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The king of movie monsters has grown bigger than ever — in size as well as in the budget, resources and zealous seriousness devoted to his exploits — in this grandiose celebration of his 60th birthday. Even older than James Bond and with more films to his credit, Godzilla has never before been accorded the sort of lavish respect that the talented young English director Gareth Edwards bestows upon him here, and it’s almost too much; as if he were an elderly stage star being deferentially treated, the title character barely shows up until the second act.
Superbly made but burdened by some dull human characters enacted by an interesting international cast who can’t do much with them, this new Godzilla is smart, self-aware, eye-popping and arguably in need of a double shot of cheeky wit. Domestic commercial prospects look very strong for this final co-venture between Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, but even better overseas; in a potentially apt comparison, the studio’s Pacific Rim did 75 percent of its business outside North America.
It’s not that a Godzilla movie can’t be made with the utmost seriousness; to the contrary, the original 1954 Gojira, seen today in its fully restored version now being distributed by Rialto, is beyond serious to the point of startling grimness in its forthright allegory of the nuclear age born in Japan just nine years earlier. The monster began life as neither good guy nor bad guy, more as a terrifying force of nature unleashed by the new technological frontiers of warfare.
Through 28 Toho productions over the years, Godzilla became generally more cuddly and human-friendly as he took on a string of adversaries, although he occasionally reverted to rampant destructiveness when Tokyo needed another trampling. He also became camp and silly at times, and the first stab at a big-budget American studio version, by Roland Emmerich for Sony in 1997, was so thoroughly embarrassing that the Japanese declared it not to be a “genuine” Godzilla movie.
That will not be the case here. Edwards, who was selected to direct on the basis of his exceptional 2010 debut, Monsters, a micro-budgeted sci-fi drama resourcefully shot throughout Central America and on which the British director created his own special effects, knows his Godzilla lore. With story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein, Edwards takes pains to re-establish Godzilla and his new nemeses as products of the nuclear era, first with a nifty little opening credits reel of vintage atom bomb test footage climaxed by a quick glimpse of certain kaiju. Jump to 1999 and radiation is detected in a huge mining pit in the Philippines where Japanese scientist Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and his cohort Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) are among those who go bug-eyed upon discovering a skeleton far bigger than a blue whale.
In coastal Janjira, Japan, American couple Joe and Sandra Brody (the intriguingly matched Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are scientists working at the local nuclear power plant, where some increasingly strong tremors officially blamed on earthquakes. Joe suspects otherwise, but too late, as whatever is down below shakes things up so badly that the entire facility is reduced to rubble.
Fifteen years later, Joe and Sandra’s only child, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has grown up to become, conveniently enough, a bomb disarmament expert for the U.S. Navy. His father has stayed behind in Japan all these years and has all the earmarks of being a crackpot, a looney whose tiny apartment is crammed with would-be evidence of a government cover-up of what really happened at Janjira. When Ford arrives to bring him back home, his old man shows him that the quarantine in place for 15 years is another sham, warning that something is “going to send us back to the stone age.”
That something is a M.U.T.O, short for a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, a giant, long-legged, black-and-red creature whose Praying Mantis-like body is topped by a triangular head rather resembling that of Godzilla’s late ’60s opponent Gyaos. Once this critter is out of the box, the fun really begins, as do the series hallmarks: The military figures who have to pretend they have an idea how to fight such a foe, mass panic during the wanton destruction of major cities and landmark sites and the eventual toe-to-toe battles between titans of monsterdom.
Given the improvements over the toy-like technology the scientists had at their disposal during Godzilla’s 1950s to ’60s heyday, the Navy, personified by David Strathairn‘s admiral, determines that the M.U.T.O is heading due east, that is, straight for Hawaii. After some frisson-inducing looks at Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, Edwards builds to a great set-piece, that of a monster-provoked tsunami hitting Waikiki Beach. Along the way, we crucially learn that the M.U.T.O not only likes but needs to eat nuclear devices (bombs, rockets, torpedoes), popping them in his mouth like popcorn and thereby enriching his store of fuel, and that Godzilla is on his trail.
Next stop is Las Vegas, no doubt because the M.U.T.O can have a feast at the nearby Yucca nuclear waste facility while having a little side fun trashing the Strip. Wittily, Edwards shows much of the destruction via the live TV coverage that the rest of the world sees, which has the effect of making the attack seem more banal and somehow palatable.
With the M.U.T.O so firmly established from the outset as the great villain, any ambiguity about Godzilla’s status is quickly dispelled; even more, he’s branded as an ally of the U.S. by virtue of his traveling alongside the Navy’s vessels on the way to California (can’t the creature swim faster than a ship can move?).
The government, with key help from the conveniently skilled Ford, decides the only way to stop the M.U.T.O and her newly arrived companion, who’s in a mating mood, is to transport some nukes by train to San Francisco, which is where the ultimate showdown takes place. Humans be damned, it’s two against one, the 335-feet-tall Godzilla, the biggest anyone’s ever seen, duking it out with the atomically charged insects from the Golden Gate Bridge over to the financial district (San Francisco in general and the Golden Gate Bridge in particular have been especially popular targets for destruction in movies of late, in MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus, Monsters vs. Aliens, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Pacific Rim in the last five years alone).
As a shrewd judge of creature-related suspense and mayhem, Edwards well knows not to reveal too much monster too early; certainly the original Godzilla was seen sparingly in the 1954 film until late-on. But you want to see more of him than you do; after all, he’s the title character, the calling card, the main attraction, and you’d like to get a sense of his abilities in a couple of teasers that could have been judiciously placed along the way. A bit thicker around the neck and bigger chested than the Japanese original (but nothing like the silly lizard-like revamp in the Emmerich film), this is one impressive kaiju, but it would have been good to see him in action for more than what feels like about two rounds. If and when this Godzilla returns for further installments, it would be imperative to see more of him.
Generally, Edwards honors the trust invested in him, taking his responsibility seriously, delivering the action goods and bringing it all in at a well-paced two hours. Where the film lets down is in the interpersonal scenes with the younger characters, which engage virtually no interest. Crucially, Ford is a bore, a cookie-cutter beefcake figure interchangeable with any number of roles played in recent years by Channing Tatum, Taylor Kitsch and others. Taylor-Johnson attracted favorable notice playing John Lennon in Nowhere Boy and, to a lesser extent, in Kick-Ass, but his character here is standard-issue military hunk. Elizabeth Olsen has a thankless role as his often frantic wife.
Aside from Cranston, who’s all charged up as the overwrought scientist who pries open the authorities’ deeply hidden secrets, most of the other distinguished castmembers are a welcome presence but haven’t much to play.
By contrast, craft and technical contributions are absolutely splendid in all respects. Composer Alexandre Desplat‘s score fulfills the generic requirements but often goes beyond them to add extra excitement and grace notes.
Opens: May 14-15 (Europe), May 16 ( U.S.) (Warner Bros.)
Production: Legendary Pictures
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Wantanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Richard T. Jones, CJ Adams, Victor Rasuk
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein, story by David Callaham
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers
Executive producers: Patricia Whitcher, Alex Garcia, Yoshimitsu Banno, Kenji Okuhira
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Visual effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel
PG-13 rating, 123 minutes
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