It was sixty years ago that the original Japanese “Godzilla” (or more properly “Gojira”)—in which a rubbery prehistoric creature, roused from the ocean floor by H-bomb tests, turned a cardboardy Tokyo to rubble—first appeared, a rather audacious condemnation of atomic weaponry coming not even a decade after Hiroshima. Brutally cut and dubbed, and supplemented with newly-shot footage featuring Raymond Burr as a verbose radio reporter, it was exported to the English-language market, where it scored an unlikely success. Afterward Godzilla became a staple in the Japanese kidflick scene, often as a good guy who did battle with nastier monsters in the service of humanity.
It’s that latter incarnation of the big guy that’s reflected in this would-be Hollywood franchise-starter, the second US attempt at resuscitating Godzilla for the international audience after Roland Emmerich’s abortive 1998 remake of the 1954 picture, which transposed the destruction to NYC. It’s not simply another retread of the original (as the dreadful “Godzilla 1985” and Emmerich’s movie were), but a less juvenile-oriented variant of all those later kidflicks in which Godzilla faced off against other monsters and helped out mankind in the process. Weirdly earnest, it has the pea-sized brain of a dinosaur but compensates with an impressive display of sound and fury that practically raises the roof off an IMAX auditorium.
The set-up to the last reel’s slam-bang action is, to tell the truth, both complicated and rather silly. In 1954, we learn, atomic weapons were used to drive Godzilla back into the deep, where he slumbered for six decades. Meanwhile, in 1999, strip mining in the Philippines led to the revelation of an underground chamber where cocoons encasing other prehistoric creatures were found. A dormant one, we later learn, was carted off to the nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada for disposal; the other had already opened, unleashing what’s eventually revealed to be a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that feeds on radiation and attacks a Japanese nuclear power plant run by American Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), whose wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) dies in the ensuing devastation.
Cut to 2014, when Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns to his family in San Francisco—wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and cute-as-a-button tyke Sam (Carson Bolde)—after a tour of duty with the US Navy as a bomb-disposal officer. No sooner does he settle in than he gets a call from Japan to bail his estranged dad out of the pokey. Obsessive Joe’s been trying to sneak into the still-quarantined area surrounding the old reactor site, still grieving his loss and, on the basis of his calculations, certain that disaster is about to strike there again. When he and the reluctant Ford return to the place, they find the air isn’t the toxic threat widely advertised. Rather scientist Iricho Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his aide Vivienne (Sally Hawkins) are presiding over a secret installation studying a bulging mass of prehistoric matter that will soon rupture, unleashing the MUTO a second time, now a fully-formed winged creature that tears the place apart before moving on to Hawaii, taking sustenance from a Russian sub along the way.
At this point Ford is sucked into the pursuit of the MUTO that’s quickly mounted under Serizawa and US Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), though all he’s actually trying to do is get back to his family. And Godzilla—who turns out to be the natural predator of the MUTO that nature, in her supremely balanced wisdom, has fashioned—reawakens to fulfill his evolutionary duty. What follows is an eventful ride for Ford as he confronts the MUTO in Honolulu (where he saves a lost child and a tsunami strikes the city in the style of “The Impossible”), joins a squadron shepherding nuclear bombs to California for use against the MUTO, and eventually sky-dives into the half-destroyed city to defuse a weapon that’s ticking away there, all the time working to reunite with Elle and Sam, who are busy trying to survive themselves. The problem, you see, is that a second MUTO—the one stored in Nevada—has hatched as well, and it turns out to be a female lurching toward San Francisco to meet up with its potential mate flying in from Hawaii so they can spawn a brood of little MUTOs. So there’s a curious millennia-spanning juxtaposition between Ford’s efforts to save his family and the MUTOs’ effort to jumpstart theirs—which would have a rather unfortunate impact on the survival of humankind.
But never fear—Godzilla’s on the way to San Francisco too, and as the concerned but sage Serizawa cogently explains to Stenz, he provides a natural way to avert a potential catastrophe: “Let them fight.” And that’s precisely what happens, despite the ticking time-bomb, and the movie becomes something like “Godzilla Vs. Rodan,” with the proviso that since Godzilla is double-teamed, it’s not really a fair fight. Still, the big guy is like Rocky—he might take a beating but keeps getting up from the rubble—and with a bit of help from Ford (which he seems to acknowledge on a couple of occasions with a virtual head-nod) and a couple of shots of his famous fire-breath, he eventually comes out on top. Then he heads back to his domicile beneath the sea, hailed by some press folk as a savior. (Ford isn’t as successful with that bomb: he doesn’t manage to defuse it—the lid’s stuck, and he apparently doesn’t carry a can-opener—but he does manage to send it on a tugboat out to sea where it explodes harmlessly. But will he survive and find his family alive?)
Obviously the script confected by Max Borenstein isn’t exactly rocket science, and the human characters tend to be a rather boring lot. Though Taylor-Johnson, no longer the nerdy fellow of his “Kiss-Ass” roles, makes a stalwart hero, in his hands Ford never becomes charismatic. Watanabe, Olsen, Hawkins, Binoche and Strathairn are pretty much wasted in stock roles. And Cranston once again plays so “big” that he devolves into self-caricature (even the toupee goes too far).
Of course a movie like this isn’t—or shouldn’t be—judged by the pesky little men, women and children in it, however much director Gareth Edwards wants to get us to care about them (and fails). One goes to a Godzilla picture to see the big guy, and here Edwards really toys with us, taking a full hour before providing even the first tantalizing glimpse. Even in the second hour, he keeps full views of Godzilla relatively scarce, often obscuring them in smoke and ash or showing them through some human’s protective goggles (and in one instance, via shadows on a wall). It’s an interesting ploy, but some viewers will think it a bit too clever for the movie’s own good. Edwards actually seems more comfortable exhibiting the MUTOs, who have a lot more screen time than Godzilla. These entities, which look rather like an unholy cross between crabs and bats, may remind you of the squid-like creatures in Edwards’ earlier “Monsters,” though the scale is much more impressive here. In general, though, the creature effects are pretty exhilarating, subtly reminding us of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit cheesiness of the Japanese movies while using motion-capture technology to transcend it.
The other effects, frankly, doesn’t always measure up to the slam-bang battle of the final reel. In particular the collapse of Joe’s nuclear plant at the start looks distinctly like model work, though the strip-mining operation is more impressive. “The Impossible” remains the gold standard when it comes to tsunamis, but the one here is a solid second, and from that point “Godzilla” is first-class in purely visual terms. Production designer Owen Paterson and the art direction team headed by Grant Van Der Stagt deserve kudos, as does cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, who manages to give the compositions a nifty combination of crispness and mood despite the burden of 3D. Among the other craft contributions, special mention is due Alexandre Desplat, who provides a score that enhances the action in a traditional fashion but is nonetheless distinctive, down to the Ligeti homage in one sequence.
This latest incarnation of “Godzilla” has something on its mind—the typical embedded warning about tampering with nature—but one could never embrace it for any supposed cerebral qualities. Ultimately it works as well as it does, especially on the IMAX screen, on the same primitive grounds that the 1954 original did in its day. Emmerich flubbed it; Edwards doesn’t, and that’s why his picture gets a marginal pass.