This Godzilla review contains some spoilers.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla establishes its tone right from the opening credits, which play out over a montage of redacted military documents and classified film footage that hint at something unnatural afoot back in the 1950s. It’s all very ominous and mysterious, a mood that the director — whose previous film was the startling 2010 indie Monsters — maintains through much of the first hour of his movie even though we all know what is eventually coming.
That Edwards keeps his star attraction — the majestic 350-foot-tall reptile that has been the subject of 30 movies over 60 years — offscreen for nearly half its running time is one of the calculated risks that this often awe-inspiring movie and its creator take. Even when we finally meet Godzilla in all his building-sized glory, it’s only for a brief moment at first. Edwards, who applies a very effective old-fashioned sensibility to his movie, slowly builds toward a third act that is truly jaw-dropping both in its scope and its ability to channel the classic kaiju battles of old in a modern cinematic context.
Edwards’ approach could test the patience of audiences conditioned by most modern blockbusters, which feel the need to pummel you over the head with an action sequence every five minutes and employ the most hyper, incoherent editing while doing so. But viewers willing to go along with the director’s gambit will be richly rewarded: the scenes in which Godzilla battles not one but two monstrous beasts known as M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) with San Francisco as their boxing ring made me both smile with giddy monster-fan delight and grip the arms of my chair in terror and suspense.
Following the opening montage, the movie first introduces us to Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa (a nice nod to the original 1954 Gojira) and Sally Hawkins as Dr. Graham, who in 1999 discover a vast underground cavern housing the remains of some ancient creature and what appears to be its eggs. One of the latter, however, not only survived but hatched, and whatever was inside makes a beeline for a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan. Its arrival there precipitates a disaster in which American plant chief Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife, the plant and the surrounding city in an incident that is quickly covered up by the government.
Fast forward 15 years and Joe is still living in Japan, although he’s now in a hovel of an apartment and obsessed all these years with finding out what really happened. His estranged son, a military bomb disposal expert named Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), arrives to bail him out of jail after Joe makes an attempt to access the quarantined ruins of Janjira, only to join him on a second attempt. This time, Ford realizes that Joe is not as crazy as he seems: father and son find themselves at the center of events that Joe has been ranting about for more than a decade, and Ford barely has time to acknowledge that his father was right all along before he is swept up himself into the heart of what is unfolding.
Luckily, Drs. Serizawa and Graham pop back in to explain it all to both Ford and Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), who is in charge of the Navy’s efforts to contain the growing menace. The M.U.T.O.s, it seems, feed on radiation and have been reawakened by the lure of a snack at both active power plants and atomic waste sites. Since there are two of them, a male and female, they’re also looking to spawn. Dr. Serizawa determines that another prehistoric creature has been summoned from the depths to stop the M.U.T.O.s: “We call him Godzilla.”
As he did in Monsters, Edwards wisely decides to shoot everything from the human characters’ point of view. This both grounds the movie in a sense of realism and gives it some emotional weight, particularly in the scenes carried by the excellent Cranston. While Godzilla might not be as overwhelmingly somber as the 1954 classic — which served as a collective howl of grief by the Japanese people over the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear attacks — or as its own initial teasers hinted, the movie still attempts to explore our own relationship to nature and how we deal with forces we cannot control. It feels like the filmmaker cares and has something to say, which is a lot more than I can attribute to most summer tentpoles and the soulless Michael Bays behind them.
Edwards continues to subvert expectations throughout: one character takes over from another in a pivotal role, while the first big battle between Godzilla and one of the insect-like M.U.T.O.s at an airport in Hawaii is only glimpsed through news footage on a T.V. screen. But Edwards is also a fan with a deep respect for the basic appeal of kaiju movies, and the main event between Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s is not only awesome but beautiful to watch. No machine-gun editing here: Edwards lets us see everything destructive turn of the battle clearly, finally giving us a more omniscient view of the action while never letting us forget there are small humans underfoot as well. The fight itself is just one amazing image after another, frightening in a primal way and also thrilling as old-fashioned monster spectacle.
Godzilla does fall short in some areas, primarily casting and character development. Cranston and Watanabe are both solid, gravitas-supplying presences, yet end up feeling as if they were shortchanged. Most of the narrative weight of the movie’s second half falls on the shoulders of Johnson, who simply comes across as stiff and charmless in the tradition of Taylor Kitsch in John Carter and Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim. His plight, however, may be more the result of the script (credited to Max Borenstein, although both Edwards and Frank Darabont worked on it), as any complexity hinted at in his character early on is dropped later. Most wasted in the film are Hawkins — I can’t recall hearing her utter a single line — and Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, an emergency room nurse who mainly gets to look worriedly at a TV, her son or a phone. Surely she could have been better employed, especially when she and a number of other civilians are forced to head into the subway tunnels once the battle comes to the Bay Area.
Even with these weaknesses, Godzilla is engaging, chilling and, when the action kicks in, tremendously exciting. It plays differently from and looks bigger than any film of this scale I’ve seen in a while, and is thoughtful in a way that most large-budget extravaganzas are afraid to even attempt. Unlike Roland Emmerich’s unwatchably awful 1998 version, and even many of the Japanese films in the series produced over the years, this Godzilla feels worthy of the original — which is the highest compliment I can give it.