King of the Monsters, Indeed

As movie monsters go, there is one that stands out above the rest.  After first appearing in the allegorical Japanese film Gojira in 1954, the character that became known as Godzilla has appeared in over thirty movies.  Most of these movies have been Japanese products and for good reason: when Hollywood attempted to make a Godzilla movie in 1998, it was a laughable disaster.  Under the theory that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, Hollywood is back with another stab at the legendary movie monster.  Does this Godzilla have what it takes to succeed?  The answer is a resounding yes.

Gareth Edwards was an independent director with only one feature directing credit to his name: the fittingly titled Monsters.  That movie’s focus on characters struggling to survive in a quarantine zone occupied by giant monsters made so much of an impression on the producers of the Godzilla remake that Edwards was practically given the key to the empire, his new budget bigger than all of the computer-generated creatures of his first film combined.  It was a gamble, for sure, but a gamble that paid off brilliantly, as Edwards produced a movie that might just be the best blockbuster to hit theaters since 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody in GodzillaAfter an opening credit sequence that hints at Godzilla’s existence since the 1950s, the film opens in the Philippines where a giant fossilized skeleton has been discovered.  Accompanying the colossal remains are two giant radioactive pods, one of which appears to have burst open.  Meanwhile, in Japan, a nuclear scientist is attempting to find the answer to some strange readings when something goes seriously wrong.  Fifteen years later, he is still trying to uncover the truth and has dragged his reluctant son into his conspiracy.  Together, they discover a secret that could change the fate of the entire human race.

Enter the monsters.  Yes, “monsters”, plural.  There are two new monsters, referred to as MUTOs by the military brought into try and stop them: Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.  What we learn is that these two monsters are mates and they are on a mission to hook up and spawn, an event that could be truly devastating for mankind.  The military feels that the best course of action would be to use their need for radioactive materials against them and detonate a bomb off the west coast.  A Japanese scientist has another theory, however.  He believes that nature has a way of balancing itself out and there is only one creature that could restore balance: the legendary Godzilla.  He proclaims: “Let them fight.”

And fight they do, trashing plenty of buildings as collateral damage.  The fight scenes between Godzilla and the MUTOs are definitely the movie’s main attraction and director Edwards knows that is what we came to see, so he teases us for awhile before giving us what we want.  Inspired by the holding back of the shark in Jaws, Godzilla does not fully appear in the movie until almost halfway through.  When he does, Edwards still holds him back from us, cutting to a television news broadcast or closing us into a shelter just as the party is about to start.  This tease only whets our appetites for monster carnage further, so that when Edwards finally lets us into the party it is all the more rewarding.

The monster battles are brilliantly realized and the 3D digital effects are seemingly flawless.  Most of the action does take place at night, which seems like a way of disguising some of the lesser realized effects, but these night scenes are still lit and filmed in a way that we always understand what is going on in the fight at any given time.  The effects are not the only thing that looks good in this movie; the entire movie is stunning.  From the art direction to the cinematography, everything in this movie is brilliantly realized visually.

In addition to the monster battle scenes, there are other action scenes that dazzle as well.  There are two different scenes that take place on bridges that are terrific both in terms of suspense and action.  In making all these scenes, Edwards steers clear of falling into action movie clichés, always twisting things just enough to keep them feeling original.

If there is one complaint to be made about the movie, it is that the human leads are not as interesting as the monster leads.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is somewhat wooden and cold throughout, while Elizabeth Olsen just isn’t given enough to do with her role.  Bryan Cranston is brilliant in a supporting role, though, and I also enjoyed Ken Watanabe as a character who shares a name with one of the scientists in the 1954 original (a relative, perhaps?).

The human characters are only secondary, though, as Godzilla is truly the star of this movie.  With help from the characters beloved history, the filmmakers here manage to make us identify with Godzilla and even fear at times that he is not going to be able to pull through.

Despite consistently terrific special effects in Hollywood movies these days, there are few that pull off the “Wow!” factor as well as Godzilla. In that sense, the movie is like this decade’s Jurassic Park.  It’s a cinematic experience that should not be missed.

Godzilla is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, and creature violence.”  The action is intense, but it never gets graphic or bloody.  The language in the film is also clean.  As such, only viewers who might find the monsters too scary need stay to stay away.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Godzilla.