Writer: Max Borenstein
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Running time: 123mins
The lowdown: After 2010’s £400,000 budgeted Monsters, director Gareth Edwards proves he is the go-to creature feature guy for the King of Monsters, Godzilla himself. And as the 1954 original dealt with hot-button topics of the day so Edwards uses his titular leviathan to shoulder a story touching upon post-9/11 apocalypse paranoia, environmental disasters, and of course nuclear anxieties. But, he is not stingy with the spectacle, delivering set-pieces of talent and ambition Michael Bay can only dream of, and employing a first rate cast including Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson to ensure the human element isn’t lost amidst the falling debris.
The full verdict: Synonymous now with campy, badly dubbed men-in-suit silliness and Saturday morning cartoons, back in 1954 Godzilla reflected the fears of a nation dealing with its nuclear trauma and war guilt. And by blending metaphor with action Ishiro Honda’s classic became the definitive monster movie template.
On this, his 60th birthday, Godzilla receives a $160m makeover and proves that while long in tooth, there’s nothing prehistorically arthritic about this scaly icon.
In fact, while mankind continues to war with nature, there will always be a place for Godzilla as the manifestation of our fears.
Gareth Edwards knows this and spins a particularly dark tale for a reboot that squashes painful memories of that soulless 1998 Roland Emmerich misfire.
After a striking credits sequence blending monsters with familiar footage of 1950s Pacific nuclear testing, the story hurtles straight into a Japan based 1999 prologue and a disturbing meltdown at the fictitious Janjira power plant, inevitably echoing Fukushima.
This tragedy rips engineer Joe Brody (Cranston) from his wife (Binoche) and son Ford. Fast forward fifteen years and Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is an army lieutenant with a pretty wife (Olsen) and a son of his own.
But, he is forced to return East when dad is jailed for trespassing in Janjira, chasing conspiracy theories about the events of 1999.
With fresh evidence, Joe returns to the ghost city with Ford in tow, searching for the clues that will prove the tragedy was no natural disaster. What he doesn’t know is that Pandora’s Box is about to open and up from the depths will come not just one of cinema’s best loved monsters, but nightmare creatures borne of Cloverfield, Starship Troopers, The Host and Edwards own pocket-money budgeted breakthrough gem.
And christened MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism).
America had better take cover because these beasties love a nuclear banquet, and the superpower nation has a menu to die for…
It took time for Japanese studio Toho to realise Godzilla (aka Gojira, the original name uttered once here by Ken Watanabe’s softly spoken scientist) was a monster audiences cheered for, so he gradually shifted from titanic threat to noble warrior.
Edwards takes this approach, softening the facial features and casting his beasty as a literal God, restoring nature’s balance through awesome stand-offs with giant radiation-guzzling, EMP-emitting nuclear metaphors.
In an age where spectacle fatigue fells many a blockbuster, Edwards takes a leaf from his hero Steven Spielberg’s book that less is more, until more needs to be much more.
For the first hour he keeps his CGI creations to brief sightings or blurry, blown up photographs. And when the monster mash begins, the action is kept fixed to his human characters’ perspective for a sense of “putting you in the moment” excitement, particularly a 30,000 feet halo jump that passes by Godzilla lamping a narky MUTO.
As with Jurassic Park and Jaws, snatched glimpses of the creatures pay dividends in generating suspense. As does a well-timed punchline to a Honolulu-based set-piece that builds to an awesome confrontation… and then cuts to a wobbly cam, after-the-event news report of the scrap.
There are sizable flaws. Edwards does not invest his human cast with as much character as his skyscraper dwarfing colossus. Women are firmly on the sidelines, including Olsen’s wife-nurse who doesn’t actually treat any of the injured and Sally Hawkins’ researcher who exists only to parrot Watanabe’s theories.
And as with last year’s Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, two other films from production house Legendary Pictures, there is a subtext of gung-ho militarism here at odds with Edwards’ more circumspect Monsters. Even if the face of the US army is the ever-likeable David Strathairn.
But, all this can be rectified when Godzilla returns. And with sixty years of opponents to choose from there is life in the old lizard yet.