Even with a clunky and rushed first act, Gareth Edwards’ remake of “Godzilla” is a masterful array of harrowing scenes that shows there is quite a bit more to making a monster movie than smashing things. With nearly seamless special effects and good performances all around, “Godzilla” is the type of movie that resists the urge to turn characters into superheroes, helping create about as plausible of a monster mash-up as cinematically possible.
Complete with some startling imagery and an uncanny feel for the genre, “Godzilla” thoroughly shames the 1998 Roland Emmerich remake and even goes as far as to make some insightful commentary about the post-nuclear world. Though there are sure to be plenty of mindless action movies that rely upon cheap thrills this summer, “Godzilla” is defiantly not a member of the club.
Like many sci-fi movies over the years, “Godzilla” starts with crazed theorists who can only be right in the movies. After a tragedy involving a nuclear reactor in Japan (sound familiar?), engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is out for answers, which means defying the government and its attempt to suppress the truth. He believes that the government is hiding something fairly big, disguising a larger threat as atomic testing and nuclear meltdowns. What could possibly be more destructive that nukes gone awry?
Someone who might have an idea is Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who has been tracking the possibility of an ancient creature since he discovered a giant fossil 15 years earlier. Though he’s never seen the actual monster, he has come to believe that it’s out there and is very likely too powerful for human weaponry. But a mega dinosaur-type creature isn’t the only thing out there, as soon a pair of enormous winged creatures called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are terrorizing cities and creating complete panic and chaos.
While humans were confident about their dominance of the planet just a week ago, now it seems that they have three monsters seemingly from a different era that are threatening the very world as they know it. Even with all the military might that can be mustered, they’re in the need of a miracle.
As the world starts to descend into chaos, also in the mix are Joe’s dutiful son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his loving wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), giving us a simple storyline to follow as chaos reigns all around. As a military weapons expert, Ford doesn’t hesitate to offer his services wherever he can, though the restraint in writing his character is fairly remarkable.
As Ford, Aaron Taylor-Johnson comes off as stridently brave but the screenplay never requires him to spout off tough guy lines and be the one who the fate of the world falls upon. Turning the main character into an over-the-top hero has sunk plenty of other movies, including Steven Spielberg’s otherwise underrated remake, “War of the Worlds.”
The screenplay by Max Borenstein also does a few very smart things with the rest of the characters, distancing itself from similar movies by defying Hollywood convention. Instead of an arrogant military commander who doesn’t trust the scientists, as is the norm for movies of this sort, David Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz is a concerned and pragmatic leader who does his best in an absurd situation. Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa provides the necessary awe without the long-winded speeches and Olsen’s Elle helps to provide an emotional backbone that inspires just enough depth to the rest of the story.
The premise may be unrealistic, but the characters themselves remain plausible throughout – a welcomed and refreshing turn that makes “Godzilla” much easier to engage with. Movies of this sort also tend to have a doleful U.S. president dealing with an untenable situation, which is an angle that “Godzilla” wisely skips entirely.
Though not necessarily groundbreaking, “Godzilla” also provides a little food for thought that extends beyond the action mayhem. Here, mutant monsters that feed off of radiation are a response to a world that has gotten out of control with the invention of nuclear weaponry at the close of World War II. Though nukes were intended to solidify control, the rise of MUTOs is nature’s response to the overreach of man, leaving both the U.S. and Japan (and the rest of the world) paying for the sins of the past all over again.
It’s also not a coincidence that a major attack happens at Honolulu on Oahu, eerily echoing the start of the U.S.-Japanese portion of the war. Much of this is taken from the 1954 original, but Gareth Edwards and his screenwriters stay true to the material in a way that could even inspire a new generation of audiences to contemplate more than just monsters crashing into one another.
Monster movies are, for the most part, not for everyone, yet “Godzilla” is the type of movie that points out what popcorn movies are capable of when fueled by creativity, love of the material and intelligent writing. With just enough existential subtext for the more thoughtful viewers, “Godzilla” is a well-made thrill-ride with some of the best action sequences of 2014 and enough imagination behind the camera to make it much more than a disposable disaster flick. Still early in the summer release schedule, “Godzilla” sets the bar very high for mainstream action movies this year.