Ten years ago the folks at Toho decided to retire their flagship character Godzilla for decade. When the big green guy finally made his return, it was to headline a Hollywood blockbuster. We’ve been here before, of course. Back in 1998, Roland Emmerich, hot off the success of Independence Day tried to bring the big guy stateside in a horrendous blockbuster that irritatingly redesigned the iconic character and surrounded him with pointless noise and an A-list cast giving shrill one-note performances. This time however, things are different. Godzilla was handed over to director Gareth Edwards, a Brit who made the striking zero budget giant monster movie Monsters, which was laced with social commentary and delivered in a solemn tone. Edwards’ Godzilla is indeed a very serious take on the character with attempts at feeding in a little social commentary for the first time since Godzilla’s 1954 debut. That’s all nice and welcome, but where Edwards truly succeeded is in what all of the ‘98 Godzilla posters promised, but failed to deliver: scale. This is a gloriously massive blockbuster that adds physical weight and grandeur to the character through CGI like few films before. It’s not perfect, but it is gloriously well-made summer entertainment that gives Godzilla the epic comeback he deserves.
Unlike so many blockbusters these days, Edwards’ Godzilla opens with some welcome world-building and characterization rather than action. We’re introduced to Bryan Cranston’s nuclear scientist in Japan who is forced to watch his wife die while struggling to prevent a power plant catastrophe. Flash forward 15 years, and now Cranston’s son is a grown man in the army played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is married to Elizabeth Olsen and has a son of his own. Johnson is forced to go back to Japan when his father is arrested. He’s been living a paranoid existence struggling to prove that the accident that killed his wife had nothing to do with the nuclear power plant, but some sort of conspiracy. Turns out he’s right and we’re introduced to Ken Watanabe as a super-secret scientist who studies gigantic prehistoric monsters who live on earth. The biggest one they’ve ever known is Godzilla, who, in 1954, was secretly bombed to the bottom of the ocean by all those Cold War nuclear tests. Unfortunately, another monster bursts from the wasteland of that old Japanese power plant and then another. They look like a cross between Rodan, Mothra, and the Cloverfield monster and are smashing their way across opposite sides of the Pacific ocean. That raises our beloved Godzilla from the depths of the ocean for a good old fashioned monster mash. That’s right, contrary to what’s been suggested, this brand spanking new Godzilla movie is actually an homage to the monster-fight movies of the 60s. And all those human characters (including David Strathairn’s nuke-loving admiral and Sally Hawkins’ scientist), well they’re just caught in the middle.
The greatest success of Godzilla 2014 is how masterfully Gareth Edwards stages his monsters smash em’ ups and battles. Though the movie is mercifully not another found footage exorcise, it takes a cue from one of the best devices of that tiresome subgenre. For the most part, Edwards shoots his giant monsters from the perspective of the tiny humans surrounding him. Through handheld cameras we catch glimpses of the remarkably animated creatures in a way that viscerally communicates their scale and power. Another big influence on Edwards here is Steven Spielberg. That bearded master also shot his awe-inspiring creatures from ground level in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and War Of The Worlds. Edwards borrows liberally from the Spielberg playbook, using brilliant actors to communicate a sense of shock and horror to off screen action, employing masterful misdirection, and zeroing in on small human ways of communicating massive fantasy (in particular, the image of a pencil rolling across a desk as a massive military ship is tipped). Edwards borrows liberally, yet finds a gritty style all his own. By filtering his monsters through human perspective (and occasionally news reports), it adds scale, realism, and relatability that sells Godzilla unlike any other film before. It’s beautifully done and at the same time, Edwards is more than happy to indulge in a full-on, 45-minute, epic, city-crushing, monster-mash climax that lets the creatures take center stage and gives audiences more than enough reason to cheer and munch their popcorn. You definitely get your money’s worth in this Godzilla outing.
Where the film stumbles is in tone. Even though this is a movie hinged on a super-awesome monster fight starring God-freaking-zilla, the film is played deathly serious. In the early going with Bryan Cranston in over-the-top meltdown mode, that works. It allows Cranston to deliver a compelling character on the edge and even hint at some serious themes that are quickly dropped. The trouble is that once the monsters show up, the humans are shoved to the sideline as helpless viewers. Granted, that’s how it should be in a Godzilla movie. But when you’ve got Aaron Taylor-Johnson instructed to just be stoic for 90 minutes and the brilliant Elizabeth Olsen doing little more than crying and playing victim, it feels like a waste of talent. These actors might come off as leaps and bounds better than anyone in Godzilla 1998, but their characters aren’t much deeper, just more serious. It’s also a bit of a bummer that a movie built around a 45-minute monster fight is so gosh-darn serious. It’s ultimately silly fun and the actors should have been allowed to indulge along with the audience at least a bit. Pacific Rim may have had a similarly throwaway deadly serious human plot at the center, but at least by the time Charlie Day and Ron Pearlman shared a scene, the humans were as much fun as the monsters. That never happens here and to the film’s detriment. This is Godzilla after all, not an art film.
However, I can’t pretend that complaint is much more than nit-pickery. It’s the difference between this Godzilla flick being a damn good blockbuster and a great one. Complaining about that in the context of an awesome giant monster movie is just splitting geek hairs. After all, no one shows up to a Godzilla movie to get deeply invested in the human story. The fact that there even is one to criticize is a bonus, and this is at the very least the best acted Godzilla movie ever made (sure there’s not much competition in that regard, but that’s still something!). What matters about this movie is Godzilla and the monsters, and that material is extraordinary. The skydiving sequence that caught everyone’s attention in the trailer is here and with a spectacular final POV shot saved for the final film. Every other giant monster sequence lives up to it too. In an age when CGI can deliver any filmmaker’s fantasy to the screen, it’s hard to be genuinely blown away by special effect sequences. Edwards manages to do that here because he knows that it’s not just about how good the effect is, but how powerfully you present it cinematically. He delivers a Godzilla so massive, terrifying, and iconic that it’s safe to say the big guy just made a new generation of fans. By the time the credits roll, you’ll genuinely want to see Godzilla in a sequel rather than just accepting the next one as an inevitability. That’s about all we could have asked for from this movie. Let’s just hope that when Godzilla comes back next time, he’s allowed to have a little more fun. The big guy’s earned it.