Film review: Godzilla

Even Godzilla's opening credits are riveting, tantalising us with nuclear testing imagery, glimpses of the monster, and hints of a mysterious cover-up, all dating back to 1954.

Even Godzilla's opening credits are riveting, tantalising us with nuclear testing imagery, glimpses of the monster, and hints of a mysterious cover-up, all dating back to 1954.

Godzilla

(M) ****

Director: Gareth Edwards.

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche.

OVER 60 years and roughly 30 films, Godzilla has gained a reputation as the most fearsome of the kaiju (a Japanese word that means "monster" and which has become a genre of movies unto itself).

The reality is that Godzilla hasn't been the "king of monsters" for a long time. The last Japanese Godzilla film was made 10 years ago and it flopped, while America's last attempt resulted in Roland Emmerich's 1998 Razzie-winning disaster which did well at the box office but copped such a critical hiding that the studio gave up on making sequels.

It must be said that even the original films from the '50s, while influential, are at best pieces of schlocky fun that don't hold up terribly well today. Born of nuclear fears in a post-Hiroshima Japan, they served a purpose and are great party movies, but they don't stand as cinematic classics, like say the 1933 original of King Kong.

With all that in mind, why would anyone try to make another Godzilla movie and how could anyone possibly make one that's any good?

I have no idea about the "why" but Gareth Edwards found a way to make Godzilla awesome again. This version is everything Emmerich hoped his 1998 version would be, and everything Guillermo del Toro was wishing his kaiju dud Pacific Rim would be, but Edwards sidesteps all the dumb mistakes those directors made to deliver something weirdly relevant, sporadically jaw-dropping, and that lets us care about its characters, including the big building-smasher himself.

Even the opening credits are riveting, tantalising us with nuclear testing imagery, glimpses of Godzilla, and hints of a mysterious cover-up, all dating back to 1954. Then it opens proper in 1999, where Joe Brody (Cranston) and his wife Sandy (Binoche) endure the worst day of their lives at the nuclear plant where they work in Japan.

It leaves Joe a broken man struggling to connect with his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) and in the present day they are estranged - Ford having joined the navy and started a family, while Joe still lives in Japan where he tries to uncover the truth about what happened on that fateful day in 1999. 

This is the point where the film proclaims "Here be monsters!" but it does so in unexpected ways. It never scrimps on the action but relentlessly teases and hints at its big reveals to make them all the more impressive when they finally arrive. When you finally see Godzilla about halfway into proceedings, you realise you've been on the edge of your seat waiting for this moment for an hour. Edwards deals out his big moments sparingly, building to its mega-kaiju climax.

The best part is you really care about the climax because you care about Godzilla. The trick of King Kong was that we cared about the monster, and Edwards is aware of this and realises it's part of what made that film work.

But on a human level, this reboot also ticks boxes because we have humans with real concerns and fears and emotions for us to empathise with, unlike the caricatures that ran around screaming in Emmerich's Godzilla or the collections of bad clichés that populated Pacific Rim. 

Taylor-Johnson does a great job in a role that is a mix of rejected son, desperate father, and action hero, while Cranston gets to walk the fine line between madman and genius in his brief moments. Olsen also does well, but it's a shame Watanabe doesn't have more to do than looked stunned for the entire film and that Strathairn is reduced to token military man. Thankfully the emotions of the film revolve around Taylor-Johnson and Olsen.

As such, their parts bring Godzilla back to being a disaster film instead of a straight-out rock-'em-sock-'em kaiju battle. Edwards spends a long time focusing on the fall out and the ground level struggles happening as a result of the monster mash that's going on (something del Toro also forgot to do). It gives the film context and another reason to care about the characters and what's going on. 

On a broader level, the script acknowledges the nuclear age fears that powered the original films in the '50s - fears that seem particularly relevant given the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. There are also ideas about man being powerless in the face of nature - a theme that never goes out of fashion.

Of course, there are holes and plot points and silly things along the way (Watanabe's character is apparently at least 70 years old, and typically the military have no idea what the hell they are doing), but they are merely mild annoyances rather than deal-breakers in the face of some genuinely exciting and cheer-worthy spectacle.

Edwards has made both an enjoyable modern kaiju film and an impressive disaster movie at the same time. Surely this is a feat of Godzilla-sized proportions.

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