I’ve always been a Godzilla fan. As a child living in Long Island, New York, I hunted the big green guy on WPIX channel 11 (a 1980s glory hole of schlock entertainment) and through multiple video rental chains. I followed along as Godzilla morphed from an existential villain serving as a symbolic stand-in for nuclear annihilation (his 1956 debut, Godzilla: King of the Monsters!) into a brawling action star (Godzilla vs. Mothra, King Kong vs. Godzilla, etc.) and even a proud papa (Son of Godzilla, Godzilla’s Revenge). Yes, the movies got more and more cheesy as the years went by (Godzilla vs. Megalon is something of a low-water mark in this regard, even earning itself a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode), but my affection never wavered.
Then a funny thing happened: I grew up. And right as I was entering adulthood, Roland Emmerich belched out his awful reboot starring Matthew Broderick and essentially ruined the whole thing for me. How could I ever take The King seriously again?
The answer to that question is Godzilla, British director Gareth Edwards’ (Monsters) $160 million reboot of the series, which achieves something I thought impossible: It made me believe in Godzilla again. Edwards does this by co-opting Steven Spielberg’s eye for visuals and sense of pacing (Jaws and Jurassic Park are obvious inspirations), keeping the plot simple and moving forward, and remaining true to the spirit of the Godzilla franchise. In our age of soulless blockbusters manufactured by committee, Godzilla feels like it was made by someone with a distinct voice.
Godzilla opens with a series of scene-setting prologues, establishing mankind’s discovery of the beast in the 1950s (the government has kept him a secret ever since, and Godzilla has obliged by not emerging from the ocean to wreak havoc in any metropolitan downtowns) before jumping ahead to the late 1990s to introduce the Brody family, Joe (Bryan Cranston), Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and their young son Ford. Joe and Sandra work at a nuclear power plant that suffers a catastrophic accident.
The film jumps to present day and finds Joe now a crackpot who believes the government is hiding something about the accident. He insists on sneaking into the abandoned containment zone around the destroyed plant in search of disks that will prove ... something, he’s not really sure. His son Ford (Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now grown up, with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a son and a career in the armed forces disarming and disposing of bombs. Ford is none too pleased by his dad’s crazy antics, especially when he’s forced to fly to Japan to bail his father out of jail.
Once in Japan, of course, Joe convinces Ford to go with him to the containment zone. There they find the place isn’t really contaminated at all, and the government is most definitely hiding something. The old nuclear plant is now an incubator of sorts, feeding some cocooned beastie with power while secretive humans led by Dr. Sherizawa (the great Ken Watanabe) keep watch. Will it hatch? You betcha.
You’ll note I haven’t mentioned Godzilla yet. That’s because Godzilla, much like the shark in Jaws, doesn’t show up until the third act. I’ve seen other critics grousing about this, and I get it, because this Godzilla is a star. Created by Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, he’s a massive, loud mountain of scales and fire-breath that gets compellingly put through his paces in expertly staged disaster scenes. The climax of the film, featuring Godzilla battling his foe in downtown San Francisco with the future of mankind hanging in the balance, is a riot. Believe it or not, this is actually a Godzilla movie that leaves you wanting more. I chalk that up as a good thing.
Not as good are some of the performances, including Taylor-Johnson (way too bland as a lead) and Olsen, who seems on hand simply to stare up at rubble as it falls in her general direction. Cranston fares much better, but he’s in this movie about as much as Godzilla is, which is to say not very much. Of the cast, I think I enjoyed Ken Watanabe the most, especially when he sinks his teeth into what could be spectacularly cheeseball dialogue and somehow sells it. I hope the filmmakers keep Watanabe and scrap everyone else for the sequel.
And make no mistake, Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers smell series potential here. It makes sense, too. Is Godzilla really that different from the comic book characters currently dominating the multiplex? He’s got a long backstory and plenty of B-level side characters that can be updated for modern times and worked into future installments. In Godzilla, the suits have the opening installment of what could be a blockbuster franchise. And in Hollywood terms, that’s the real King of the Monsters.