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Visually arresting 'Godzilla' delivers old-fashioned thrills... and then some

Godzilla

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Think of Gareth Edwards’ version of "Godzilla" as a much-needed palette cleanser for Roland Emmerich’s embarrassing, sewage-stained camp-fest from 1998. A broody, genuinely-thrilling summer spectacle with its roots proudly planted in B-movie and monster movie tropes, "Godzilla" is a simple story confidently-told. Although not without its share of problems, Edwards’ adaptation of the 60-year-old Japanese classic (and its countless sequels) is the definitive big-budget American version that hardcore fans have been waiting for. It’s suspenseful, moody, stylishly-shot and chock-full of nods to its Japanese ancestor. That it manages to feel fresh in spite of you knowing exactly how it’s all going to shake down is proof of Edwards’ vision. A few neat allegories about the consequences of man’s meddling with nature as well as the series’ classic themes of nuclear warfare only function as gravy.

Godzilla makes his grand entrance
Godzilla makes his grand entrancePhoto used with permission from Warner Brothers

Adapted by screenwriter Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham, the events of Edwards’ film are set in motion sometime in 1999 after strange, growing pulses of electromagnetic waves leads to a catastrophic meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Japan. Among those affected by the tragedy are American scientists Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche) and their only son Ford. 14 years later, a grown-up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now a military EOD specialist who lives with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco, receives a phone call from the Japanese government that his estranged father has been arrested once again for trespassing on land that has been deemed a radioactive wasteland. Although Ford has long given up hope on Joe, who has deteriorated into a paranoid, conspiracy-theory spewing nut, he flies out to Japan to bail him out and rekindle their relationship. They just choose the wrong time and place for it.

When Warner Brothers announced that they would be rebooting "Godzilla" with Edwards, a young British filmmaker with only prior credit to his name—the little seen micro-budgeted alien invasion thriller "Monsters"—there wasn’t much cause for excitement. Sure, Monsters proved that Edwards knew how to shoot large-scale disaster without breaking the bank but he was hardly a tested filmmaker –especially with a property that was already epically mishandled the last time out. But Edwards turned out to be the ideal filmmaker for the job. Unlike other recent big-studio monster mashes like Guillermo Del Toro’s silly but exuberant "Pacific Rim" or Michael Bay’s "Transformer" monstrosities, "Godzilla" is unique in the sense that Edwards takes his time in revealing the iconic Kaiju. He keeps teasing us with glimpses of the creature – a tail here, a shadow there – mostly seen from the ground-level perspective of the human characters, behind the smoke of debris or through grainy television news footage.

The teases, shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, are incredibly effective in generating tension and building our anticipation. It helps that Borenstein’s script—which features some huge and vital plot surprises that I have purposely chosen not to reveal in this review—is structured as a mystery. By the time we get to our first full glimpse of Godzilla, we’re already an hour into the picture. Despite the long wait, or because of it, the reveal is such a powerful moment that it had large segments of the audience at my theater applauding. Now that’s showmanship!

Edwards’ decision to withhold his trump card is bound to split moviegoers and critics but I counter that the mere existence of a humungous monster movie with long takes and cohesive action sequences is a Godsend in today’s ADHD-infused, more-is-more action movie landscape. It’s a creative decision reflective of the original 1954 film which also shielded the titular character from the audience until the 45 minute mark. It also calls to mind what Steven Spielberg used to great success in "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in the ‘70s. If you pay close attention, you’ll find nods to Spielberg’s movies all over "Godzilla:" the opening scene in the Philippines features a very "Jurassic Park"-like helicopter, shots of Godzilla’s scales beneath the ocean are reminiscent of the shark in "Jaws," there’s a city with a name similar to one used in "Back to the Future;" a fiery train is similar to one seen in "War of the Worlds." Even the family at the center of the film shares their name with the main character of "Jaws" – Brody.

For all its pleasures, "Godzilla" is not immune to the problems that plague many disaster movies. Like in "Monsters," memorable human characters continue to be an issue for Edwards. For all the screen-time and focus the filmmakers place on the Brody family, it’s obvious that Godzilla himself is the movie’s most interesting character: He’s mysterious, sly and brimming with attitude. I couldn’t say the same for Taylor-Johnson’s Ford. Perhaps what "Godzilla" could have benefited from was a healthy dose of humor, something that worked wonders for last summer’s "Pacific Rim."

But in the end, no one goes into a movie called "Godzilla" expecting complex human drama. You want to see cities getting pulverized by a giant fire-spewing lizard. Although Taylor-Johnson (best known for his titular role in the "Kick-Ass" movies) is hardly a charismatic leading man, he gets strong assistance from Cranston who makes the most of his limited screen-time as well as from Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins who play a pair of scientists with intimate details of Godzilla’s history. Along with Olsen, David Strathairn and Binoche, they’re an agreeable ensemble. "Godzilla" isn’t essential cinema or a future classic in the monster movie genre. Some humor and script-padding would have aided its cause. But with Edwards’ strong vision and propensity for creating terrific set-pieces, it makes for a damn good time. That makes all the difference with a movie of this nature.

GODZILLA

Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham
Principal Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins
Editing: Bob Ducsay
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Running time: 123 minutes
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence