Godzilla took his (her? its?) sweet time marauding from San Francisco to Portland.
Critic's Grade: B
Godzilla has risen from a 16-year slumber, and he's super pissed. You would be too if your more recent Hollywood incarnation had robbed you of your atomic breath, made you listen to Puff Daddy say "uh" incessantly over your favorite Led Zeppelin song, thrown most of your decades-spanning backstory out the window and appeared on every fast-food bag imaginable.
Everybody hated 1998's Godzilla. Hell, Roland Emmerich probably hated it, and this is the dude who went on to direct 2012. It was completely tone-deaf and utterly dismissive of the decades of mythology surrounding the most iconic movie monster ever put to screen. It was the cinematic equivalent of making a Spider-man movie about a little girl who grew extra legs. It was a travesty.
Happily, Gareth Edwards' new big-budget take on the beast contains no Diddy ditties or Matthew Brodericks. In fact, it pretty much ignores the very existence of Emmerich's disaster, as well as the old-school cartoons, Godzilla's kin Godzooky, Mechagodzilla and many of the other additions that seemed ridiculous, even compared to a gigantic, marauding atomic lizard who pukes nuclear hellfire.
But make no mistake: This Godzilla is not a reboot. That's the first of many surprises Edwards wedges into two hours of monster mayhem. Godzilla, as we learn in the opening, is actually a very well-known force of nature, making the film a direct sequel to the 1954 classic. He's so well-known, in fact, that when another "alpha predator"—gigantic insectoid thingies with spindly legs called Mutos—awaken, scientists kind of bank on Godzilla rising from the depths of the ocean to go beat their asses. Hell, when we first see Big Green, he's being escorted to a melee by a fleet of battleships. He is friend, not foe. And he's a pretty great friend to have when a gigantic cockroach starts messing with the Golden Gate Bridge.
But those seeking a non-stop slugfest akin to Pacific Rim should temper their expectations. The film builds steadily to its all-out mayhem, with Godzilla spending much of the first 90 minutes racing to meet the Mutos as humans scramble to figure out what the hell they're supposed to do about impending doom.
The characters are stock disaster-movie tropes, but they're played by some of our best actors. Bryan Cranston shines as Ignored Until It's Too Late Scientist, racing around and screaming about nature taking her vengeance on man. Foreboding Japanese Scientist, as played by Ken Watanabe, grumbles Godzilla exposition while urging the army to just let the monsters fight. Generic Military Man David Strathairn barks orders, and Frightened Mother With Attachments to Other Characters Elizabeth Olson runs around a lot with her frightened kid, looking frightened. That's a lot of prestige for stock characters, but the cast hams it up in roles that some might consider slumming.
The film's surprising focus on the human element—particularly in its first two acts—is perhaps its only misstep, and a bit of a distraction. Luckily, for much of the time our audience avatar is Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Thick-Necked Military Dweeb, a character so bland and useless that he offers zero distraction from the film, allowing you to focus on the gorgeous visuals. He simply guides us from set piece to set piece, and serves mainly as a measuring stick against which we can gauge the creatures' size.
And it's in that scale that Edwards truly excels. The director—who cut his teeth on the excellent microbudget creature feature Monsters—knows that the true joy of watching Godzilla and his foes destroy cities is seeing it from our own tiny perspective. So when Godzilla and a Muto go at it in Vegas, we're offered only street-level views of the destruction—flashes of giant claws and flying debris—and briefly glimpse the full-blown action from a TV screen. A sequence where the Muto attacks a train is marvelous in its tension, and milks as much suspense from what we see (mostly the creature's water tower-sized legs and gnashing jaws) as what we don't.
Only when Godzilla's road trip finally ends in San Francisco does the film offer a full-on view of the monsters trading blows…for 40 straight minutes of city-leveling bliss.
Edwards' reboot excels on so many levels, it's easy to forget that Godzilla originally served as a cautionary tale about nuclear testing and man's hubris in the golden age of science. The allegory is there in the subtext, but it's not what makes Godzilla so enjoyable. It's an expertly made blockbuster designed to make us realize how small we really are compared to forces of nature, with the added bonus of seeing a gigantic atomic lizard barf fire without feeling the need to throw Diddy into the mix. It's good to have the monster back where he belongs: in our good graces.