Before now, Godzilla was a giant dino-lizard, a punchline, a D-list movie monster. Now, in Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” he is a god, the alpha predator, a force of nature. Warner Bros.’ has not only crafted an exhilarating “Godzilla” movie here, it has pulled an incredible P.R. move, transforming a brand last known for having Matthew Broderick as its spokesperson.
David Callaham, writer of “The Expendables,” and Max Borenstein have grounded this version of “Godzilla” in historical fiction. Nuclear tests in the ‘50s were not tests but an attempt to destroy Godzilla, a last remaining vestige of prehistoric times. They also ground the film in characters, taking a lengthy amount of time to tell the story of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). These characters both humanize the story and get us in close to the main plot.
First we are taken back to 1999. Joe and his wife (Juliette Binoche) work for a nuclear power plant in Japan. Increases in seismic activity worry Joe, yet his superiors refuse to shut the plant down. When a spike in these electromagnetic pulses causes a nuclear breach that eventually destroys the city, Joe loses his wife. In the present, Joe has become crazed attempting to find answers. Ford, his son, an explosives expert in the Navy, reconnects with him when he must leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son to go bail his father out of jail. Joe eventually convinces his son to go back with him to their old Japanese town and discover what the governments of the world are hiding there. Turns out the pulses are happening again.
What results this time is the release of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) that begins to wreak havoc as it moves across the Pacific. As the military creates an action plan, a Japanese researcher (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant (Sally Hawkins) draw upon what they’ve learned from Joe and Ford and theorize that Godzilla could be their only hope, the alpha predator looking to restore order to the food chain.
Painting Godzilla as an ambiguous “good guy” we know little about works to the film’s advantage and suits Edwards’ style quite well. Edwards’ indie monster flick (titled “Monsters”) expertly created mystery, fear and awe around its monsters and Edwards does the same for Godzilla and the MUTOs (that’s right, there are two). He captures the same sense of scale that Guillermo del Toro did in last summer’s “Pacific Rim” and there’s little doubt the master monster-making filmmaker would praise this effort.
Edwards works a nice balance of teasing us with the presence of these creatures and giving us solid glimpses, walking the line of monster blockbuster and monster art film. He prefers shots that keep the human characters involved or come from their perspective so we not only get a sense for just how big and terrifying the creatures are, but we also feed off the raw energy of the actors’ performances. Taylor-Johnson has been a leading man before, but he gets a lot thrown at him in this movie and makes it all work. Somehow (conveniently) he constantly finds himself in the monsters’ warpath and it keeps things interesting.
Multiple monsters also proves essential to the entertainment factor of “Godzilla.” Yes, monsters fighting is enormously more delightful than a single monster leveling buildings, but it also gives us something to watch for as an audience to keep the wheels turning. Ultimately, this drives our interest in the film; not what happens to the human characters, who serve as a moderately compelling excuse for us to “get in” on the action.
The resulting effect is that we get a Godzilla who is not just the big scary monster terrorizing the city, but an elusive creature driven by biological impulse, an “X” factor and one that we can root for. That’s how it should be. “Godzilla” doesn’t have to belong in the horror-action genre; he can be part of a supernatural action thriller. Godzilla also doesn’t have to be the entire focus of the movie. Joe and Ford’s story centers around what’s going on with the MUTO, and Godzilla just sort of jumps in.
Urban carnage is the theme du jour for blockbusters, so what Warner Bros. and Edwards have done with this new “Godzilla” isn’t trend-shattering, but they’ve taken great care to their approach with reinventing a giant monster movie for a modern audience. They also don’t assume that the people most interested in seeing a giant monster movie lack the sophistication to appreciate a little artistic nuance and thoughtful storytelling.
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein (screenplay), David Callaham (story)
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe