“Godzilla” is an unusual summer blockbuster movie. Instead of providing instant gratification to the masses in the form of videogame-inspired action sequences, director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and David Callahan delay it. They would much rather show you the aftermath of a monster’s rampage through a major city than its actual destruction. They introduce their radioactive protagonist halfway through the film. They insist on defying your expectations. They believe in the power of anticipation.
Unlike Roland Emmerich’s laughably bad 1998 version, this “Godzilla” is a much more somber affair, harkening back to the 1954 film directed by Ishiro Honda (I am, of course, referring to the original Japanese version recently restored and released by Rialto Pictures and not the silly Americanized one starring Raymond Burr).
To this day, Honda’s film packs quite a wallop. Yes, he does resort to melodrama in some scenes and some of the visual effects have not aged that well. And yet, the original “Godzilla” stands as a powerful metaphor: a product of all those H-bomb tests in the Pacific, Godzilla is Mother Nature’s furious weapon, unleashed to put mankind on its place for all the damage it has caused. Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo is still impressive but what one remembers most days later are the images of a mother cowering on a street corner, hugging her kids, crying, as her city comes crumbling down; or the countless faces of the radiation-stricken victims of the attack in a makeshift hospital. The film poignantly highlights the human cost of such massive destruction…a point many of the Hollywood blockbusters gleefully disregard.
Edwards has retained both the Nuclear Age roots of the creature as well as the original film’s somber tone. His film does have one flaw: it is burdened with an international cast that is not given much to do. And those characters that seem promising or are fully fleshed out are soon (and surprisingly) dispatched. However, they are far better written and have far better dialogue than the cartoonish characters from last year’s monster mash, “Pacific Rim.”
The movie starts in 1999: a mine has collapsed in the Philippines and two members of a secret organization —Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins)— are sent to investigate. They soon discover a massive cave underneath the site and the equally massive bones of a prehistoric creature. Five months later, at the Janjira Nuclear Plant in Japan, nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is concerned about the recent seismic activity in the area. Convinced that this is more than a mere earthquake, he is about to order a complete shutdown of the plant when it is destroyed by whatever’s causing the activity. His wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a scientist at the plant, dies in the incident and the whole town is quarantined.
Fifteen years later, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Joe’s and Sandra’s only son, returns home to his wife (a sadly underused Elizabeth Olsen) and son from his latest overseas mission as a bomb disarmament expert for the U.S. Navy. His stay home is short: that same evening Ford receives a call from the U.S. Embassy in Japan informing him that his father has been arrested trespassing the grounds of the old nuclear facility. Blaming himself for his wife’s death, Joe has spent this past decade and a half trying to prove that what happened that night was not the product of an earthquake. He convinces Ford to accompany him back to Janjira.
Arrested again for trespassing and taken to the plant, Joe and Ford discover that Serizawa’s and Graham’s organization has been experimenting on a gigantic egg (another has been sent to Arizona). The egg hatches a giant insectoid MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and that’s when all hell breaks loose. The creature is headed towards Hawaii. The second egg hatches, delivering a far larger winged creature now headed west. And Ford, now left orphan, has no choice but to tag along with the scientists and military personnel as he tries to make his way back home to his family in San Francisco. Godzilla soon emerges, ready for some monster on monster action.
We do have to wait until the final act to see all three creatures duke it out in the streets of San Francisco. By showing glimpses of all three in the first half via live TV or as they walk away from the havoc they’ve created, Edwards toys with the audience’s expectations. And that is a good thing. By leaving the best for last, and by teasing the action, Edwards is playing on our sense of wonder, a sense oftentimes numbed by the other summer blockbusters that insist on hammering you with unstoppable action sequences microedited to the point of incomprehensibility. That third act is exciting, a worthy tribute to all those great “Godzilla versus (pick your monster)” films we grew up with.
Edwards also acknowledges the horror and scale of such monumental events. This is not a filmmaker eager to exploit 9-11 type imagery for the sake of instant gratification. This is a filmmaker conscious that no matter how jaw-dropping and viscerally exciting these scenes of mayhem and carnage may be, they do have consequences were they to happen in the real world. Just as Honda focused his camera on the victims of Godzilla’s rampage so does Edwards bring his camera close to the survivor’s faces, especially the children who stare with awe, wonder and horror. Seeing Godzilla trample his enemy may be thrilling, but it’s a vicarious thrill that comes with a price in Edwards’ unique take on this classic character.