The latest version of “Godzilla” proves what men worry about one particular adage: size does matter. If nothing else, this is by far the biggest, loudest and most spectacular version of the kitsch pop culture icon. It also stays far closer to the radioactive lizard’s roots than Roland Emmerich’s ill-conceived 1998 take on the property, and deserves some credit for that if nothing else.
Japanese writer/director Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic was a far darker movie than people tend to remember, and spoke pretty frankly about the nuclear post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by the only nation to ever be on the receiving end of an atomic weapon. Don’t look for that sensibility in director Gareth Edwards’ re-imagining, which takes a more ecological view of giant monsters. Godzilla emerges as an environmental avenging anti-hero in this latest version, which at least remembers that monster movies are supposed to be entertaining.
As in the original, Edwards avoids showing his monsters (as in later Japanese Godzilla movies, there are more than one) in early scenes, and as in “Jaws,” the technique effectively builds suspense. It’s a little overdone here. Audiences will assume that if the name Godzilla appears in a title, a big lizard is going to be involved, same as the fact that folks are seldom shocked to find vampires in Dracula movies.
“Godzilla” opens with a prologue set in Japan, where unexplained seismic tremors are responsible for a disaster at a nuclear power plant. There’s some unexpected emotional reverberations(spoiler alert), as Bryan Cranston’s safety engineer loses his lovely wife Juliette Binoche in the accident. That plot thread is picked up 15 years later, as Cranston’s now-adult son, played by an Aaron Taylor-Johnson completely unrecognizable from “Kick-Ass,” is an army explosives expert returning home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) from active duty to find that his father has been arrested in Japan. (In an odd irony, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen will play brother and sister super-powered mutants in Marvel Studio’s upcoming “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”)
What follows is an intriguing conspiracy theory story - of course the government knows there are monsters out there. Those weren’t atomic bomb tests out there in the Pacific - they were trying to kill Godzilla. The always-hypnotic Ken Watanabe (“The Last Samurai,” “Batman Begins,” “Inception”) is on board as a scientist who’s in the middle of all this. His character, by the way, is named Serizawa, after the scientist character played by Akihiko Hirata who discovers the means to kill Godzilla in the 1954 version.
Thing is, the conspiracy proves to be pretty benign, and the military characters portrayed in the movie are uniformly professional, disciplined and capable. Even David Strathairn’s admiral, who initially threatens to be direct from fly-in-the-ointment central casting, proves to be on the side of the angels. Just as well. Idiot generals are a Hollywood cliché and the monsters in a monster movie should be enough. In fact, although Max Borenstein’s script tries hard to make Taylor-Johnson a proactive hero, characters in movies like this primarily exist to observe and get chased. The real action starts when Godzilla dukes it out with the other monsters, and that’s what all the Godzilla sequels were always about.
And if it takes a little while to get there, the action is gigantic in scope, effectively realized with CGI techniques that make Ishirô Honda’s plastic and cardboard miniatures look more than quaint. The property damage is impressive. The sound alone is deafening, and Godzilla’s trademark roar has never sounded better. The movie has competently post-converted to 3D, although few concessions to 3D appear to have been made and viewers should not feel compelled to shell out the higher ticket price here.
This is the “Godzilla” reboot audiences were hoping for in 1998. Edwards at least understands that the King of the Monsters (the subtitle to the American release of the 1954 original) deserves some respect. He’s gotten his due here.