Directed by Gareth Edwards
PG-13, 120 Minutes
If you are old enough to remember the old Godzilla movies from the 50s and 60s, this movie is a lot of fun. If you’re young enough to think the old ones were cheesy and the 1998 what-were-they-thinking movie with Matthew Broderick was a waste of celluloid, you’re going to enjoy this one a lot.
Gareth Edwards’ vision for the King of the Monsters is clearly as much homage to the original as it is a new vision for the big G.
The movie starts with heart and carries it all the way through, taking time to draw viewer attention to scenes that parallel real life disasters. The performances are solid. Ken Watanabe plays the part of Dr. Serizawa with quiet and solemn gravity. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Ford with a certain subdued intensity that makes sense given what his character goes through. But the performance that completely seizes the attention and makes you wish he was in the film all the way through is Bryan Cranston’s. The man goes from harried executive to grieving family man to desperately curious, to enraged with admirable fluidity.
Screenwriters Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham took a previously considered script from the 90s and made it a really tight showpiece.
Godzilla has existed, literally, since prehistoric days, as the credits show cave paintings of him, and Godzilla was the dragon of “here there be dragons” warnings from old timey maps. The age of technology arrives, and with it, man’s awareness of Godzilla. Those nuclear weapon tests from the 50s? They were not so much tests as they were attempts to kill the giant reptile; attempts which failed. Fortunately for mankind, Godzilla didn’t take offense at the attacks and retaliate; he went back to sleep beneath the waves until 1999 when the events that set the story in motion began.
Greedy miners, thinking they’ve hit uranium deposits, dig and find that beneath the earth are the bones of something enormous, that was killed by parasites. Their digging woke one, which burrowed its way to Japan, where it fed on the output from the Janjira reactor before hatching and destroying the place. Too bad Joe Brody, who runs the plant, had sent his wife Sandra down to check things out when the thing decided to stretch. When things go bad, Sandra wisely sends her team back out. Joe also responds admirably. He commands the doors be set on manual so he can have a shot at getting her to safety before the breach contaminates all of Janjira. But the rule of drama prevails and Sandra doesn’t make it out. Their tween-age son Ford gets to watch the plant come down from his schoolroom window as the evacuation begins. Did I mention it was also Joe’s birthday and his wife and child had decorated the house before leaving? He never even got to see it due to the evacuation. Talk about a gut punch.
Fifteen years later, a rift has grown between father and son. Ford thinks losing his wife has driven his dad completely out of his mind, and resents his father for becoming obsessive and nutty. This resentment gets driven up a notch when Ford, just home from a tour of duty, gets called to Japan because Joe Brody has gotten himself arrested for going into the forbidden quarantine zone without permission. Father and son have a tense, awkward reunion, but Ford remembers his wife’s Elle’s entreaties to put family above resentment. Ford nearly convinces Joe to return home until they’re caught by Monarch, the secret organization that has been studying Godzilla and all the other monsters since the 50s. Joe throws an epic hissyfit at the Japanese, to no avail, and the story kicks into action!
Enter Dr. Serizawa and Vivienne Graham, Admiral Stentz, Captain Hampton, and a host of other military personnel, as the monster that broke free at Janjira can’t wait for the dinner bell to ring, and it wants snackies. What does it eat? Radiation as from nuclear power plants. And who shows up to tell it to eat fast and get gone? Godzilla — who is apparently so enormous in this incarnation that merely coming ashore in Hawaii displaces enough water to cause a tsunami (using real science and showing a little girl spotting the water receding from the beach, as happens with real ones like the 2010 Indonesia tsunami. The other real world callback is at the end: families reunite in a stadium, exactly as it happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina). The humans react sensibly and run as fast as possible to escape the path of rushing ocean water.
Ford is pulled into the middle of events without even time to react to the knowledge that not only was his father not crazy, but he was right about there being a massive cover-up. He then also doesn’t get the chance to cope with Joe’s death shortly after seeing the first MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object — a label which becomes a misnomer once the first of the monsters takes flight). He gets an airlift back to Hawaii, just in time to see Godzilla and MUTO 1 have a little throwdown. This is one of many scenes in the movie that caught my attention. There are lots of Pacific Asian people in the film, several with speaking parts and names. One such is Akio, a little boy who is fascinated by a 15 year old toy Ford was fiddling with, whom Ford took responsibility for in halting Japanese when the kid accidentally got shut on the train. Ford then also ends up as the designated hero type, becoming privy to information that nobody else has, and becoming the only one who can prevent even greater disaster even if Godzilla is successful against the paired monsters.
