Godzilla was created 60 years ago out of Japanese atomic-age anxiety that is perfectly appropriate–after all, they remain the only nation to be attacked by atomic weapons. The character went on to have many different incarnations over the years. During the ’60s he was a good guy, starring in several cheesy movies where he battled other monsters. I remember these fondly from my youth, especially Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, but they are Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder these days. Then came the earnest but misguided remake in 1999, in which Godzilla was a slithery reptile that ended up under Madison Square Garden.
Now the big lug is back in a throwback to the original, a cautionary tale about radiation and messing around with nature. Most of today’s natural disaster movies have been around global warming, so a radiation-based one is a bit nostalgic, perfectly in step with the Cold War being revived by Russia’s misadventure in the Crimea. At its heart, though, this newfangled Godzilla is still a cheesy monster movie, dressed up in formal attire.
The movie was directed by Gareth Edwards, who previously made the film Monsters, an indie monster movie that was mostly about immigration. As with that film, the monsters are held back toward the end, but this time it has less to do with cost than strategy. The prologue is in 1999 (coincidence that this was the year of the last Godzilla flop?) when some sort of electromagnetic disturbance causes a nuclear power plant to topple. American engineer Bryan Cranston loses his wife (Juliette Binoche, in a surprisingly brief appearance) and years later he will be out of work, one of the tinfoil-hat brigade, raving that the government is hiding something and it wasn’t an earthquake that destroyed the plant.
His son, a navy lieutenant (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), newly back to the States after a deployment, leaves his cozy domesticity with wife Elizabeth Olsen and bails his dad out of jail after the old man is arrested for trespassing on the quarantined area around the plant. Son thinks dad is nuts, but accompanies him on another trip, where they both find that there is no radiation in the area. They are again arrested, but scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins know he’s telling the truth, and fill him in.
I’ll leave it there. The science may be murky, but it’s thoughtful. The upshot is that there are three beasts that feed off of radiation. Two look like giant katydids–one erupts out of a pit in Japan, the other at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Apparently they are male and female and looking to mate. In the process they destroy Honolulu and Las Vegas.
The third beastie is Godzilla himself, looking thick in the middle but bearing mankind no ill will. Watanabe urges the authorities to let the big ugly guy take care of the big bugs, as he is “nature’s balance.” Meanwhile, the destruction is on massive scale.
I found Godzilla to be effective in fits and starts. A lot of it dragged, and it was amusing how Taylor-Johnson always found himself right in the middle of it. I mean, they send him home from Japan and he has a layover in Hawaii–just in time to see it obliterated. Olsen, for her part, is a nurse in San Francisco–guess where the final battle takes place?
These extraordinary coincidences are just part of the cheesy fun, and I must say the creation of the creatures is exemplary. Many of the monster battles take place at night, and in the San Francisco fog, which gives them an eerie quality. The first glimpse of Godzilla takes place at night, when he is illuminated by flares, and it’s quite striking. It’s also great they gave him his trademark screech.
So long as the monsters are on screen this is a good film, but the human element is lacking. Watanabe mostly stares into the distance, and Olsen, a good actress, is in a thankless role. But overall I give the film a slight thumbs up. The last shot, a very poetic one, leaves the door open for what is now an almost certain sequel. Perhaps Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, redux?
My grade for Godzilla: B-.