The name Godzilla is one that most everybody, if only superficially, recognizes world wide. At the very least, he's known as the gigantic, taller than a skyscraper, walking lizard from Japan's famed Toho Studios… that was, in reality, nothing more than a guy in a rubber suit, stomping on flimsy small scale model replicas of Tokyo in numerous films.
With the notable exception of the classic original 1954 black and white "Gojira", which was later recut and released to American audiences as "Godzilla", with actor Raymond Burr shoehorned in via additional scenes; most of the Godzilla films could rightfully be deemed as cheesy and easily dismissed camp.
However, for many moviegoers of a certain generation, the gigantic scaly beast holds a fond and special remembrance. The Godzilla franchise of bygone days conjures up cherished memories of watching the big guy fighting all manner of gigantic monstrous opponents like Mothra and Ghidrah, while laying waste to downtown Tokyo over and over again.
Whether it was on the Saturday matinee big screen, or TV's "Creature Double Feature" in Boston or, for me, late Saturday nights in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania watching "Chiller Theater" on the tube as a kid; Godzilla remains a fun, albeit cheesy, guilty pleasure.
Then in 1998, Hollywood decided to make a more "serious" Godzilla film starring Matthew Broderick and featuring a completely different looking creature that looked more like a refugee from Spielberg's Jurassic Park's reject pile. Sadly, that film was an abysmal mess lacking heart, a true Godzilla connection to the past versions and devoid of all of the suspense and terror that should have been a given in such an endeavor.
Thankfully, the new version of "Godzilla" wipes away all memory of that misbegotten blunder with a version that hearkens back to the look and serious tone of the 1954 original in many ways, yet also carves out it's own updated niche.
The lion's share of the credit for this mostly successful incarnation of the big beast is due to the marvelous skill and cinematic eye of director Gareth Edwards. Edwards creates a film that takes the technology of today to create a truly spectacular Godzilla for contemporary audiences: while at the same time incorporating much of the familiar elements that made the earlier films so enjoyable.
Unfortunately, this remake is not without it's flaws which lie primarily within it's weak screenplay that presents a distressingly boring and convoluted first third of the film.
Opening with a nicely nostalgic opening credits montage, "Godzilla" gives a quick history lesson on the creature's first encounters with mankind in the 1950's. Then, the plot moves to another point in the past where some frightening discoveries are made in the Philippines and Japan by a Japanese scientist, played by actor Ken Watanabe, hinting that more creatures may be afoot besides Godzilla alone.
Meanwhile, a nuclear power plant accident in Japan caused by an unknown force causes immeasurable grief for a nuclear engineer ( Bryan Cranston ) his wife ( Juliette Binoche ) and their young son. Fast forward fifteen years in time, where the scientist's young son, Ford Brody ( Aaron Taylor-Johnson ) is semi estranged from his father who can't seem to shake the grief of the deadly events of years earlier. Reluctantly, Ford accompanies his father back to the now restricted area where their lives were destroyed in search of answers to his father's now obsessive questions.
What they all eventually discover is the existence of not just Godzilla, but two more mammoth creatures who feed off radiation and are hell bent on reproducing as well.
All this complex narrative takes up a lot of unnecessary screen time; when really the main punch of the film comes in the form of what a Godzilla film is really all about - which is our beloved big lizard going "mano a mano" with his equal sized monstrous adversaries in the middle of some of the world's most recognizable and populated cities.
Cranston, Binoche, Watanabe; as well as David Strathairn as a Navy Admiral and Elizabeth Olsen as Brody's young wife, serve the film as well as possible given their undeniable talents. However, overall they are wasted in this film in roles that are merely fodder to advance an overly-expository narrative; as well as gaze helplessly at the carnage that eventually surrounds them. Taylor-Johnson is pretty much an empty suit in his role offering no real dimension to his character even though he's found often in the thick of the chaos.
However, all that said, it is director Gareth Edwards masterful direction of this film that saves the day. Despite the holes in the character-driven portions of the screenplay, Edwards directs each shot with care and precision that makes it a gorgeous experience to watch. He gives us scenes, such as a group of military paratroopers plunging like slowing burning embers through a flame and smoke filled sky, into the city being destroyed by the monsters. When framed on-screen from a distance, the image is equal parts haunting, frightening and truly beautiful.
It's moments like that one and many more, coupled with a powerfully driven musical score, that borders on exquisitely colorful artistry by the director in it's memorable and mood building imagery and composition.
Ultimately, the main attraction and driving force that makes this film work is Godzilla himself and the spectacular battles that director Edwards creates. While this Godzilla may look similar to his rubber-suited heyday in general appearance; there is nothing phony looking about this incarnation. This Godzilla creature is fearsome, frightening and utterly believable as a titan that straddles numerous stories above the city's highest skyscrapers.
The battles are beautifully staged and executed, evoking something not even the original Godzilla film was able to achieve; which is a feeling of true danger, fright and devastation. When buildings fall amid the melee among monsters, you get the sense of witnessing a destruction that, while of course is on-screen fantasy, is truly believable.
Unlike the city-wide carnage in films like "The Avengers" and "Man Of Steel" where the innocents overall seem to endure nothing more serious than a bruise or scratch, Edwards shows us that such widespread massive destruction is not antiseptic; and also, not without large scale human casualties and loss.
"Godzilla" is not a perfect film. The pacing is choppy, cutting from wild action to momentary, somewhat placid scenes that interrupt the flow of the chaos. The film might also have benefited from more scenes of the title character himself on-screen, and delivered earlier in the film, sans the mysterious "Jaws" like build up before the big reveal.
However, the positive weight of the film's cinematography, direction and the battle scenes more than compensate for the narrative's more lightweight negatives. There's still plenty here to enjoy for those seeing the thrill of seeing Godzilla again.
When Godzilla, oh so uniquely, unleashes one of his trademark moves during the film's climatic battle sequence, I literally cheered and clapped with glee.
I was a kid again, watching one of my favorite movie monsters tear it up as only he can. For me, that's nostalgic box office gold.
Tim Estiloz is an Emmy winning entertainment journalist and member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. - Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.