Bold and breathtaking, Godzilla is a most unusual monster movie.
It’s a big-budget production that reflects the personal touch of director Gareth Edwards, who made his feature debut with the “languid and dreamy” Monsters in 2010. (My review here.) That independent film, for which Edwards created the visual effects on his laptop computer, followed a relationship that develops between two people as they travel through a near-future world that has been devastated by an alien invasion.
With Monsters Edwards said he wanted to begin where every other monster movie ends. So Godzilla is, in a sense, a prequel to that movie, while also serving as a respectful reboot of Toshiro Honda’s Gojira (1954). In this version — story credited to Dave Callaham, screenplay credited to Max Borenstein — the U.S. atomic bomb “tests” in the Pacific were actually attempts to bomb Godzilla back to the Stone Age. In 1999, an incident in the Philippines leads to the destruction of a nuclear plant in Japan.
That sets up the modern-day setting, as military bomb disposal expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home on leave to his loving wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco, only to be called to Japan to bail his father Joe (Bryan Cranston) out of jail. Joe, who ran the doomed nuclear plant, believes that a cover-up was involved, one that still poses a grave danger 15 years later, and he refuses Ford’s entreaties to let it go. Joe is proved right, and giant monsters are soon threatening the future of mankind.
Godzilla is a serious, solemn movie, as befits the story of the (possible) end of the world. This in itself marks it as different from the usual run of summer blockbusters, which usually rely on wisecracking, super-powered characters to deal with apocalyptic threats. The humans here are little more than live-action narrators, inserted to provide exposition and explain what the visuals do not convey. That may be intentional. Ford Brody, his wife, his father, his mother (Juliette Binoche), a Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe), a British scientist (Sally Hawkins), an American general (David Straithairn) — they’re all too fallible, too human, too tiny to make much difference in the battle that breaks out between the monsters. Oh, they are self-sacrificing heroes, willing to give their lives, but to Godzilla and his kind, they are barely more than annoying gnats.
The trail of destruction is often glimpsed obliquely, which further reduces the humans to furtive, childlike figures, futilely seeking to avoid death. Whatever happens, their fate is not within their control. Godzilla makes a very strong case that human beings are not the masters of the Earth, but instead are temporary residents, here today and (perhaps) gone tomorrow.
It’s a sobering message, delivered as blockbuster entertainment.
The film opens wide throughout Dallas today. See it, if you can, in 3D at the Cinemark 17 IMAX Theatre, where the experience is well-worth the surcharge.