To legions of people in Fresno and all over the world, the name "Godzilla" carries with it quite a legacy. Debuting in the 1954 Japanese classic Gojira, the character is considered the genesis, and still most iconic example of, the Japanese giant monster (or kaiju) genre. The monster, partially inspired by such 1950s atomic monster films as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and the original King Kong film, was originally envisioned by director Ishirō Honda as a direct metaphor for the destruction Japan suffered from due to the atomic bomb. Indeed, in Honda's mind, the monster was a physical manifestation of the bomb itself, after all, the film came out only a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The original film was an extremely serious and topical with the rampage of this supposedly ancient creature awakened and superpowered by the repeated testing of the H-bomb. By rising from the depths of Tokyo Bay, Godzilla (as he would come to be known in the English translation) brings back the horrible memory of what Japan suffered through during World War II. The original film, featuring then groundbreaking special effects techniques pioneered by Japanese special effects legend Eji Tsuburaya involving an actor in a dinosaur costume filmed against miniatures to create the image of a 50 meter tall monster with atomic breath, was a huge success in Japan that paved the way for an entire genre of kaiju films, of which Godzilla starred in many of them.
In 1956, the original film was dubbed and released in the United States under the title Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, however, this version was heavily edited in order to include new footage of actor Raymond Burr as an America journalist named Steve Martin, who is now present during all of the key events of the film to provide constant narration and even interacting with the original cast through editing tricks and body doubles. While the anti-nuclear aspect of the story was still present, it was less pronounced than in the original version, resulting in the Americanization of the film being considered a above-average example of the typical atomic monster movies released during the 1950s, while the original Gojira is still considered a classic. Sadly, it would not be until 2004 that the original Japanese version of the film would see a release in theaters and the full weight of Godzilla's potential to frighten and even deliver a political message would be realized both by critics and the American public.
As more and more films were made by Godzilla's parent company, Toho, both the tone of the films and the character himself went through an enormous evolution during his 60-year film career. Beginning as a destructive force of nature embodying the destruction of the atomic bomb, he soon found himself fighting other kaiju monster in almost every single film that has come out since, transitioning from villain, to anti-hero, and eventually a straight-up superhero defending the very country he once decimated single-handedly from other giant monsters on a seemingly regular basis. The original series of film, called the Shōwa series, lasted for fifteen films that became more and more juvenile as the series played out, ending with 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, after which Toho retired their icon for nearly a decade. Then, in 1984, the King of the Monsters returned in The Return of Godzilla, which brought the character back to his villainous roots along with improved variations of the signature suitmation technique of the series. This film was also significantly re-edited for the America release to become Godzilla 1985, both to once again star Raymond Burr reprising his role from the original, and also to capitalize on the Cold War tensions of the time; for instance, in the original, the Russians launch a missile at Godzilla, but in the American version, the scene is re-edited to appear that their are deliberately launching the missile at Tokyo. This film began the more sophisticated and grown up Heishi series, which lasted for seven films until 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, which saw the death of Godzilla...for a little while.
But then, in 1998, America decided to not just settle for dubbing and/or re-editing the Japanese films. That year, TriStar released a brand new, fully American remake titled simply Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick. The film was incredibly hyped, but ultimately disappointed audiences and critics alike for it's thin plot, acting, and directing while fans of the previous films targeted the film's drastic reinvention of the titular character, which included a radical redesign and departure from the source material. Because of this, plans for a sequel were scrapped, save for an animated series that continued the story.
In what seemed like retaliation, Toho then released their own Godzilla film in 1999, known as Godzilla 2000, which confused some people who did not follow the films, but fans understood was the real deal. This film launched the Millennium series, and third continuity of film that all had one thing in common: they were all created to be their own separate continuity that each acted as a direct sequel to the 1954 original. This series lasted six films, ending in 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, which was a massive crossover film that saw the big guy fighting nearly all of the other monsters developed over the course of the series (including, humorously, the American version of the character, now dubbed by Toho as "Zilla"...Godzilla defeats him very quickly).
My point in doing this history lesson is to clarify how long Godzilla has been around and how much he's changed over the years. For those who would like to learn more about the history of the character and about each individual film, this examiner highly recommends James Rolfe's 2008 web series Cinemassacre's Monster Madness: GodzillaThon. But regardless of whatever run of the character certain fans may prefer, it seems unanimously agreed upon that the 1998 American version that might serve okay just as a cheezy 90s popcorn movie, but was an abominable rape of this character's good name. But now, in the summer of 2014, coinciding with the 60th anniversary, Godzilla has returned to American cinemas once again. But, has Hollywood learned it's lesson from last time, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
The film begins with film reels showing the preparation and detonation of a nuclear bomb at Bikini Atoll. A huge figure with jagged spikes rises from the water when the bomb is detonated. It then jumps to the year 1999, where scientists Ishiro Serizawa (played by Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (played by Sally Hawkins) are called to a quarry in the Philippines where there has been a discovery of a colossal skeleton and two egg-shaped pods. Soon after realizing one of the pods has hatched, the Janjira Nuclear Plant near Tokyo, Japan suffers an explosion and radiation leak, an accident that causes plant supervisor Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) to loose his wife (played by Juliette Binoche) in the accident. The event, attributed to an earthquake, results in the evacuation and quarantine of the Janjira area.
