. We never see any (explicit) onscreen deaths, but we know hundreds are perishing with each monster-sized step; rather than a wink and a smile and Godzilla riding off into the sunset, shouldn’t the movie at least acknowledge the implications of the real-world horror it has created?
Of course, we expect mass destruction in these films, and Edwards & co. level San Fran, Las Vegas, Honolulu (in the film’s finest sequence), and other major cities with expert skill. Godzilla began life as a 1954 film that – along with other monster movies of the era – served as commentary on the atomic age: nuclear blasts had given life to gigantic creatures that would attack cities around the world. The monsters, of course, were merely realizations of the mass fear induced by A-bomb paranoia.
This time around, the concept is shaken up a bit: the ancient monsters feed off of atomic energy, and 1940s weapons testing didn’t awaken or create them, but were an attempt to stop them (this doesn’t seem logical, but it makes for a nice line in the trailer). I’m not so sure of the socio-political commentary this time around, from screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham. Let’s call it muddled.
No matter. We don’t really need explanations here, but the film is happy to drone on with the exposition. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins have the rather thankless roles as MUTO (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) studying scientists who attempt to make sense of it all; Watanabe’s character suffers through some laugh-out-loud lines with his gut-instinct backing of Godzilla in the face of the worldwide devastation (his solution? Let nature take its course.)
Not that the military has any better ideas. A cardboard-cutout admiral, played by David Strathairn, devises a plan to lure the monster into San Francisco with an A-Bomb and then blast ‘em to Hell; yeah, he knows the creatures feed off of nuclear energy, but the bomb blast alone should be enough to kill them. I might have suggested a non-atomic blast in this case, or luring the monster to a non-major metropolitan area to detonate it, but that’s just me.
But it’s really hysterical conspiracy theorist Joe Brody (played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) who knows what’s up here. And Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) just happens to be a serviceman who knows how to defuse atomic bombs. Cranston is magnetic at his stark-raving best, and the human side of Godzilla really lights up whenever he’s on screen; Juliette Binoche stars as his wife, and Elizabeth Olson is his daughter-in-law.
The human characters begin to feel a little perfunctory after a while, which isn’t really a criticism of the movie but an acknowledgement of its origins: the monster was always going to outshine the protagonists. Still, director Edwards deserves credit for keeping us hooked through the first half, slowly building suspense and an ominous sense of dread: while we don’t get more than a glimpse of Godzilla until more than half of the movie is over, the film works better when he’s off screen.
Edwards previously made the low-budget feature Monsters, and it’s easy to see why he was tapped for this summer blockbuster (which is about 200 times more expensive than his earlier film): taking a page from Spielberg’s Jaws, the suggestion of these giant monsters is more terrifying than the presence of them. The less we see of them, the scarier they become.
Of course, that was never going to completely work in a Godzilla movie, as evidenced by the 30-minute monster mash climax that concludes the film. But what surprised me was the technical expertise with which Edwards handles the action: filming the monster destruction almost entirely from the point of view of the human characters (though there is the odd money shot here and there), he creates a genuinely frightening scale to the monster action.
Blending serious-minded thrills with cheesy monster movie nods, this Godzilla doesn’t reinvent the franchise, but the expert balance and technical prowess with which it’s all delivered should make it a hit with both critics and audiences alike.
I caught Godzilla in (post-converted) 3D at Cinema City Flora IMAX, an experience I can wholeheartedly recommend. The 3D did nothing for me (though it didn’t detract), but the large-format presentation and (especially) the thunderous soundtrack was welcome: when that trademark roar rattles the cinema at the halfway mark, I couldn’t help but be overcome by a childlike glee.