The Elevator Pitch
"A massive, ancient creature fueled by radioactivity wakes up and then proceeds to make life complicated for anyone within driving distance of the Pacific Ocean. Godzilla guest stars."
If you're allergic to bad dubbing or if you roll your eyes at the sight of a dude dressed up in a giant rubber lizard suit stomping HO-scale buildings into matchsticks, then you'll probably be more predisposed to this take on the subject matter. Conversely, if you're discriminating enough to require real, three-dimensional human characters to identify with in a two-hour long film about giant monsters wrasslin' with one another, then you can consider this time well-spent.
- The film kicks off with a genuine sense of gravitas thanks to the presence of high-caliber actors like Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe. When the ball gets passed off to the young-un's, a bulked-up Aaron Taylor-Johnson (of Kick-Ass fame) rises to the occasion as an engaging, self-assured and highly-capable lead. Pity his on-screen wife Elizabeth Olsen spends most of her screen time in the shadow of special effects 'cuz she's pretty darned good as well.
- Monsters director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting partner Max Borenstein exhibit a palpable level of respect for Godzilla and his sixty-year cinematic lineage. Beyond references to 1954, Bikini Atoll and Dr. Serizawa, a portion of the film actually takes place in Japan. A Japan seemingly over-run with gaijin, but Japan nonetheless.
- I was worried about the monster's new appearance since the toys and preliminary art made the "Big G" kinda look like a club-footed, flabby-limbed "Person of Wal-Mart". Although I still prefer the more traditional 1954, Godzilla 2000 or All Out Attack designs, this new version certainly succeeds at depicting our scaly hero as a truly colossal, shambling juggernaut of brute force instead of some scrawny, jut-jawed overgrown iguana.
- Speaking of ol' G.I.N.O., this new film takes deliberate steps to avoid the arrogant mistakes made by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin back in 1998. This is the Godzilla fans were expecting to see back then: a clumsy, lumbering, invulnerable force of nature. The producers also do justice to his iconic roar and his, shall we say, ranged attack. In fact, the few times in which Godzilla busts out his most famous party trick it results in a sincerely thrilling stand-up-and-cheer kinda moment.
- The special effects are both special and quite effective. The scenes of devastation in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Waikiki and the fictional Janjira are all completely convincing. The monster battles are creatively staged and convey a primal fear of titanic power. Our highly-vaunted weapons of mass destruction come across as comically inept and the on-screen physics they're subjected to feel disturbingly genuine. It's a damned good thing that the special effects guys got this right because if it looked fake, things would quickly become surreal, abstract and, ultimately, disengaging.
- The film is actually reasonably well-plotted and contains a few unexpected and welcome revelations. Above and beyond pulling a Janet Leigh on us, the script side-steps the sort of plot pitfalls that most modern Hollywood blockbusters thrive on. Just when it looks as if we're going to re-live that hoary old trope of "moronic military versus the beatific scientists", something miraculous happens which completely alters our expectations. Words can't describe how refreshing this is to me.
- Although I'm not particularly crazy about the M.U.T.O.'s design, the creature's ability to deliver an electromagnetic pulse is a brilliant new concept which results in a few memorable and scary moments.
- Gareth Edwards brings some tremendous artistic flourishes to the film. I really appreciate the creative and visually-arresting main title sequence, the use of György Ligeti's "Requiem" during the H.A.L.O. drop and the the low-angled shots which really help to convey the sheer size and scale of these creatures. Also, taking a cue from the original 1954 film, there are some truly inspired moments of sound design here. Compare and contrast Godzilla's bladder-shaking roar with the minimalistic noise of only tracer fire during his big reveal in Hawaii.
- How 'bout this neat n' tidy little exchange of redact-alicious dialogue: Dr. Serizawa: "In 1954, we awakened something." Vivienne: "All of those nuclear tests in the Pacific? Not tests." Dr. Serizawa: "They were trying to kill it." Y'know, if it wasn't so damned brilliant I'd feel compelled to hunt down screenwriter Max Borenstein and kick him right in the cubes for fictionally excusing America's real reason for setting off atomic bombs all over the South Pacific during the 1950's. It might seem inordinately clever to exonerate your country like this but it also completely and totally dismantles the original film's social commentary if not its entire raison d'être. Hey, Max, just because you can do something clever it doesn't necessarily mean that you should.
- The harrowing early scenes at the Janjira nuclear power plant bring to mind the still-painful Fukushima disaster. This would have a been a perfect opportunity to inject some much-needed social commentary into the film but, alas, the possibility is quickly dispensed with and it's right back to the action.
- Even though it's Godzilla's name on the marquee, he comes off as a second banana here. Scroll back up and re-watch the trailer again. Go ahead, I'll just wait here. Okay, didja watch it? Wanna know a little secret? Most of the destruction you see in the trailer wasn't actually caused by Godzilla. And that's just lame.
- Americans are creatively bankrupt compared to the inspired lunacy of Japanese monster makers. The M.U.T.O.'s, I.E. the unfortunate and unexpected real stars of the film, look like a boring amalgam between the Cloverfield monster and the critter from Super 8. Fans hoping to see a wildly-original, bat-shit crazy design like Gigan, Biollante, Destoroyah or King Ghidorah will likely be disappointed.
- Because of all the bait-and-switch emphasis placed on the M.U.T.O.s, the first quarter of the film comes across as needlessly muddled. Honestly, looking back I still can't tell you exactly what origin story belongs to what monster and who exactly did what.
- Look, I'm all for a slow-burn lead-in to our boy's big reveal but after the third or fourth fleeting glimpse of Godzilla, this technique really started to get on my nerves.
- In the original Showa series it took about five or six films before Godzilla went from "wrath of God" to defender of the Earth. Here it happens within the space of two hours. Sorry, but I like my Godzilla more heel then hero.
The Bottom Line
Despite all my belly-achin', Godzilla is a surprisingly well-made flick. The direction is tight, the cast is excellent, the special effects are top-notch and the script respects the original concept while striving for do something different.
It's a refreshing palate-cleanser that makes amends for that Kaiju-sized celluloid turd that got dropped on our collective heads back in 1998. Regardless of the film's flaws, at least the creature up on the screen can be identified as Godzilla.
I just wish he'd actually been on-screen a little bit more.