[Spoiler level: Mild]
Some full disclosure is in order before I begin, so please forgive a bit of self-indulgence. When I was at the tender age of four years, my mother, in her infinite wisdom, approached me and pointed out the following listing in the TV Guide magazine: “Godzilla vs The Smog Monster - Japan’s celebrated dinosaur battles a creature derived from pollution.” At the time, my mom was merely focused on the word “dinosaur”, which was already an all-consuming obsession for preschool-aged me, but little did she know the huge can of giant radioactive worms she had just opened. Upon viewing Godzilla vs The Smog Monster, commonly considered an especially bizarre, low-quality entry in the classic Godzilla mythos, my young mind was already made up: Godzilla was the greatest dinosaur of any dinosaur I had ever seen or ever would see depicted in any media. Many years later, I still hold to that decision. This is where I’m coming from as a professed Godzilla fanboy, so consider yourself forewarned.
British director Gareth Edwards’ new Godzilla film stands as a mostly rousing, satisfying, worthy successor in the long line of varied movies featuring the giant saurian. Despite a few calculated risks and missteps along the way, this movie succeeds in washing away the lasting residue from the ill-conceived 1998 Tristar Pictures Godzilla effort. Edwards is obviously a follower of the Steven Spielberg school of slowly-escalating wonderment, as opposed to the wall-to-wall, Attention Deficit Disorder-inspired action films often seen in theaters these days. Thus, we spend a large portion of the film following the murky history of Godzilla and meeting the human characters involved in that history before even getting close to seeing Godzilla himself.
Actor Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad is of course the main draw for a good portion of the general audience, and he doesn’t disappoint with his unhinged conspiracy theorist trying to get to the bottom of what destroyed a Japanese nuclear power plant years earlier. Cranston’s role in the film is limited, so Heisenberg fans might need to temper their expectations a bit, but he delivers the crazy effectively when onscreen. The other actors are mostly dutiful if not masterful in filling out their assigned roles. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Cranston’s noble but somewhat bland military bomb-expert son becomes the main focus of the film, with Elizabeth Olsen as the distraught wife constantly on the phone telling him to be careful out there. Ken Watanabe plays a brooding scientist who is deeply invested in the Godzilla mystery and kindly provides exposition and dire warnings as the script demands. While none of these characters are really groundbreaking, they do serve the purpose of keeping the story moving along at a decent pace while dancing around the slowly-looming subject of Godzilla. Unlike the scattershot mess that was the pacing of the recent Amazing Spider-Man 2, however, the various subplots of Godzilla steadily chug along towards one clear goal. Some more complex characterizations would have been nice, but the respective human elements of this film never overstay their welcome long enough to get boring.
It is established early on that ginormous, vaguely insectoid prehistoric creatures, somewhat humorously called “MUTOs”, for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms”, have been awakened by radiation leaks and pose a threat to humanity. These creatures have an familiarly alien look, echoing elements of the creature from J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, with a dollop of the Alien Queen from Aliens thrown in for good measure. We actually get to see the MUTOs long before we see Godzilla, often through the ingenious use of news channel footage and several you-are-there bystander glimpses of the creatures that teasingly pull away before we get a really good look. Indeed, Edwards’ directorial style almost teases viewers past the point of healthy frustration in blithely bypassing several potential destruction scenes that serve as lead-ins to the final confrontation with Godzilla. Rest assured, however, that tolerating all the teasing will be rewarded very well in the final act.
As for Godzilla himself - and let’s not kid ourselves, everything else is just window dressing until the big “G” appears - he looks and moves amazingly. The massive brutality with which he plows through the ocean waves and engages his monstrous foes is a sight to behold. Although different from any of the past Japanese incarnations of the character, this is still easily recognizable as the Godzilla we know and love. Most of Godzilla’s big reveals take place in a rainy, dark or foggy environment (much like the original 1954 Godzilla film, to be fair), and while it would have been nice to maybe see a little more of Godzilla in the bright light of the CGI sun, his visual presence never ceases to impress.
Another aspect about Godzilla’s depiction that should be noted - and this may mean more to a Godzilla fan than to the average person - the Godzilla in this movie is not presented in the same destructive light as the original black-and-white classic Godzilla from 1954. While this Godzilla appears as an unpredictable force of nature, he does not lay waste to cities and incinerate armies with abandon as in many Godzilla outings of days past. This Godzilla’s main beef seems to be with his MUTO enemies and not mankind, and this exposes one plot point I must say I did disagree with to a certain extent: Godzilla never really goes toe-to-toe with the military in this movie. While this can be explained away by assuming that since Godzilla survived an H-bomb in the 1950s, the army isn’t about to bother trying to kill him with conventional weapons, it still comes off as a bit of a let-down in light of Godzilla’s traditional modus operandi of swatting down fighter jets and flattening tanks. Aside from some soldiers firing rifles uselessly at Godzilla at one point, and several battleships ineffectively blasting at him while he blunders through the Golden Gate Bridge en route to his final MUTO battle in San Francisco, there is no epic throw-down between the US military and the King of the Monsters. My own inner conspiracy theorist wonders if perhaps the extensive involvement of the US Department of Defense in the production of Godzilla (as mentioned by the director himself in several interviews) might have had something to do with the notable lack of stomping of US forces by the title character.
Regardless of my reservations concerning that issue, by the time the third act kicks into gear with Godzilla and his super-sized foes tumbling around San Francisco, all is forgiven. Many classic Godzilla-isms come into play during the climactic final battle, and the director’s true respect for a movie monster that has often had to work hard for any respect comes shining through during this entire tumultuous climax. This Godzilla fan left the theater satisfied and relieved that an American production could do right by Godzilla after all. Make no mistake, this is indeed a very American-blockbuster take on Godzilla, with all the strengths and some of the unfortunate tropes that go with it. In spite of this fact, it is obvious that director Edwards has worked to break away from the typical big, dumb US action-movie formula that hinges on mindless indulgence and instead he gives us a monster movie that is willing to take its time, try to be thoughtful and present a true sense of wonder along with the roller-coaster thrills.
There are indeed some flaws and some pacing issues in Godzilla, and there is some room for improvement, but I for one am looking forward to this latest version becoming a franchise so I can see what form these improvements and new direction might take. Four decades after I personally boarded the Godzilla train with that first preschool TV screening, I’m still enjoying the ride and eager to see where this new Godzilla will go.
Godzilla (2014) Final grade: B