“History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men.”
— Blue Oyster Cult
You should never try to read too much into a Godzilla movie. Yet there is something that captures the imagination about a giant, city-destroying radioactive lizard; even when in most of his movies said lizard is obviously a dude in a rubber suit stepping on toy tanks.
At his best, Godzilla would do impressive battle with other giant monsters while packing in loads of subtext about nuclear-age paranoia, humanity getting a little too big for its britches, and reflections from the only country to witness the horrors of nuclear conflict in its own backyard.
The lack of polish and poorly dubbed English made this Japanese import all the more charming. Of course, when we got our hands on him we nearly screwed the whole thing up.
Godzilla got the Hollywood blockbuster treatment in 1998 in a movie that starred Matthew Broderick and had the big guy show up in New York and then gave him nothing to do but knock over a few buildings. Weak.
So you can imagine my skepticism here 16 years later as Hollywood has decided to take another crack at it with “Godzilla.” What’s really scary — even scarier than a 30-story reptile — is that they actually got it right.
This movie is at the head of the class when it comes to giant monster movies, as “Godzilla” is both comfortingly familiar and excitingly fresh.
In fact, it’s a lot easier to see what this movie does right by looking at what the vast majority of current summer blockbusters do wrong.
First off, instead of trying to build the movie around some hot young actor with a high Q Score (Taylor Kitsch, we hardly knew ye), “Godzilla” spreads the wealth by filling the cast with really, really good actors. Like way better than a movie like this deserves.
The focal character who is not a giant monster is Ford Brody, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick-Ass” fame. Ford is a young army lieutenant whose father Joe (Bryan Cranston) and mother Sandra (Juliette Binoche) were at the center of a mysterious nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
Ford leaves his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) behind to track down Joe who is convinced a government cover-up is taking place at the disaster site. Thrown into the mix are a couple of scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and an admiral played by David Strathairn.
Having exceptional actors is important because they can make you care about what’s going on even when there aren’t giant monsters filling up the screen, which brings us to our next point.
Director Gareth Edwards (whose only other credit, which I’m sure landed him this job, was helming the little-seen creature-feature “Monsters”) shows an insane amount of restraint as we don’t even catch a glimpse of the titular main attraction until the movie is halfway over.
This makes Godzilla’s big reveal more satisfying and awe-inspiring in a move that is more in line with the 1970s (“Jaws”) than the 21st Century (“Transformers,” “Pacific Rim,” et.al.).
Lastly, this is a movie that isn’t afraid of the bigger picture. In “Man of Steel” for example, Superman and General Zod knock over skyscraper after skyscraper in a battle to the death with only lip service being paid to the countless citizens who certainly would have lost their lives in all the carnage.
In “Godzilla” you actually feel the weight of the heavy loss of life every time a building is stepped on or a bridge is knocked over and it is clear that the fate of all humanity is at stake. This is also a movie that actually takes itself seriously (but not too seriously) without feeling the need to hedge its bets by tacking on some clumsy comic relief.
There’s even room for some modern-day subtext as the hubris of humankind is riper for a few pokes than ever.
At any rate, by playing it straight, “Godzilla” feels like an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, movie-going experience that generated several rounds of heartfelt audience applause.
It is simply cinematic fun that never makes you feel pandered to, which is reason to cheer all by itself. Go go Godzilla.
“Godzilla” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, and creature violence.