Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla is a benchmark in what not to do with a beloved creature of carnage. Completely missing the mark and leaving a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, the Japanese-created monster lay dormant for the better part of two decades. Now 16 years later, relative newcomer Gareth Edwards (Monsters) has revived the beast and, with a few stumbles along the way, validates the resurrection.
What’s immediately apparent in Edwards’ version is his sense of visual style. Simply put, it’s beautiful. What’s most surprising isn’t the grace he injects into the scenes of destruction, but his adeptness, and even concentration on, the human characters. It’s clear that Edwards isn’t just interested in setting up a basic story in which Godzilla can come wreak some havoc, but that he wants to position the rise of the monsters against their affect on the humans within the story. If he doesn’t fully succeed due to a somewhat tired story of a family trying to reconnect during the global hysteria, it isn’t for lack of trying.
The tale begins in a 1999 Japan with husband and wife Joe and Sandy Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche), who both work at the nearby nuclear power plant, experiencing one bad day. Joe and his colleagues have data that something big is approaching, possibly an earthquake. Soon the plant is destroyed, and Sandy along with it. Cut to 15 years later and their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb technician for the army, returns from duty to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and their son in San Francisco only to get a call from Japan that his father has been arrested trespassing in a quarantine zone that used to be their house.
Ford assumes Joe has lost his mind, but Joe pleads that it wasn’t a natural disaster that brought the plant to its knees. And, as the audience can already predict, he’s right. An international, secret, organization led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) have been covering up the existence of Godzilla and similar paleolithic creatures for decades. The nuclear meltdown was caused by the incubation of a creature dubbed Muto, which feeds of nuclear energy. Soon, it hatches and, as expected, all hell breaks loose.
From this set up, the film tracks Ford as he attempts to get home, only to find a number of obstacles in his way — chief among them a breathtakingly staged battle in Hawaii. Just as Edwards, and writer Max Borenstein, focus on Ford as much, if not more than the creatures — a second Motu is also hatched — , Elle is similarly glimpsed as the tension rises. If the basic story of a husband trying to reach his family during a time of global crisis is somewhat deflating, it’s more that Ford gets caught up in numerous frays along the way, only to be one of the few survivors in each, the increasingly implausibility of which begins to somewhat deflate the pressure of his fate.
The title character’s purpose among all of this is also somewhat clouded. Set up as an anti-hero who causes as much destruction as the mating Mutos, he emerges from the ocean’s depths to destroy them. Dr. Serizawa hints at some sense of nature working itself out, or perhaps he’s similarly attracted to the Mutos’ nuclear food source, but whatever the reason is, he doesn’t disappoint. Edwards has a great visual sense, and if some of the battle scenes can recall Pacific Rim, as well as a now cliched scene on the Golden Gate Bridge, his sense of pacing should be applauded.
Although Edwards and Borenstein attempt to hinge the film on the human characters, most of them end up being mere cardboard cutouts, existing only for their established purpose. Still, the fact that Edwards clearly understands its the characters, not the monsters, that create depth within the story only makes the explosive monster duels that much more anxiety-ridden. The film is no home run, but Garth Edwards moves the story in the right direction and, at the very least, creates something that’s exciting and enjoyable, if somewhat lacking at times.
Rating: 3 out of 5