The stench that emanated from the sheer awfulness that was Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has haunted me ever since I saw it on the big screen back in 1998. For a time, it dampened my spirits in terms of where movies were headed as I was afraid many more of them would be dumbed down like that one was. Had it been an even bigger hit, I feared more summer blockbusters would look exactly like it; filled with lame one-dimensional characters and special effects that look no different from the video games we play at home. But in the end it was so critically reviled that even Toho, the company that owns Godzilla, looked at Emmerich’s version of the monster as a separate, stand-alone character whom they renamed Zilla. It was if they were saying, “Oh no, that was so not Godzilla. That was a cousin or a step child or maybe the product of a one night stand.”
But now that stench has vanished as Gareth Edwards has given us his version of “Godzilla,” and it makes for one of the most entertaining movies of the 2014 summer movie season. Instead of having this enormous Japanese monster chase after characters that look like they were part of a rejected sitcom pilot, he stays true to the style of the Toho series of Godzilla films and manages to even weave in some commentary about nuclear power. Just as the original “Godzilla” served as a metaphor for Hiroshima, this one doesn’t dare hide away from what happened in Fukushima where nuclear accidents occurred after the massive earthquake and tsunami.
The movie starts off with the terrifying destruction of a nuclear power plant, one which ends up dividing a father and his son. We then move to several years later when Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the US Navy, comes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son after a long tour of duty. Their reunion, however, is cut short as Ford gets word that his father, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), has once again been arrested in Japan for trespassing into areas blocked off to the general public as the area surrounding the power plant isn’t all that different from Chernobyl when it suffered a meltdown.
Joe is still convinced that the power plant accident was really a cover up for something, and he and Ford come to discover that what’s left of it has been converted into a laboratory of sorts. Scientists led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) reveal that they have been housing a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and are trying to keep it contained by giving it doses of radiation. But, of course, all hell breaks loose when the MUTO breaks free of his captivity and heads out to sea, and it is then we learn that another MUTO (this one a female) that has been held in the United States has also escaped and which quickly lays waste to Las Vegas. Like Natasha Henstridge’s character in “Species,” she is looking to start a big family with offspring that will surely destroy all of humanity, and it’s only a matter of time before she finds her MUTO mate. Clearly, safe sex is not on their agenda.
That’s where the iconic Godzilla comes in. Now in the past this gigantic creature has been portrayed as an enemy to all of humanity and as antihero who looks to take down any other monster that foolishly thinks they can defeat him. But in Edwards’ movie, Godzilla is really the good guy who, as Dr. Serizawa puts it, is here to “restore balance” to the world, and he doesn’t even bother the battleships that sail along with him as he swims from one country to the next. We all know that Godzilla will end up destroying a lot of expensive real estate which will cause many insurance companies to go bankrupt, but we’re still on the monster’s side as we know the military won’t have enough firepower to bring the MUTOs down.
Edwards ends up taking his sweet time in revealing Godzilla to the audience, and we don’t really get a good look at his face until almost an hour into the movie. When he did finally appear onscreen and let out the biggest of roars anyone has ever heard, the audience I saw this movie with broke into applause. This is the fiercest Godzilla has looked in many years, and the way he just towers over even the tallest of buildings had me in awe. This is the way Godzilla should look and feel.
One of the many problems I had with the 1998 “Godzilla” is that it never felt like I was watching a real monster on the big screen. It felt more like I was watching a big special effect to where the creature didn’t even fill the least bit threatening. But in 2014’s “Godzilla,” the creature looks and feels real to where I kept praying that the human characters would keep themselves from standing underneath his feet. The thought of being crushed by a creature that big is horrifying.
As for “Godzilla’s” human element, it’s not altogether strong but I still liked how the characters came across as relatable even if they were at times clichéd. I also have to give screenwriters credit as the movie starts as one thing but surprisingly turns into something else. Just when I thought I knew what kind of movie “Godzilla” was going to be, it continued to surprise me as it went along. Yes, we all know how the movie will end, but getting there proved to be more fun than I expected.
It also helps that there is a terrific cast of actors to keep us emotionally involved in the characters before and after Godzilla makes his grand entrance. You can never go wrong with Bryan Cranston whether it’s “Breaking Bad” or anything else, and he makes his character very empathetic when he could have been easily laughable. As for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, I almost didn’t recognize him after getting so used to how he looked in those “Kick Ass” movies, and he does good work portraying the typical heroic military character we always see in “Godzilla” movies. Ken Watanabe remains a tremendously gifted actor, and even though I thought stared in horror one too many times in this movie, he is a very welcome addition to this cast. And then there’s David Strathairn who plays Admiral William Stenz, and he can always be counted on to give the military leader the gravitas and humanity that character deserves.
As for the female characters, their roles are a bit underwritten and I didn’t get to see as much of them as I would have liked. But still you have actresses like Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins making them memorable characters when they could have been ones that were easily forgettable.
This “Godzilla” does have its problems, and there are times that I wished that Edwards and company had injected just a little more humor into the proceedings. Also, the big fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs never seems to come soon enough. There’s a moment where it looks like the fight will begin, but then a door closes on the characters and on our view of the monsters, and that was really frustrating. The human characters may have wanted the door shut, but everyone in the audience was clamoring for it stay open so that we could see one enormous mutated creature beat the crap out of another. And yes, there probably are some plot holes and gaps in logic in the story, but I really didn’t care. You don’t always go to these movies expecting a whole lot of logic anyway.
What makes this new “Godzilla” work is that is clearly made by filmmakers who have had a great love of monster movies all their lives. Edwards, whose previous directorial effort was British science fiction film “Monsters,” has talked about just how much he loves those kinds of movies, and he does an excellent job of making Godzilla a truly terrifying force of nature. After being absent from the big screen for over a decade, it is great to see this iconic monster make such a tremendous comeback.
I also got to say that watching “Godzilla” makes me really happy that I do not work for an insurance company. Seeing all those destroyed buildings and roads, I can see claims adjustors going nuts as they field one phone call after another regarding totaled Hondas, decimated condos and bridges that now really lead to nowhere because they’ve been destroyed. You can bet that no one’s going to take any guff from someone who tells them their insurance policy doesn’t cover attacks from giant mutated monsters!