"Look mommy, dinosaurs!"
Arguably the most beloved monster in movie history, Godzilla has a long and storied history with 28 films made by Japan's Toho Studios between 1954 and the present. Any time an American studio has attempted to bring the giant lizard to the big screen, however, the results have been disastrous. Roland Emmerich's 1998 version was much more interested in being a disaster movie than being a Godzilla movie, and the less said about Godzilla 1985, the better.
With franchise rights passing to Legendary Studios in 2010, Warner Brothers put a new version into development very quickly, and four years later, here we are with a new film from a director, Gareth Edwards, with only one film to his name. Admittedly his 2010 film Monsters is incredibly innovative and clever, but how will he fare with the eyes of the world literally on him? Read on to find out...
A pair of scientists (Ken Watanabe & Sally Hawkins) visit the Philippines in 1999 after a giant cave-in at a mining site. Underground they discover a large skeleton as well as a number of fossilized pods, one of which looks to have recently hatched and whatever was inside it burrowed its way out into the Pacific Ocean. In Japan at the same time, a nuclear physicist (Bryan Cranston) lives with his wife (Juliette Binoche) and son, and the plant he works at suffers a breach, causing hundreds of people to be killed and the entire area surrounding the plant to be declared uninhabitable.
Fast forward fifteen years and the son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a soldier in the Navy, returning home to San Fransisco where his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son live. He receives a phone call asking him to come to Japan to bail his father out of jail, when he was caught exploring the uninhabitable zone where they used to live. Upon reuniting with his father, the two travel back to their old house to gather some files the father is trying to use to prove that the anomaly that caused the meltdown is happening again, and that the government is trying to cover something up. Sure enough, they are, and it's a bigger problem than anyone could have ever imagined.
I imagine that the inherent problem most people will have with this Godzilla is that my two paragraph summary of the plot doesn't mention that word once. As a matter of fact, he's not even the thing they're trying to cover up. I'll go into mild spoilers here, but nothing that will ruin your enjoyment of the film, I promise. There are basically two large creatures dubbed MUTOs, that the government knows about, who feed off of toxic radiation. The scientists from the Philippines are hoping that they can lure Godzilla out of the depths of the ocean to battle the MUTOs before they destroy all life on earth.
So basically, this world is one in which Godzilla already existed, and the opening credits do a sensational job of covering his history for the film, making it one of the more worthwhile opening credit sequences to come down the pike in a long time. The film is more concerned with the human drama of it all rather than the big monsters, and it's ironic that the same audiences who saw fit to pan last summer's Pacific Rim for its lack of humanity are the same ones now decrying this film's lack of giant monster making stuff go boom. For my money, it was a perfect mix of the two, and the action sequences that Edwards and his team give us are nothing short of awe-inspiring.
The film is not trying to be clever or trick you into thinking it's a much smarter film than it is, because it's full of technical mumbo jumbo that honestly doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the end. It's almost akin to watching the original Godzilla without the subtitles, it just doesn't matter what anyone's saying, you know that there's danger and you know that the beautiful big green lizard is gonna start destroying stuff any minute. The fun is in the mayhem and splendor of it all. The script by Max Borenstein is equal parts rampant stupidity and gloriously over the top fun, and it works like gangbusters.
The performances are uniformly good for what was being asked of these actors. Can they convey fear and anxiety and anger and look good while doing so? Yes. Sold! Cranston is of course the best among them, though I couldn't help but chuckle over the fact that the rug they put on him looked so cheap and fake for a movie with a budget north of $150 million. It was arguably the worst special effect on display. As a director, Edwards shows a flair for capturing the size, scope, and weight of it all, and the whole film is infinitely better because of his dedication to keeping the action focused on how the humans must view it, and the scope becomes enormous and focused all at the same time.
Godzilla is not the geek's wet dream that Pacific Rim was, but it's as good a start to a new franchise as fans could have possibly hoped for. It's solidly entertaining, appropriately suspenseful, and gorgeous to look at. It's all you could ask for from a summer movie, and though it will likely disappoint a large segment of the population simply because there's not enough Godzilla in it, those audiences need to take a long hard look in the mirror and realize that sometimes there really is too much of a good thing. It's one reason why the Transformers movies are such complete and total bullshit. It's nothing but explosions and sensory overload. Sometimes it's nice for a film to scale things back and actually leave you wanting more. Appreciate it for once.