Godzilla Review: Return of the King

Man, this one has been a long time coming. Since the first attempt at an American Godzilla in 1998, fans have been clamoring for a return to form for the King of the Monsters. Sadly, it became clear that Godzillas Japanese parents, Toho, had no intention of creating new films after 2004s “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Fans didn’t have much to look forward to.

For a long time it looked like a new Godzilla film would ever see the light of day, in America or Japan. But last night, after what seemed like an eternity, Godzilla returned to American shores in spectacular fashion thanks to Legendary Pictures. While the film isn’t without problems, “Godzilla” is a bold new take on the character that manages to still stay true to the series me and so many others grew up watching.

Some very general plot points are discussed below. Slight spoilers ahead!

“Godzilla” begins in 1999. Joe Brody and his wife Sandra (played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche ) work at a nuclear power plant in the fictional Janjira, Japan. Massive tremors begin to destroy the plant, causing a radiation leak and a subsequent nuclear meltdown. Officially the incident was caused by an earthquake, but Joe believes that what he experienced that day wasn’t a natural disaster. He becomes a man obsessed with finding the truth of that day, in the process alienating his son.

Cut to the present day. Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), works in the military as a bomb disposal expert. Upon returning home from a deployment overseas, he is reunited with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco. His reunion is short lived when he quickly learns his father has been arrested in Japan for trespassing in the Janjira quarantine zone, and Ford travels to get him out. Ford reluctantly agrees to help his father return to Janjira to test a theory. It’s there they meet Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) and uncover the truth — giant monsters from Earth’s ancient past are real, and they feed on radiation to grow and reproduce. All of this has been covered up by a secretive international organization that studies these organisms, led by Serizawa.

As first one and then two M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) begin to hunt sources of nuclear radiation around the world, Earth’s only hope lies in Godzilla, an alpha predator from those prehistoric times who exists to keep the order of nature in check. And by “keep the order of nature in check,” I mean beat the living snot out of other monsters. Ford, desperately trying to return home to his family in San Francisco, is caught right in the path of destruction, eventually becoming involved in the U.S. Navy’s plan to destroy all three of the creatures in a single blow.

Godzilla films have always struggled with what to do with their human characters. Afterall, the whole point of the movies existing are for moviegoers to see the spectacle of giant monsters wrecking havoc, not human drama. Most films in the series throw in human characters that have very little reason to be around, are terribly uninteresting, or both. Monsters can’t be on screen all the time, and if the human element fails, then the audience is bored for 3/5ths of the movie. The best Godzilla films not only deliver great monster action, but also human characters that are more than loosely associated with the films overall plot.

Bravo then to director Gareth Edwards, who in only his second directorial debut after his indie film “Monsters”, never loses sight on the human side of massive monsters on the warpath. Most of the films glimpses at the monsters, aside from the majority of the final climactic battle, are done from perspectives that go to great lengths to emphasize just how gigantic these creatures are, and how small we are in comparison. Whether looking through the googles of Ford as he parachutes into the heart of a destroyed San Francisco or catching a peak of the monster through an airport terminal, Edwards is a master at providing perspective. You feel like an ant watching this movie.

The films characters are all relatively normal people, each solidly acted. Ford is a soldier, wanting to return to his family but at the same time conscious of his duty to help others. Elle is a nurse, who stays behind to help the injured but also to wait for her husband. The Navy Admiral wants to save as many lives as he can. “Godzilla” feels more real as a result. There are no insanely powerful super soldiers or crazy future weaponry. It is normal people struggling to survive and figure out what to do in a situation the world has never faced before.

Unlike films like “Transformers” of “Man of Steel,” where buildings are destroyed willy nilly with little regard for the impact or consequences, this film looks strongly at the human impact such a monumental event would create. People are evacuated, but many die, and the film doesn’t gloss over the fact. “Godzilla” is in many ways more akin to a natural disaster film rather than last years Kaiju brawl fest “Pacific Rim.”

In many ways, the disaster film vibe both helps and hurts “Godzilla.” The title monster himself gets little screen time until the last 20-30 minutes of the film, with most of the creature footage stemming from the M.U.T.O.s rampage. It’s for the most part a disaster film following the events of a family separated and trying to reunite as a storm rages all around them. You see tons of destruction and the aftermath of titanic struggles, but not much of the actual events themselves. One scene in particular serves as a truly epic introduction to Godzilla, the first time he is fully revealed. As he prepares to throw down with the enemy creature, the film painfully cuts away. Instead, we watch a CNN broadcast of the battle in the background at the Brody home. I felt more than a little robbed.

If “Godzilla” has one major problem, it’s that Godzilla feels like he is in second place. He is barely mentioned for much of the film, while the M.U.T.O.s get all the attention. His origins, and purpose, are never really explained beyond the vague idea of “restoring balance.” He is hidden behind buildings and underwater for much longer than you would expect.

It’s a shame, because Godzilla really does feel like a character here, not a mindless monster. As a character, he could have used a little more time to be developed. He’s big — bigger than he has ever been before. He fights like an enraged animal rather than a WWE wrestler, but his eyes and emotions are very much human. Don’t worry though, he has a couple of moves up his sleeve that I’m sure will cause more than a few fans to squeal with glee. Godzilla causes plenty of destruction by himself, but he never goes out of his way to inflict damage. He completely ignores the military for the most part. He is singularly focused on defeated the M.U.T.O.s. In many ways it feels like the old Showa movies of the 70s, where Godzilla serves as Earth’s defender against mankind’s own arrogance. And occasionally alien invaders. I wasn’t expecting to find that here, in what had been billed as an incredibly grim and dark film.

On a purely technical level, the film goes far above the everyday blockbuster. The cinematography is top notch. The visuals are awe inspiring — an achievement in a day and age when we have literally seen just about everything thanks to CGI. These look like living, breathing creatures. The sounds, I can’t even begin to describe. See this in IMAX 3D for an amazing experience. It truly deserves it. The score by Alexandre Desplat isn’t half bad either, though the music of Akira Ifukube is so iconic and near perfect that it is hard not to be disappointed by hearing anything else in a Godzilla film.

Unlike Roland Emmerichs 1998 film, I anticipate Edwards’ “Godzilla” will be lovingly adopted into the Godzilla film pantheon as a fan favorite, and it deserves to be. Edwards brought a much needed human element to a franchise that aside from a handful of films, paid little attention to the tiny people running around on the ground. Sadly, Godzilla himself suffers for it. I sincerely hope this film will spawn a sequel, or even a whole new generation of Godzilla films. If that is the case, the next director would be wise to pull back the curtain and let the big guy shine. He is, after all, the star of the show.

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