Godzilla movies were regular entries in the monster movie marathons that they’d put on the air late at night or on lazy Saturdays spent in front of the TV. I loved these movies because Godzilla would inevitably destroy everything in sight and often fight other creatures in those plots where he was actually saving humanity instead of working out anger issues against it. People are conflicted at best about the 1998 Roland Emmerich film that starred Matthew Broderick and had the titular monster rampage through Manhattan. The design was very different from the traditional versions of Godzilla, and that made it feel more like a generic lizard or dinosaur than the legendary beast. Godzilla fans should have a much better reaction to this year’s entry in the series. Godzilla combines a familiar creature with outstanding special effects and a fresh perspective for the kind of monster movie that I expect to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Godzilla.
I was especially excited about seeing this film when I learned that the director was Gareth Edwards, the writer/director of the impressive 2010 Monsters. He also did the special effects for that movie, so I knew that he would be perfect for Godzilla. The script went through a number of hands, including David Callaham (cowriter of The Expendables), before credited writer Max Borenstein (the upcoming Seventh Son). This shuffling around is evident in the uneven nature of the plot. It’s best when there’s a lot of action and not as good during the quiet, character-driven moments. Fortunately, the action doesn’t let up once it hits its stride and, in fact, only gets better up until the appropriate conclusion.
The plot mainly spans two time periods and focuses on a pair of fathers and sons and their relationship to what’s going on with Godzilla. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston overemoting) is a nuclear scientist at the Jinjira plant in Japan in 1999, and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche in a small role) happens to be at the plant while their son Ford is at school. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe slumming it) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are investigating the escape of some kind of creature in the Philippines at a mining site when an attack takes place at Jinjira that has devastating consequences. In the present day, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of the Kick-Ass series) is called to Japan from San Francisco to spring his father Joe from jail. He leaves behind wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde). Joe has been sneaking into the quarantined plant to find the cause of the attack all those years ago, and Ford brings him back from the edge of a mental breakdown to discover what really happened in 1999 and how to stop attacks now. Yes, the destruction involves Godzilla and some other creatures, but I won’t explain more.
The acting has always been almost an afterthought in Godzilla movies. Everyone remembers the bad dubbing that led to Japanese characters’ mouths moving out of synch with the English voice-overs. Fortunately, the acting is much better in this modern incarnation. Cranston goes too far into the sort of mania that a survivor of a tragedy might experience. The others do much better, including the versatile and reliable David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz. Watanabe mostly delivers blank stares as well as the line of dialogue identifying “Gojira” (the Japanese name for Godzilla). Fans of the Kick-Ass films will not recognize Taylor-Johnson here as a buff American lieutenant. Olsen is one of my favorite actresses of her generation and has a presence on screen that pulls you in. She doesn’t get a lot of room to show off her skills here; check out some of her other films like Martha Marcy May Marlene and Liberal Arts. What’s particularly interesting about the casting is that Taylor-Johnson and Olsen play husband and wife in Godzilla and brother and sister in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.
I’m sure that you don’t want to hear much about the actors. In a movie like this, it’s the monsters that draw in the people. Edwards is a great choice for Godzilla, and he brings the goods. The action sequences are exciting, and the destruction inflicted at various locations across the world is consistent with the series. The official trailers hint at monsters in addition to Godzilla, so I’m not giving anything away. They’re referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), and they have a look and feel that reminds me of the big bugs in Starship Troopers. Godzilla is a bigger, meaner version of the 1950s beast. His face has the distinct look of a bear, but he walks upright with his tail swinging everywhere as you would expect. His roar is especially loud and almost musical in its delivery; pick a theater that has a good sound system. It’s also no surprise that Godzilla always fights other monsters in his movies, and the battles here are worth the price of admission.
This summer, every week has a new blockbuster coming out, so it might be hard to fit them all in. Godzilla is one that’s just too much fun to not see in a theater. There’s a surprising amount of humor here, too, especially considering what will make you smile or laugh — from the signature shots or moves of Godzilla to people oblivious to the creatures’ destruction to the perfect use of a certain Elvis Presley song. Edwards looked to Jaws for inspiration on how to reveal creatures bit by bit in a film, and he teases effectively here until the bigger reveals as well as makes a nod to Jaws by appropriating the family name Brody. A few shots near a bridge remind me of Pacific Rim, but that’s only a minor similarity. Godzilla and the MUTOs create destruction all across the world, and I’m certain that they’ll tear up the box office as well. I would welcome another movie in a restarted series with Edwards at the helm.