Sometimes movies can be a fascinating affair; not for what they get right but for what they get wrong. Take the crop of monster movies that have been stomping into theaters the last few years. There’s a new bunch of filmmakers who have been inspired by the Japanese kaiju movies that were mainstays of late-night television many moons ago.
Modern creators have strip-mined most of the bombastic bits and assembled some really pedestrian fare. Last year’s “Pacific Rim” is a perfect example—a movie that got a universal pass from the geek crowd because it featured both giant robots and sea monsters punching the hell out of one another. No one seemed to care that it was an idiotic, poorly acted, mess of a flick because it delivered visceral thrills. There was so much wrong with “Pacific Rim” that it seemed amazing it was made by so-called fans of the kaiju film.
1998’s big-budget remake of “Godzilla” was another fine example of filmmakers who just didn’t get the source material. It’s the kind of shallow, cliché-ridden monstrosity that was universally rejected for being so off the mark. It failed on nearly every conceivable level because the creative team thought the core of a monster movie is the monster and the destruction wrought from its wrath. They’re the same mistakes made in “Cloverfield”: an attempt to marry the monster movie and the found-footage genre. No matter how much someone loves giant monsters smashing skyscrapers, that will never be enough sustain a two-hour movie.
The latest take on “Godzilla” from Gareth Edwards (“Monsters”) gets so much right. He has an understanding of the genre that seems lost on so many of his contemporaries. He crafts an exceptional movie that is so much more than pointless destruction.
Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a scientist working at a nuclear power plant in Tokyo. Seismic activities are wreaking havoc with the reactor. Before they can figure out the cause, a disaster releases deadly radiation that kills Joe’s wife. Her senseless death has driven him to the verge of madness. Fifteen years later Joe is still seeking out the cause of her death, convinced the government is covering up something sinister. Joe’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has become estranged from his obsessed father, and makes a half-hearted attempt to get him to abandon his research and leave Japan. Instead, Joe convinces Ford to help him break into the quarantine zone to find his old research. As it turns out, Joe isn’t crazy and what they discover is even crazier.
There are a lot of little twists and turns I don’t want to give away because a lot of the fun of “Godzilla” come from the surprises. This is not the “Godzilla” movie I was expecting. It’s far heavier, a lot less hokey, and tense as hell. I’m amazed how well Gareth Edwards was able to very slowly and methodically ratchet up tension throughout the movie.
There’s a great feeling of dread throughout, and I can’t remember a blockbuster where the odds felt so horribly stacked against humanity. Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” comes to mind—a movie where everyone feels expendable and the death toll skyrockets quickly. So many blockbusters nowadays feel like loud roller coaster rides, constantly shifting speed up and down with poorly paced spectacles that feel like excuses to connect over-indulgent set pieces. “Godzilla” achieves that level of extremity, but plays it’s hand slowly and methodically. The movie is one giant upward swing that keeps getting bigger and bigger until the final act when audiences get the kind of city-smashing release they expect from a movie featuring skyscraper-sized monsters.
The movie gets a little heavy handed at times, with lots of talk about man’s arrogance and how insignificant we truly are. There are characters who exist solely for expository purposes, but the roles are all filled with quality actors who over-deliver on the material. Ken Watanabe is exceptional as a “beleaguered scientist dealing with extinction-level events.” David Strathairn brings some added humanity to the stock role of “high-ranking American military officer forced to make tough choices.” And Elizabeth Olsen is quite charming as “love interest.”
It’s not all perfect, but it does so much right. It’s a movie that will please a lot of people and annoy the hell out of anyone expecting instant gratification; it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a love letter to a genre of films that has deserved this respectful of an adaptation since 1954. For what it is, “‘Godzilla’ is practically perfect.”
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Bryan Cranston
Directed by Gareth Edwards