Fifteen years later, Joe's son Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordinance disposal officer in the United States Navy, living in San Francisco with wife Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (played by Carson Bolde). After Joe is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area, Ford must travel to Japan to assist him. But Joe is still haunted by his wife's death and has become obsessed with uncovering the true cause of the disaster. Convincing his son to go with him to Janjira, they discover no signs of radiation in this so-called quarantine zone, and are arrested and taken to a secret facility built within the ruins of the power plant. It turns out the facility is built around a massive chrysalis similar to the one found in the Philippines, which is now being studied by Serizawa and Graham. The chrysalis suddenly hatches and releases a gigantic winged creature that devastates the facility and flies off; tragically, Joe is fatally wounded in the attack. Serizawa, Graham, and Ford joins a US Navy team to track the monster, using the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga as a base of operations.
Aboard a U.S Navy ship, Ford is told by Serizawa and his team that the creature he saw at Janjira was a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), an ancient creature from a much earlier time that feeds off radiation and radioactive material. As the earth's radiation subsided the creature moved underground and put itself in a cryptobiotic state. The M.U.T.O., in turn, is being hunted by a much larger animal that was awoken during a deep sea expedition in 1954, its existence having been continually covered up after multiple failures to kill it with nuclear weapons; they call this creature" Godzilla." Ford finds himself trying to get back to his family in San Francisco, but also right in the middle of the military's plans to contain the M.U.T.O. , or rather two of them, after the second pod in the Philippines hatches into a larger female M.U.T.O. that devastates Las Vegas before heading west. Serizawa believes the two creatures will meet to breed. And then, in the wake of of all of this, Godzilla appears to confront both monsters, helping lay waste to the world in doing so. Does this pending duel of the monsters mean the end of the world as we know it?
Much like in my review of The Wolverine, to say that this film is an improvement over the Roland Emmerich version is an understatement. When die-hard Godzilla fans went into theaters in 1998, this is the film they hoped they would see...more or less. This story gets very serious and does treat the monsters' destruction like the enormous disaster that it really is. It cannot be argued that thousands of people are getting killed in this film, but unlike is, say, Man of Steel, that kind of collateral damage is expected; no joke, if I go into a Godzilla movie and I don't see a city get decimated when the monsters start fighting, I want my money back!
But I'm getting ahead of myself; after all of the hype surrounding this project, Godzilla delivers, as IGN elaborates, a successful blend of sequences rich with heartbreak, visceral thrills, fear, better-than-a-cage-match fights, and awe-inspiring visuals. The opening thirty minutes of the film offer plenty of human drama, nearly all of it originating from Bryan Cranston's character as he is forced to seal the door preventing her wife's escape from radioactive death for the sake of the rest of the island. The tension we see between the father and son feels real as we understand how Ford must look at his father's ever-growing obsession with proving the supposed conspiracy that led to his wife's death. There is also a convincing fear factor to this story. The existence of giant monsters that attack a city is not treated as a joke or peppered with a bunch of sight gags. It is treated like a real, ongoing series of disasters that we are powerless to prevent.
The visualization of the monsters, mainly Godzilla himself, is fantastic. There has been a lot of complaining by some fans that this design makes Godzilla look "too fat." I will certainly agree that he looks noticeably bulkier (and taller) than I am used to seeing in his various rubber suited forms, but I welcome the change because it is still clearly Godzilla and meets all the requirements of that character, as opposed to "Zilla" from the 1998 movie. This monster looks solid, scaly, literally larger-than-life, and oh so glorious in IMAX 3-D glory. When he finally makes his full appearance in the film, after all of the build-up they give him, it was impossible for me not to get a giant smile on my face when he lets out that trademark roar for the first time.
Even Godzilla's character is well realized and multi-faceted. This creature is not just a force of destruction like in the original film, nor is he a straight-up superhero either. What I mean is that yes, this Godzilla emerges from the depths to challenge the threat posed by the M.U.T.O. as their predator, but when he appears out of the water he still causes a tidal wave that nearly sinks an entire city, killing who-knows how many people. We care about this guy and root for him whenever he does something truly amazing, yet we are never allowed to forget what kind of living force of nature we are dealing with either. Its an impressive balance.
As for the other monsters...well, let me elaborate on this a bit. Normally when we get the first film of a Godzilla series, the big guy is usually portrayed as the villain, the only monster in the film, as he was so famously in the 1954 original, the 1984 film and even the Emmerich version. So I would not have been surprised if the movie decided to go that way in this new installment, but when it was discovered that Godzilla would in fact be fighting other monsters, I was excited. However, anybody going in hoping to see such classic adversaries as Guidorah, Mothra, Rodan or Mechagodzilla will be disappointed as instead the producers had to invent their very own kaiju, and the M.U.T.O.s, well, their pretty much just the Cloverfield and Super 8 monsters again, with the head of the bugs from Starship Troopers. Don't get me wrong, they are still very dangerous and threatening, but while the CGI on them is impressive, the designs can't help but feel generic, suggesting, as James Rolfe implied in his review, that maybe we Americans just don't have the right kind of imagination for truly unique and creative kaiju monsters the way the Japanese do.