Serizawa and Graham watch the whole thing with fascination, and the movie turns a couple of disaster tropes on their heads. In Janjira, Joe commands a shutdown of the facility because he doesn’t like the looks of these mysterious “earthquakes” that only seem to target Janjira. There’s all of a second of some senior suit trying to do the “now wait a minute, we don’t know” before Joe ignores him entirely and proceeds with shutting down. At sea Admiral Stentz has formulated a plan involving nuclear bombs to stop the MUTOs and Godzilla. When Serizawa hands him a stopped pocket watch which hasn’t run since the morning of August 6, 1945 when the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Stentz actually takes that as a very good reason to not use the warhead, though he goes ahead only because he can’t think of anything with as good a chance of success.
The rest of the movie is the military trying to figure out how to stop the monsters with minimal loss of life. Serizawa advises them they generally don’t need to worry about Gojira, because he’s only there to do what the military wants him to — destroy the creatures they’ve dubbed “MUTOs.” The military is not, for a change, portrayed as bloodthirsty or warmongering. Time and time again, they state out loud that their top priority is to prevent civilian loss of life. After Godzilla refrains from capsizing their aircraft carriers, they treat him as an asset and escort him. Amusingly, and understandably, they do sometimes break training, reacting with panic to the presence of Godzilla, which causes more trouble. Finally, Godzilla himself is the most polite monster ever seen on a movie screen. His approaches to both Hawaii and California are mindful of the ships and that the tiny creatures in them are not what he’s pursuing. He generally doesn’t step on anyone or anything on purpose, and focuses solely on his prey – the MUTOs. Even when he is near enough to ground level to make eye contact with Ford, it’s just a fleeting moment of “no worries, tiny creature” before he gets back to nuclear-powered asskicking on the real threat.
I must also give a virtual high five and a tip of the hat to Victor Rasuk, playing Sgt. Tre Morales; he got the most one-liners in the movie. Dee Jay Jackson, playing the bus driver evacuating the children from San Francisco, also gets props for playing the hero who was going to get the kids off the Golden Gate Bridge before Godzilla disastrously bumped into it. Both of these roles were played by PoC, so it was nice to see them getting lines. There were several PoC families who had happy reunion moments during the film as well. There were also women in key positions in the military tracking the movements of the MUTOs and Godzilla; one of whom was a PoC and had lines, speaking directly to Admiral Stentz.
Flaws? The movie weighs in at exactly two hours, but the slow moments between humans do not take away from the enormity of the MUTOs and Godzilla himself. The time flows nicely until the end, which is rather abrupt.
Sandra Brody is given short shrift as a disposable woman. We know that she’s a competent nuclear scientist of some sort because she’s the one who leads the doomed team into the guts of the Janjira plant reactor. But, essentially her whole purpose is to show she loves Joe, tell him it’s his birthday, remind him he is not paying attention to his son, and then die horribly of radiation poisoning after a poignant onscreen goodbye in which she exhorts Joe to be a good father — a promise he was too choked up to make at the time and never lived up to.
Elle Brody, the wife of the adult Ford Brody is little better. She’s a hospital nurse who is apparently used to dealing with seriously ill patients and crises, but once her little boy Sam says, “Mommy, look — dinosaur,” she’s pretty much just a bleary-eyed tearful mess. Elizabeth Olsen performs fine with what little the role asks of her. Carson Bolde, on the other hand, playing four year old Sam Brody, has the charisma of oatmeal. He doesn’t seem scared, curious, happy, or excited at any of the appropriate times. His expression never seems to change. That made it very hard to care what happened to him and his mother. Taylor-Johnson himself is little better, but that could be chalked up to him being so emotionally slammed from the moment he steps foot in Japan that he’s saving his breakdown/freakout for after the credits have rolled and he’s in the safety of a hotel room.
There are lots of women running around San Francisco and Hawaii during the evacuation scenes, but none with boots on the ground as the military. None of the FEMA workers, and very few of the first responders were women either. If you’re curious about the Bechdel test; Godzilla fails. The only two women who speak to each other are Elle Brody and her boss — they speak about Sam and Ford.
The movie is definitely worth catching in 3D or IMAX because of the sheer wow-factor of the effects. They’ve done some truly beautiful reworking of some of Godzilla’s powers.
4.5/5 — The disposability and poor writing of Elle’s part and Carson Bolde’s lack of charisma cost it the full five. It earns an extra half star from me because it is a disaster movie, but it is so very refreshing to see San Francisco and Las Vegas get destroyed instead of my beloved New York City to illustrate the scope of the disaster.
Add that half star back if you don’t care what city gets destroyed as long as it looks awesome. Take away half a star if you’re the sort of fan who is going to reflexively and nitpickingly make a negative comparison to the 1954 original.