Hollywood’s new Godzilla is a good movie, just not the great one that fans of the mutant monster were hoping for.
It is full of the sound and fury of Mother Nature in a rage over humanity’s arrogance, bad science and eco-folly. It pays loving homage to the origins of the radioactive relic who made his debut 60 years ago in the original, much-loved Japanese movie. It wisely holds back the reveal of the retro-modern Godzilla until deep into the action, making us hunger for even a glimpse (and audiences cheer his debut).
But, while we wait for the Monster Mash that we know is coming, British director Gareth Edwards also tells a muddled human story that is less than compelling — except for the prologue set in Japan 15 years before the main action. Godzilla the movie is also murky to look at in its 3D version, because 3D often drains the screen of its natural colour. With Godzilla, the drain even makes the desert landscapes of the American southwest look pale. This makes me yearn for a 2D screening as my second go-round.
In this updated version of the blockbuster tale, which was written by Max Borenstein (Seventh Son) from a story by David Callaham (The Expendables), Godzilla is showcased as “the balance of nature.” A Japanese scientist (played by Ken Watanabe) even gets to say that aloud. Watanabe is also the first to cite Godzilla by name, and he uses the Japanese pronunciation, another cool touch.
This Godzilla — the monster and not the movie — seems motivated to vanquish other mutants who evolved out of the nuclear age. These creatures look like a cross between a giant praying mantis and a pterodactyl, with the malevolence of Smaug.
Needless to say, they run amok after escaping from human exploitation. Godzilla, meanwhile, is neither humanity’s friend nor enemy. He is simply out to right that balance of nature. The metaphor is obvious, just as it was in the 1954 film, which was made in the wake of the devastation of WWII.
The human contingent involves Breaking Bad’s wonderful Bryan Cranston, Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche in the prologue, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as their adult son and hero of the movie, Elizabeth Olsen as his wife, David Strathairn as the American military leader and Sally Hawkins as a scientist collaborating with Watanabe at the power plant when one of the mantis-peteodactyl things gets loose and starts heading from Japan to the United States, making this Godzilla story an international crisis.
Cranston is the best of the bunch, infusing his character with a kind of compelling madness. Adopting an American accent, Taylor-Johnson is a standard-issue military hero. Olsen is good, but marginalized. Strathairn gets to spout nonsense but, because he is who he is, makes it sound relevant.
One singular moment shows that director Edwards — who is known only for his small-scale, indie sci-fi movie Monsters — had some big-time mojo. He wanted to make this mostly-made-in-Canada production more emotional than just another big monster movie. At one critical point, Taylor-Johnson is in the foreground, with Godzilla’s bloodied head nearby in a cloud of dust. The two have a “moment” as two creatures communing in a crisis. It is actually kind of beautiful.
But, once again, this Godzilla does not do everything for all audiences. There is too much of the people on-screen and not enough of one of our favourite movie monsters of all time.