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"Godzilla" brings giant radioactive dinosaur back to his monstrous roots

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While not a straight "horror" film, this does feature a monstrous beast, and he, along with other creatures, is given nefarious, unnerving life that returns him to his more frightening roots.

I will admit that I was one of many who was initially nervous and wary of a new American Godzilla film. When it was first announced, the images of Roland Emmerich's disastrous 1998 adaptation came flowing into my mind, and I was definitely fearful of what could happen. In the hands of most filmmakers, I can see where it would be difficult to realistically interpret a concept like a giant, radioactive lizard that terrorizes mankind. Honestly, I kept thinking we'd get another “Cloverfield” scenario that, while okay, was definitely not what I wanted. But as time passed and more was revealed, my fear became elation. As a whole, the film boasted a good cast and the fleeting shots of Godzilla gave a sense of awe and dread...and my research online to see what Godzilla looked like, well, that proved to get me more excited. So as a life-long Godzilla fan, if I was excited for the movie, well, it likely had some merit, because I knew what to look for going in. And I can safely say that while the film is not totally perfect, it is an excellent summer blockbuster and it gives the respect to Toho's most famous monster that he so rightly deserves...and Gareth Edwards' flick more than wipes away the slate after 1998's attempt at a Godzilla film.

15 years ago, terrible events were set in motion when Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and a group of researchers in the Phillipines find a gigantic animal skeleton containing two strange pods, one of which has hatched open. Whatever occupied the open pod makes its way to the Janjira Nuclear Plant located near Tokyo, Japan, where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his family are located; unfortunately, the plant is breached and Joe's wife dies in the attempt to contain the radiation, leading to the plant's destruction. In the present day, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bomb disposal expert for the U.S. Navy and he's called to Japan to get his father out of jail- after the disaster at Janjira, Joe has investigated what happened and learns that the cause of the plant's destruction has been covered up, leading Joe and Ford to cross paths with Serizawa. Soon, the Brody's learn that the other pod discovered in the Phillipines, called a chrysalis, is contained within the plant's ruins, and it hatches, releasing a horrific beast (known in the film as a M.U.T.O., or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that escapes, but not before killing most of the people at the hidden base and making its way toward Hawaii. It's soon revealed to Ford by Serizawa and the U.S. government that there are two M.U.T.O.s (the other was contained in Nevada) as well as a much larger creature first discovered in 1954 that's converging onto the locations of the others, and that the nuclear bomb tests throughout the last 60 years were fruitless attempts to kill the beast, called “Gojira” (or Godzilla) by Serizawa. In a race against time, Ford risks his life to return to and save his family in San Francisco as well as to stop the monsters' rampage alongside his government comrades, but they'll all need the help of the most necessary of evils: Godzilla himself.

The acting in this movie is easily one of two primary points to focus on, and really, it's what's to be expected of a summer blockbuster, but I can't say that's a good thing. I don't know of any other word to use aside from “soulless” here, which is how I have, at times, described some of Christopher Nolan's films. The standout of the film is, obviously, Bryan Cranston. I was never a fan of him in “Malcolm in the Middle” (I actually hated that show, but looking back, he was certainly a highlight), but I found him to be a powerhouse in “Breaking Bad.” And here, he is the emotional core of the film, but sadly, he's not in the movie for very long, and the reason for that was surely to give the other characters in the film a much needed jolt into action...and really, I found it to be more of a slap to the audience's face. Aside from him, there's not much to say. Ken Wantanabe, an actor I actually enjoy and find to be a great Japanese character actor, is just not given much to do except stand and gawk in awe at everything around him, or whisper lines meant to inspire dread. And that's certainly not his fault...he's just an excellent actor given nothing to do, but I did like that his character's name, Ishiro Serizawa, is an homage to original Gojira film director (and director of many Godzilla films) Ishiro Honda and the character of the original film Dr. Serizawa, who, for those who don't know, succeeded in killing Godzilla. The last central actor of the trinity is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, known to most as the star of “Kick-Ass” and its sequel, and well...he's so wooden. Honestly, he's off-putting to me in the role of an adult, because he has the voice and face of a teenager and the muscular physique of a 20-something man...it's odd. But aside from that, his character never really seems afraid or bewildered; just going through the motions. And honestly, while I'd be in awe and likely have my thumbs up seeing a giant monster roaming the world around me, I think I'd be pretty damned scared. Johnson just doesn't command much emotion, even when his family is at stake during the disasters occurring, and I never felt any real connection or sympathy for him. The other actors/characters were serviceable...we had the typical military types, scientists, etc. Honestly, for a film whose trailers broadcast such a weighty, emotionally human story, there wasn't much here in that vein...when most scenes tried to be powerful, they came of as melodramatic. It was like watching some of the Japanese films with some of the hokier aspects...but, then again, this is a monster movie.

