Sixteen years ago, audiences were introduced to an American version of a Japanese movie icon: Godzilla. The film, titled simply Godzilla, stars Matthew Broderick, who plays a scientist faced with stopping the big monster’s total destruction of New York City, with the assistance of a bunch of other equally smart individuals, of course. While the film more than made back its production costs during its theatrical run, its critical and audience reception was less than favorable. Today, even despite special effects that hold up surprisingly well, Godzilla 1998 is considered by many an embarrassment. Now we have a completely new interpretation of the movie icon to gawk at. From its inception, the film’s director Gareth Edwards and company have done much to distance their story from the 1998 incarnation. Well, they succeeded. They really, really succeeded.
The main plot runs like this. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear physicist and former supervisor of the Janjira plant in Japan, remains convinced, fifteen years after the plant’s destruction from strange seismic activity, that the explosion did not release radiation upon the town itself and the Japanese government is helping to conceal something, something big. After trespassing on the plant site, in search of proof, Joe is arrested. His son, Ford(Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Navy bomb officer, leaves his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco, to bail Joe out of jail. Once there, Ford attempts to get his father to return with him to California, but Joe refuses. The two enter the supposedly radiation- ridden town of Janjira, where their former home still sits, to recover some critical data. They are quickly apprehended and taken to a facility, inside the plant’s ruins, a facility partially run by scientists Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). It is there that Joe’s conspiracy theory is proved very true and chaos commences.
This Godzilla is a real beaut of a monster to see, once he finally shows up that is. Certainly its design is influenced by Honda’s 1954 original Godzilla picture, but with plenty of enhancements and added details to make it unique to this production and century. The creature’s beady eyes, numerous spikes and vicious roar are something to behold. Alexandre Desplat’s score is the ideal musical accompaniment and perfectly suited for the big monster’s specific brand of rampaging. It is aggressive, unsettling and finely tailored to the overall tone of the material, acknowledging its Japanese roots and unfolding itself beautifully onto a fresh reinterpretation of a decades-old character. The music piles on a nice, thick layer of ominousness that keeps the audience anxiously awaiting for Godzilla to make a full appearance. The “King of the Monsters” does not actually make his big entrance until over an hour in. But, the monster’s magnificent “thrown up from Hell” design is breathtaking and well worth the proverbial wait.
Godzilla is blessed with a superb set of performers. Edwards and company know how to pick them. Unfortunately, the strongest actors, namely Cranston, Olsen, and Hawkins, are not given sufficient screen time. I did not have my stop watch handy, yet I am fairly certain Olsen’s total appearance amounts to the less than twenty minutes. It is a shame, especially knowing the natural screen presence Cranston and Olsen each possess and the actors’ versatility. Hawkins essentially disappears from the movie for most of its second hour. The story spends the bulk of its time with Taylor-Johnson’s Lieutenant Ford. The actor is not wooden, nor is he especially magnetic. His character is continually stern looking, but likable enough for us not to want Ford to die.
There are few other gripes to note, though. First: the rain. What is it with the rain? If there is some special significance to the need to have it rainy, super dark and foggy almost every bloody time Godzilla comes to the party, someone please do let me know. One of the 1998’s film’s biggest flaws was it overuse of said rain throughout and Godzilla, the sole reason for seeing the movie in the first place, was literally kept in the dark for most of the story. As an adorable and precocious child of twelve, watching that Godzilla in theaters, I merely assumed the rain and darkness were a technique used to cover up second-rate effects. I’m not sure if I still believe that, but it remains an irritating factor. Our newest Godzilla shares the same issue, albeit not to such a ridiculous degree. Still, it is an unnecessary aspect, one that I can only assume is present to add to the mood, to help create a gloomy, ominous atmosphere for the huge stage Godzilla loves to dominate.
Godzilla is a slow burn. It laces its inherently absurd plot with a respectable degree of scientific intelligence and depth. At heart, it is a horror film with a huge payoff, a creature feature with a monster extracted from the worst of nightmares. This version of the “King of Monsters” more than lives up to his name.
Some will be turned off by the movie’s dead serious, straight-faced attitude, but even with a lack of laughs or comic relief characters, the film boasts just enough thrills and suspense to keep from being completely sullen. Yet, there is a certain, rare storytelling maturity present that is both unpretentious and admirable.Truely, if you’re going in expecting an experience completely unlike the 1990’s outing, in the best ways, you will be getting your money’s worth. Any of this incarnation’s noticeable flaws are quieted by its sheer, dramatic ambitiousness to achieve an artistic glory greater than your standard, destruction-happy summer entertainment. Godzilla is a remarkable film.