The original Japanese Godzilla movie was made during a time of constant nuclear testing and uneasy peace between the East and the West. Bombs were going off in the ocean and the people of Japan were still recovering from the harrowing effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You could even say that Godzilla was the embodiment of America’s arrogance, stomping around town, razing buildings and destroying innocent lives.
When the movie crossed the Pacific and reached American shores, a lot of it was cut out to prevent the Americans from getting the wrong idea about the message of the film (if there was one). Clearly, I don’t know if it worked, but if you see this revamped 2014 adaptation of the Godzilla movie, directed by Gareth Edwards, you’d have no idea that nuclear testing paved the way for this creature’s birth.
This time, whatever we do see of explosions in the water is limited to a montage that welcomes in the opening credits. From there, the entire movie works as a teaser trailer for the monstrous Godzilla. We see glimpses of it, its gigantic fins piercing the water’s surface; a hand, a foot, an eye, what have you. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), Godzilla’s groupie, you could call him, predicts that the huge prehistoric monster will emerge from the depths and fight other monsters to balance out the Earth. The whole movie leads up to this fight, but it’s only when the fight is about to actually happen do we see Godzilla in full form.
The result is surprisingly refreshing. This is like Jaws for the 21st Century, but on a bigger scale, and mostly at night. The shark in Jaws lurked in the waters around Amity Island and only made its presence known when people started to disappear. Here, Godzilla lurks in the waters and only makes its presence known when its gigantic fins are too tall to remain submerged. One would think it was a shy creature (I don’t think the movie makes an attempt to determine Godzilla’s gender; I am sure that if he was male everyone would know).
So Dr. Serizawa says Godzilla must fight. But fight whom?
The movie opens in The Philippines. Serizawa and his partner, Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), have discovered a massive skeleton beneath a mine. They also find two extra-terrestrial parasitic pods the size of small whales; one of them has hatched and the being within has left a trail of destruction on its way to open waters.
Further north in Janjira, Japan, a nuclear scientist by the name of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) experiences unusual seismic activity and witnesses the destruction of his nuclear plant. Jump forward 15 years. Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), is a lieutenant for the United States bomb squad; his wife and child live happily in San Francisco. When news of Joe’s arrest for trespassing reaches their doorstep, Ford is forced to return to Japan to bail his estranged father out.
Human characters in monster movies are usually shortchanged. They tend to adhere to a strict rulebook that determines their characteristics and the kind of dialogue they will share. In this new Godzilla movie, both Joe and Ford are such characters. Joe is the mad scientist who nobody believes but is sure that his intangible findings are accurate; Ford is the stock action hero — his army status makes sure of that. Joe says he has to return to the site of his former nuclear plant to retrieve some evidence. Ford reluctantly follows, perhaps out of pity. What they discover there is a massive coverup — the hatchling of the giant Filipino pod has been gestating in Janjira for 15 years, absorbing the plant’s radiation. And now it has matured into a gargantuan flying creature that looks like an unhealthy cross between a cockroach, a moth and whatever monster you can think of.
Into society this creature goes, stomping and rampaging. This is the thing Godzilla will fight. Serizawa says Godzilla is the ultimate hunter, so the humans should sit on the sidelines and let the two mammoths fight to the death. In some ways, Serizawa speaks on behalf of all the humans in Godzilla — the movie, I suspect, would not have fared any worse if the human element had been erased. Monster movies don’t need humans. Monster movies need monsters, and lots of them. That’s what you went to Pacific Rim for. And that’s where this new kaiju movie works for me. I tuned all the humans out. I sat back and relished the prospect of seeing Godzilla do battle with other big animals while flattening entire cities to nothing but rubble. Of course, there are parts to this story that make no sense whatsoever, as when the human characters fly across the Pacific to try and escape the monsters, only to have the monsters magically follow them and attack the cities that house the important people, like Ford’s family. There is also a scene where a soldier scans the landscape of Las Vegas for the giant 300-foot parasite and only sees it when he looks through his binoculars.
The visual effects of this movie are astounding. Like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, much happens in the gloom of night, but the effects are so clear that we can see each individual scale. The sound design, too, is well thought out. Unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, where chunks of metal went flying into each other in nothing but a cacophony of indistinguishable clinks and clanks, the sounds during the climactic battle here are smooth and refined, soft even. They create mood and texture, and make the fight seem important even though it really isn’t. Mr Bay, please take some notes.
I give Godzilla four stars but I don’t think it is a very good movie. I give it four stars because it is a very good Godzilla movie. It stays close to its roots and pays homage to its 1954 original. The monsters are large and ferocious. The movie builds up wickedly and pays off with solid action. You go into a monster movie for the monsters, and you get what you paid for. The humans were always going to be collateral.
Best Moment | Godzilla breathing its fire and whipping one of the MUTOs into a building with its tail. Heck, the whole climax is the best moment.
Worst Moment | The idiotic expressions plastered to the faces of Serizawa and Vivienne. I swear they never change.