As for the other aspect, I was highly impressed with the monsters. Originally, I was cautious of how Godzilla was handled, but I was even more pessimistic, to a degree, about his opponents in the film, once announced. But the M.U.T.O. creatures did their job. Both monsters reminded me a bit of the “Cloverfield” monster- gangly, lanky creatures with multiple legs and an almost insect-like quality, but it was unique in that one of them could fly. I think that what made the monsters especially creepy was the whole “they're male and female and plan to breed” aspect, and that lent a great deal of urgency to the proceedings...all in all, impressive creations, but I'm hoping maybe we'll have monsters more akin to Godzilla's usual list of foes in the future.

As for Godzilla himself, he is quite an achievement. This version is the largest of all of the cinematic Godzilla's, and it shows. I, for one, was actually happy with little of the monster being shown early in the film (much like the original film), as it built expectations of just what he was going to be like...and in this case, it paid off beautifully. After fleeting glimpses of the jagged plates on his back cutting through ocean waves, or his tail slinking around buildings, once Godzilla reveals himself in Hawaii, it is compelling. To me, he resembled a variation of the Godzilla featured in “Godzilla 2000” and “Godzilla vs. Megaguirus,” more hunched over and dinosaur like, complete with crooked, pointed dorsal plates and a pointed tail. The biggest difference with this Godzilla and the many Japanese versions is that he doesn't walk on flat feet, walking more like a dinosaur on his toes. Now, there have been many people online commenting on how “fat” the beast looks, but I found it fitting- this monster is called an “alpha predator” in the film, and this incarnation definitely looks like he could sustain numerous atomic blasts. Simply put, Godzilla here is a grand sight. Thankfully, the other aspects of his character are retained, including his roar (which sounds less mechanical than in the past...it's more organic here) and his radioactive breath. Seriously, it was a goosebump-inspiring moment the first time his dorsal plates turn a glowing blue and he fired his liquid-like beam at one of the M.U.T.O. He is definitely the primary reason to see this film, though considering the overall dryness of the human story, it would have been better to see Godzilla more...to give it more balance. Plus, though I know about as much about Godzilla as most kaiju fans, and more than most who went to see this, I'm sure, I wish more background had been given about this version of the legendary monster...it's as though they counted on viewers knowing a lot, and I doubt many know that much. It's just odd to have a film called “Godzilla” that doesn't focus on him a great deal...focused more on his opponents, but that's fine either way. Hopefully we'll see and learn more about the Big-G in a sequel (one's already been greenlit).

The music by Alexandre Desplat is fine...nothing really unique. I suppose I'm spoiled on Akira Ifukube's music, and I kept hoping slightly to hear a slight nod to Godzilla's theme, but I didn't count on it, thankfully. The cinematography, especially during the nighttime scenes, is exceptional, and the effects aside from the monsters is great...the HALO jump scene featured in the trailers is a highlight, as is the destruction of Honolulu and later San Francisco...this was a film where the big budget was utilized quite well.

All in all, there's not much to dislike about the film. I mean, I found weakness in the human story, but this isn't a movie solely about the people...and really, who watches these things for the acting (aside from maybe me)? This is a movie about the world discovering that we're not alone and below the surface, there lurks some dreadful secrets. This film isn't like the original “Gojira” in that it has anti-nuclear messages, and maybe that's not needed now. This movie is a popcorn flick...it's a monster movie. It's about watching humans deal with city-destroying beasts that are more concerned with killing each other than anything else. I suppose my only gripe aside from the human aspects is that I didn't care for Godzilla not having much of a explanation and really, I didn't care for his being made a hero so quickly in the eyes of humanity...this is a monster that's been involved in destruction that has likely killed many, and has caused billions, surely, in damages...I doubt taxpayers and those with dead family members would be quick to go, “THANK YOU, GODZILLA!” Plus, if they knew that Godzilla wasn't fighting the other monsters on their behalf, that humanity had tried to kill him numerous times...yeah, they probably don't want to know. But aside from those few complaints, this is a great film and one of the best of the year. It is most certainly a welcome return for Godzilla after a 10 year hiatus, and assuredly more than makes up for Roland Emmerich's defamation of the character. The character has returned with a bang, and I only hope that his eventual next outing improves on the few weaknesses of this film and amps up the monster action. In the meantime, Godzilla can enjoy his return to the throne.

SCORE: **** out of *****

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