There aren't a whole lot of big monster fights in here, but when we get to the last 30 minutes, oh boy do we ever get what we paid for. In my review of Pacific Rim, I had said that director Gareth Edwards and crew had a lot to live up to after what was accomplished in that movie; well, I have no idea whether Pacific Rim was an influence or not, but the final act of this film totally give you all of the Godzilla action you expect. Okay, it is all happening at night, but it is all clearly there on the screen and it look glorious!
But now I need to get into the negatives of the film. For a story called Godzilla, the big guy appears on screen surprisingly rarely. Most of the early scenes are focused on the human characters and while this is to be expected from one of these movies and is easily handled better than in, say, the Transformers films, the amount of time Godzilla is held back may become tedious to some viewers. In fact, if feels like the film is spending noticeably more time with the M.U.T.O.s than with Godzilla himself.
The human story lines are okay, but these plots lose a core emotional weight once Bryan Cranston's character is killed off after the first M.U.T.O. attack. The heart is still there and we do want to see Ford get back to his family and that arc is strong, but the same kind of emotion just isn't there the same way it was at the beginning. As a result, the film seems to drag in the pacing at points, even with all the action the M.U.T.O.s are doing. I fully agree that we need to have a human eye into this fantastic concept, but too little investment or cause for interest on that and we just find ourselves counting the minutes until the next monster appearance.
The other big problem is that there is a lot of teasing Godzilla and the fight he provides without ever actually showing it. For instance, when Godzilla finally makes his entrance, it is a very cool entrance as he is clearly there to throw-down with the M.U.T.O., but then we immediately cut to Ford's family watching the fight in progress on live TV, without ever seeing it in person. This goes on for quite a while until we finally arrive at the finally and they at last give us the big kaiju extravaganza we paid to see. For those with short patience or just don't have much interest in the human element, then that may get on your nerves.
Oh by the way, I realize that we human don't have many weapons that can take out giant monsters like this, but considering that Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s feed off radiation in this film and especially that Godzilla was originally created to be a metaphor for the atomic bomb, using a superpowered nuke to take out all three monsters is probably not the best strategy; just saying.
The performances here are all well-attempted, but still hit-and-miss. Bryan Cranston easily delivers the most powerful performance in the film as Joe Brody, delivering a crying performance more at home in a cancer drama than a monster film (its no wonder he was prominent in so much of the advertising). Had he been in the film far longer, so too would the human element of the story had been stronger, but ultimately he is killed off prematurely; too bad, but an excellent performance nevertheless. Aaron-Taylor Johnson carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders as Lt. Ford Brody, and I have to agree with IGN that while he is not terrible in this role, he does read as a bit flat, especially compared to Cranston's performance. Ken Watanabe also brings a welcome aura to this project as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, though there are times when he seems to bee looking off into space and his faith in Godzilla as a savior is touching from the perspective of a fan, but comes into debate when you have to look at it form the logical perspective of giant monster fighting in the middle of a major city. By the way, his character's name is a direct reference to the ultimate protagonist of the 1954 original who had the same name, even though Watanabe's character serves a very different purpose than in the original film. Elizabeth Olsen is likable and has a great presence as Elle Brody, but sadly the script does have much for her to do. Juliette Binoche is convincing as Sandra "Sandy" Brody and she works well with her scene with Cranston, the result being a very tragic loss with her death early in the film. Sally Hawkins appears as Dr. Vivienne Graham, mainly there to help deliver a lot of the key exposition, but sadly there is not a whole lot more to say about her character. David Strathairn plays Rear Admiral William Stenz, but while he is a good actor, this role is essentially the same type of well-meaning, stern military leader we've come to expect. Other performances include Patrick Sabongui as Master Sergeant Marcus Waltz, Victor Rasuk as Sergeant Tre Morales, Richard T. Jones as Captain Russell Hampton, Jared Keeso as Jump Master, Al Sapienza as Huddleston, Brian Markinson as Whalen, CJ Adams as young Ford Brody, and Carson Bolde as Sam Brody, Ford and Elle's son.
Overall, Godzilla is a wonderfully made example of the kaiju genre that successfully redeems America's credibility in adapting this sort of material, and this character in particular. Whether it lives up the legacy of everything that has come before it is up the the viewer, but it knows what it wants to be and does so spectacularly. There is some room to improve since some may not find the human element of the story as engaging as it should be, though not for lack of trying, and the leniency in actually letting the big guy on screen may annoy some fans. But when the time comes to give audiences what they pay for, it certainly delivers. Will it lead to any more Godzilla films? Hard to say at the moment, but this examiner can say that watching this film I got that same feeling of wonder and and fun I had watching those old movies as a kid. For that, this examiner is giving it a low four stars.
Welcome back Godzilla, we missed you!