Godzilla is a sort of modern day Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, or Minotaur, one boogieman from Greek myth. Born of the deep, subconscious grief and terror of nuclear war, the myth of Godzilla is primal and powerful. We all know who Godzilla is, even if we haven’t watched the multiple movies exploring him.
We all have the giant radioactive lizard in the back of our minds.
So it makes sense that a new age with new terrors that no longer place nuclear war at the top of the list would recast the creature in the role of hero.
Director Gareth Edwards brings us a Godzilla who, despite his destructive tendencies, is less a mutant force of nature and more a balancer of nature.
Edwards manages to fit this kinder, gentler Godzilla into a movie with exciting action scenes, stunning images, and an occasionally intriguing human story.
Joe Brody (Byran Cranston) is an engineer at a Japanese nuclear power plant way back in the ’90s when an unexplained catastrophe shuts down the plant, devastates the surrounding city, and kills his wife (Juliette Binoche). Fifteen years later, his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a dad himself and newly mustered out of the United States Navy. He is embarrassed by his father’s insistence that the nuclear plant was attacked by something, something the authorities are covering up.
But when the father and son sneak back to the scene of the crime, they find that, indeed, there is a creature feeding off all that delicious radioactiveness.
It’s a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) from Earth’s ancient past, and hungry for radioactive material. Luckily for Earth’s cities and / or radioactive waste facilities, another, larger creature from the past thinks MUTOs are great fun to hunt.
Taller than a skyscraper and vaguely resembling a cockroach, the MUTO begins its reign of destruction with the even larger lizard in hot pursuit.
The first half of the movie lags a bit as it focuses on human stories: Joe’s relationship with his son and wife, Ford’s love of his son and wife (a lovely Elizabeth Olsen), Joe’s relationship with Ford, and Japanese scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa’s (Ken Wantanabe) relationship with the lizard he studies.
There’s a scene in which Serizawa interrogates Ford about his father’s data about the giant creatures, Ford insisting he doesn’t know anything, Serizawa asking increasingly detailed questions. Ford, indeed, knows nothing. The movie is not moved forward. If Ford doesn’t know, why is the scene in the script? That’s valuable screen time that could have been used knocking stuff down.
The movie also squanders some chances for humor. Serizawa, apparently the son of a scientist in the 1954 film, is played very straight, all brooding glances and weighty responsibility. He feels like a throwback to 1954
Even more glaring is the chances for funny missed in all the destruction. As the monsters devastate Japan, then Hawaii, then San Francisco, the audience settles in to wait for the giggles. Maybe a reaction shot of an old hippy saying “Trippy, dude,” or the anti-nuclear club at UC Berkeley getting stepped on mid-demonstration. Those would be good for a chuckle.
Or someone in a newly legal medical marijuana shop throwing his joint away and swearing off the stuff forever.
When the monsters take a detour through Las Vegas, it’s showtime. Maybe a glimpse of a cigarette-leathered woman doggedly pulling a slot machine as the building behind her collapses. Or maybe in the rubble a machine finally rings and flashes with its payout after the building is dust.
So many opportunities, sadly only existent in my mind. There’s not a single wink in all that lovely destruction.
What the movie lacks in bellylaughs, though, it makes up in action and special effects. When Godzilla appears in the sea, all spiky mountainous back and slashing tail, it’s truly awesome. As he slides beneath an aircraft carrier, dwarfing it by comparison, or wades through a skyline, the movie is stunning.
And mankind gets its licks in too, especially a HALO (High Altitude Low Open) jump executed by our boys in the Navy, falling right through a monster-combat zone.
It doesn’t get cooler than that, even if it is a thinly disguised advert for a video game.
There are other things to like about this movie as well. The military is portrayed as good, honorable and brave. Even though top brass show the arrogance of humanity in their desire to blast the creatures, their hearts are in the right place of desiring to protect civilians. The rank and file is all nobility, bravery, and self-sacrifice, even in the literal face of an overwhelming monster.
There’s even a scene where an officer leads his men in prayer before engaging.
Rated PG-13, there’s very little sexuality (just a slight kissing scene between the young married couple), no language, and no innuendo. The rating comes from the strong action, situations of peril involving children (all of whom make it out ok) and violence. There’s a tsunami that’s pretty powerful and a scene showing not particularly gory but still quite deceased soldiers. If your children can handle suspenseful action and scary monsters, this is a great movie to share with the family.
In the end, Godzilla represents not man’s arrogance with splitting the atom, but nature’s insistence on restoring balance to the world. Perhaps it’s not as primal a message, but it sure is a fun movie.