While it remakes the original Godzilla film (the mid-’50s classic King of the Monsters!) to a certain degree, the more obvious comparison for the new Godzilla is to Pacific Rim, last year’s science-fiction/action-thriller that also featured giant-sized monsters fighting their way through the homes and cities of large human populations.
But the two movies actually couldn’t be more different, at least in terms of their approach to that material. The latter treated it in cheeky, somewhat cartoonish fashion, with ridiculous characters and situations that served strictly as place holders to showcase in between the action set pieces, and it possibly suffered for that decision. (While it had its enjoyable moments and it still has its share of very loyal adherents, Pacific Rim wasn’t exactly a box-office blockbuster.)
Godzilla, on the other hand, treats the material in considerably more serious fashion. Like Monsters, the 2010 breakthrough film from its director, Gareth Edwards, it creates more flesh-and-blood characters and then, when it dispatches them, there’s a real feeling of loss. It’s not only diametrically opposed to Pacific Rim in that regard, it’s also the antithesis of recent, “action-porn” hits like last year’s Man of Steel, which had less emotion and depth of character than your average video game.
And in doing so, this science-fiction thriller just might be too smart for its own good. It doesn’t really give us a full look at the title “character” for more than an hour, and the concentration is largely on the actual, flesh-and-blood cast. Also, the film is not without its silly, credibility-straining sequences. But, given the premise, you shouldn’t exactly expect it to be as smart as, say, Inception or its like.
As explained by Evans and screenwriter Max Borenstein (through their human character creations), the title creature apparently belonged to supposedly long-extinct animal species that roamed the Earth in its earlier, more radioactive state. Nuclear testing awakened this “alpha predator,” which has remained mostly out of sight since then.
Unfortunately, those tests also awakened gigantic, insect-like parasites that emerge in 1999-era Asia, first setting off earthquakes near a Filipino mine and then destroying a nuclear power plant in Japan. While that information has been kept from public knowledge, it’s been uncovered by an American engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), Having lost his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), in the resulting meltdown, Joe is still consumed with rage and guilt more than a decade later.
Cut to the present day. The couple’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is now grown, and is employed as a member of the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordinance Disarmament teams, and a family of his own (his wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is a nurse who takes care of their infant son while he’s away).
Currently on furlough, Ford would like to have some quiet family time. Instead, he’s headed overseas to retrieve his estranged father, who’s been arrested for trespassing (he claims he’s trying to go to their former home to retrieve photos and other family heirlooms). Having sneaked into the supposedly irradiated ground zero, both Brodys are there to witness the first of the “M.U.T.O” (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) parasites start its destructive rampage.
It turn out the M.U.T.O. is a male, and is seeking out nuclear “food” with which to help its recently surfaced female partner, and possible begin breeding. The combined might of the U.S. Army and Navy prove insufficient to stop them the duo. And the Earth’s last best, chance may lie with another giant creature, nicknamed “Godzilla” by a pair of scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) who have helped keep the beasts’ existence secret while still studying their unique physiology.
Again, there are plot holes galore and some very convenient, contrived elements (most of them involved Taylor-Johnson’s character). And the pace may prove a bit challenging to younger audiences, as the destruction and battle scenes comes in bursts, followed by sometimes involving human drama.
Luckily, Edwards again uses some of the creature designers he employed for Monsters, and as a result, Godzilla and company look terrific and very unique. They also sound very menacing – the first time he “roars” your ears will be ringing and your flesh will be adequately goose-pimpled.
Speaking of the film’s sound, it gets an especially effective score from Oscar-nominated composer Alexandre Desplat, who clearly references Bernard Herrmann here while still knowing when the film needs to stay quiet – to let the action “sing,” so to speak.
Edwards also gets some particularly good performances from the primary members of his cast. Breaking Bad’s Cranston is very believable and sympathetic, even when he’s being portrayed as being a bit of a crackpot. Taylor-Johnson, still muscled up from Kick-Ass 2, is best in a sequence in which his character comforts and then saves a young boy endangered during the male M.U.T.O.’s Hawaiian frenzy of destruction.
(Character actor David Straithairn is also quite good as the U.S. Navy officer in charge of the monster-suppression operation. Watanabe and Hawkins are a bit neglected, as the clearly awed researchers.)
Jeff Michael Vice can also be read reviewing comics and television for Big Shiny Robot! (www.bigshinyrobot.com), be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).