Godzilla has been made into a movie many times, beginning in Japan in 1954 and continuing through another 28 films about the monster and other mortal threats to the people of Japan. Generations grew up watching dubbed-into-English versions of the creature features on American broadcast television.
Periodic attempts to revive the franchise for U.S. audiences have met with mixed results. Most recently, Godzilla (1998), starring Matthew Broderick and directed by action-movie maestro Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), was a summertime success, but not the "monster hit" needed to launch several sequels.
Sixteen years later, in an era where Spider-Man (2002) gets a franchise "reboot" (The Amazing Spider-Man) a mere 10 years after a previous franchise launch, Warner Brothers has taken a crack at Godzilla, and as with the plague of superhero movies that dominate blockbuster season, this Godzilla is a grim outing, thematically and visually dark (made worse by the image-darkening 3D presentation) and characterized primarily by its joylessness. Whereas earlier Godzilla movies had moments to surprise viewers, to make them exclaim "that's cool!" or even "how cheesy!," this new Godzilla is super-serious. Don't dare chuckle while watching huge creatures wreck havoc, and certainly don’t try to have a fun time in any way.
When a fossilized creature is discovered in 1999 in the Philippines, scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, Inception) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) arrive to investigate. It’s not long before something finds its way off the island and across the East China Sea to the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant, where Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) both work. When tremors hit the plant, Joe suspects something other than an earthquake as the cause.
The film flashes forward 15 years to when Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now a naval bomb disarmament specialist, reconnects with his father, who has spent the last decade and a half convinced that the government covered up what happened at the power plant. When strange things start occurring again, Joe is proved right and Ford has to leave behind his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child (Carson Bolde) to confront a menace—a M.U.T.O., or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, now headed for the United States.
After a better-than-average buildup, Godzilla spends its second hour on glimpses of various monsters battling one another and destroying skyscraper after skyscraper. The scale of destruction is appropriately large, but the action grows repetitive and tiresome, and following a key character’s early demise, there’s no human of interest left in Godzilla. Those who want to see the title character in full get their wish, but the payoff is fleeting. The film has nothing more to offer, and the drawn-out finale feels like any number of recent action films driven by the site of collapsing buildings and extended battles.
That’s not to say writer/director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) wasn’t aiming for something more. He’s quoted in the film’s press notes as thinking deep thoughts about Godzilla. "In a way, Godzilla almost embodies a kind of 'wrath of God'—not in a religious sense, but rather nature coming back to punish us for what we have done to the world," he said. "In our film, we are definitely tapping into those ideas."
That’s one way to read Godzilla if you’re so inclined, although the film doesn’t play as though it’s reaching for profundity—and the actors know it. Watanabe musters every concerned expression he can but has little dialogue, while Taylor-Johnson wears one expression—wooden—throughout. Only Cranston stands out among the cast. More of his crazed character would have given the film a greater human dimension and something of interest beyond the movie’s special effects.
Those who cherish what Godzilla has to offer will leave the film exhilarated. The rest will head for the exits relieved to have survived another loud summer movie lacking emotion—until the next one comes along in a week or two.
This is the new way of most summer "popcorn" movies: Pay your respects to a beloved franchise by purchasing a ticket, then glumly do your duty to solemnly observe the proceedings. Tell your friends to do the same.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; a few uses of foul language
- Drinking/Smoking: None
- Sex/Nudity: None
- Violence/Crime: A reactor crumbles, skyscrapers are destroyed, guns aimed at Joe and Ford; machine guns open fire on monster; a train is engulfed in flames and runs off a broken bridge; one monster breathes fire; monsters fight each other
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Joe is driven by the death of his wife; Joe is arrested for trespassing; monster is referred to as "a god, for all intents and purposes"; fighters pray to the "Lord God" before doing battle with creatures; Godzilla is referred to as a "savior"
Publication date: May 16, 2014
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