In one fell swoop, and a pretty swell fell swoop it is, the new Godzilla makes up for the 1998 Godzilla movie, the one with Matthew Broderick up against the sea beast klutzing around New York like Jack Lemmon in The Out-of-Towners. The latest Godzilla, fine and fierce, removes the camp (though it’s not humorless) and takes the smartly considered step of not overexploiting its star.
Already it has become the water-cooler topic for this unusually classy summer picture: Is there enough Godzilla in Godzilla? Folks, there is. There is just enough. For one thing, Godzilla’s not the only creature wreaking havoc in Japan and America. For another, there’s such a thing as pacing oneself, if one is a Godzilla movie. While it does indeed take close to an hour for the prehistoric being to get his first full-on, gangway-world-get-off-of-my-runway close-up, director Gareth Edwards lays the expository groundwork nicely and hands the audience what it craves in the second half.
Godzilla tells two tales, one of a nuclear family reuniting, the other of a more literally nuclear family working through its problems by fighting it out. The premise of screenwriter Max Borenstein’s script, taken from a story by David Callaham, rewrites, cleverly, the Godzilla lore as we know it. Earth’s most radiant yet most marginalized shut-in, first seen in 1954, was not, it turns out, awakened by atomic testing in the South Pacific. Those A-bomb blasts were intended to kill or at least contain the beast. The new Godzilla begins in 1999, in a Filipino mining quarry, where disruptions to the Earth in the name of capitalism have generated unusual seismic readings. Scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins discover a pair of massive sacs attached to a skeleton of … something. One is empty, and there’s a trail from the quarry site leading to the ocean. The other, intact but threatening, is whisked to an undisclosed location near Las Vegas.
In the manner of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, the human character roster in Godzilla isn’t neatly divided into obvious, impervious protagonists and clearly marked villains biding their time before their death scenes. Following the late 20th-century prologue, the picture’s early scenes focus on a married pair of nuclear power facility workers played by Bryan Cranston (terrible rug, even with a $160 million production budget) and Juliette Binoche. What first appears to be a plant meltdown is, of course, being caused by the radiation-seeking monster. The disaster leaves the couple’s son devastated; 15 years later, he’s a U.S. Navy explosives expert, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child are separated from the film’s nominal hero as things heat up in San Francisco and the monster-on-monster smack-downs arrive.
Those who loved last year’s Pacific Rim, which reveled in an all-star series of cage matches, are the ones destined to be most frustrated with Godzilla. I found that pileup entertaining but crowded. Here, there’s room for a creature or three to breathe and bide some time between clashes. The director thinks visually, which sounds redundant until you realize how many monster movies are flat, effects-dependent factory jobs. Edwards knows how to use great heights for great effect: The paratroopers’ jump, scored (wrongly, I think) to a famous piece of music used in 2001: A Space Odyssey, imparts the same sense of vertiginous thrill as a view from a railroad trestle bridge, looking downward, at a river of flaming debris.
There are weaknesses, starting and ending with Taylor-Johnson, who’s dull in a crucial but dull role. I find the screenplay’s attempts to make us care about the humans rather touching, which isn’t the same as saying the characters’ crises are dramatically vital. But so much of Godzilla works on a sensory, atmospheric level, the workmanlike material can’t kill it.
Edwards’ sole previous feature, Monsters, was made on a budget of less than $1 million, and concerned an alien invasion. In that modest but satisfying debut, Edwards played peekaboo with the audience, keeping its monsters under wraps until they were truly necessary. Now, working with a budget approximately 160 times larger, Edwards surely felt the pressure of commercial expectations regarding Godzilla. Even so, the film has the air of confident, almost serene folklore. There’s a full complement of computer-generated effects (duh), but the battle scenes never arrive quite when you expect. Glimpses of horrendous destruction are often captured on television screens, or witnessed from behind airport terminal windows. When the Watanabe character says the big line—“Let them fight”—you’re good and ready for a fight. While Edwards has a few things to learn about handling human-based dramatic sequences, it’s heartening to see a couple of big producing entities, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, take an intelligent risk on a relatively untested director.
Godzilla (PG-13): ★★★★☆