After you've seen Godzilla, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special:
The original Godzilla—a hugely influential Japanese monster movie made in 1954 as a direct response to a recent ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy—is a staggeringly powerful film, but in some ways it’s hard to account for the long cinematic life its title character has enjoyed. Ishirō Honda’s somber Godzilla (the Japanese title, Gojira, was created by combining the words for “gorilla” and “whale”) was a raw scream of collective anxiety from a nation that, nine years before, had survived two atomic bombings, and that was now finding itself caught, quite literally, in the fallout zone of the U.S./Soviet race to build and test an even more destructive hydrogen bomb. That original Godzilla seems so tied to the time and place of its creation that it’s hard to mentally transpose the central monster—a lumbering mega-dinosaur coaxed from the ocean depths by human experiments with radiation—into any other context. Yet that transposition has now occurred 32 times in 60 years (give or take a mecha-lizard), most recently in the form of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, in which the lumbering lizard is reinvented—not for the first time—as humanity’s potential helpmate.
I guess it’s not hard to see the enduring appeal of the Godzilla myth, even divorced from the context of traumatized post-World War II Japan. The arrogance of human attempts to best the gods with technology is an eternally relevant theme (Icarus, Prometheus, Faust, Frankenstein, Flubber), and there’s no gainsaying the basic fun to be had in watching a bumpy-skinned reptile as big as a skyscraper reduce an entire city to rubble beneath his gargantuan stomping feet. Plus, by now Godzilla, with his radioactive fire-breath, stumpy waving forelegs, and aversion to intact skylines, is an archetypal, almost lovable figure—a quality highly valued by film studios in search of market-ready tentpole entertainments. Edwards’ Godzilla is likely to do a decent job holding up its end of Warner Bros.’ 2014 tent: It’s a smooth, sleek, technologically awe-inspiring 3-D blockbuster with a top-shelf cast (speaking middle-to-lower-shelf dialogue most of the time, to be sure, but they do it with style).
For a shining moment in the first reel, it seems like Bryan Cranston’s appealingly schlubby Joe Brody, a scientist stationed at a nuclear plant in Janjira, Japan, with his family, will be our hero. But after a scientifically unexplainable disaster at the plant kills Brody’s wife (Juliette Binoche, who packs a lot into her doomed 10 minutes onscreen), we flash forward 15 years and the focus switches to the Brody’s now-grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a specialist in bomb defusing for the Army. Joe, now a reclusive conspiracy theorist obsessed with revisiting the meltdown that took his wife’s life, breaks the law by visiting the quarantined zone to retrieve evidence from his own former house. When Ford comes to Japan to bail Joe out of jail, he finds himself getting embroiled in his father’s crackpot theories about what happened that long-ago day in Janjira. Joe’s paranoid rants turn out to be accurate scientific predictions, and the semi-estranged father and son join forces to figure out how to stop the creatures—giant prehistoric monsters that feed on radiation—before they destroy Honolulu (whoops, too late) and San Francisco, where Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) are on the run from the impending monster beatdown.
You’ll notice I’m alluding to monsters in the plural here—not multiple Godzillae, but (spoiler alert, since the marketing has shown some admirable restraint) one Godzilla plus the MUTOs (“Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms”), a pair of colossal praying mantis-like horrors that have emerged from crevices in the Earth’s crust to complete their mating ritual. There’s a lot of warm-up MUTO action before we finally get a good look at the title monster, about an hour in: Scary insect hook-hands ripping out bridge cables, glowing egg sacs with tiny MUTO larvae wriggling inside, mysterious pods dripping with slimy goo. A pair of monster experts (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, both massively overqualified) pop up as needed to make with the scientific ooglety-booglety about electromagnetic pulses and restoring the balance of nature.
Director Gareth Edwards (a visual effects artist who made his directorial debut with the well-regarded 2010 indie Monsters) can compose a nice shot, edit an action sequence with something like causal logic, and even pull off the occasional mildly winking joke—all of which makes Godzilla’s two-hour running time bump along more agreeably than it might have. The climactic monster-v.-monster showdown in the San Francisco Bay—which the imponderably enormous Godzilla wades through like a kiddie pool—goes on too long, but it’s full of thrilling, vaguely Spielbergian shots in which ordinary bystanders, including a school bus full of awestruck children, contemplate the monsters’ sheer scale. It’s too bad that the human protagonists of this are the least interesting: Taylor-Johnson’s stoic soldier hero and his distraught wife and son. We care that these three find each other on the basic level that we’re happy for reunited families in AT&T commercials, but the script hasn’t given us much more to work with than “good-looking people who miss each other.” The scientists, meanwhile, are even more underdrawn. At one point a dead-serious Hawkins respectfully addresses Watanabe as “sensei,” which made me long for a digression on the scientists’ backstory.
But you don’t go see a 2014 Godzilla reboot for the delicate character shadings and plausible story structure. You go to watch a giant radioactive lizard whale on stuff, and on that score, Godzilla does its work. The degree of destruction these behemoths inflict on the Japanese and American infrastructure goes way beyond your average superhero movie. With the possible exception of the Transamerica building, every iconic San Francisco monument is at some point stomped, chomped, or otherwise casually destroyed. (I kept hoping for some Internet-economy humor, like a shot of one of the creatures crashing through Twitter’s SF headquarters clutching a Google bus in each claw.) Though this King of the Monsters is animated digitally, his sometimes-comical lumbering gait gestures at the unwieldy solidity of the original “Suitmation” costume. At the end, his beef with the MUTOs settled, this gentler, less historically fraught, endearingly senescent Godzilla makes his way back into the ocean’s depths, the balance of nature restored once more—for now.