Godzilla reboot a smashing success
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Spider-Man whimpers and pouts. Captain America is burdened with terminal nostalgia and guilt. Iron Man cracks jokes to hide his various insecurities. The X-Men might as well be a weepy soap opera sandwiched between commercials of Dove chocolate and furniture polish. Modern superheroes have a terminal case of the feels.
And now here’s Godzilla, the Gary Cooper of reptilian megabeasts. He doesn’t require love, or acceptance, or even, apparently, food. He simply shows up, stomps the monster poop out of rival titans and calls it a day. The scaly skyscraper-sized dragon is the existential answer to a generation of overwritten superheroes who are given only enough story to get them from Explosion A to Explosion B. Finally, here’s a superhero that requires none of that. He has no dialogue, no girflfriend (or boyfriend?), no history, no origin story, no comic tic, no witty banter — he is gloriously two-dimensional.
You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t know Godzilla was a superhero. I didn’t either. This little twist is the big new addition to Gareth Edwards’ nifty Godzilla reboot: he’s taken the Kaiju genre and skewed it a little in humanity’s favor by making Godzilla mankind’s savior. In the Japanese films, and the mediocre American remakes, Godzilla would stomp on humans, flatten nun-filled churches, crush elementary schools, vaporize whole city blocks and snack on commuter-filled traincars like pistachios. That kind of bad behavior is frowned upon in the new Godzilla in favor of placid acceptance of man’s dominion.
The film begins with energy honcho Joe Brody attempting to stop a catastrophic emergency at a Japanese nuclear plant. Irradiated steam blasts through the industrial corridors and the cooling towers crumble, and he can do nothing but watch as workers, one of them his wife, are trapped in a toxic plume of radiation. Fifteen years later, Joe returns to the disaster’s exclusion zone — now an overgrown and unpopulated city of vines and rubble — to poke around for buried secrets. He’s joined by his skeptic son, Ford Brody, a name that is far too interesting for a character this bland. Papa Brody suspects authorities are keeping a secret in the footprint of the old nuclear plant … and of course they are.
Sucking off the old reactor cores is a giant cocoon that has been having mild contractions for years and then, on the very night Joe and Ford show up, it hatches. The MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that smashes out of the cocoon looks like the abnormally large baby of the Cloverfield monster and one of those Klendathu bugs from Starship Troopers — thankfully, a sex scene doesn’t illustrate the MUTO’s lineage. The giant creepy-crawly proceeds to destroy the exclusion zone before flying to Hawaii and then to San Francisco on his American destructo-tour.
Joe is played by Bryan Cranston, the sympathetic Breaking Bad star who is more likable and engaging than Aaron Taylor-John (Kick-Ass), the piece of soggy cardboard playing his son. Not since any Taylor Kitsch movie has an actor been so unfit for a leading role. Really, though, lots of actors are given pointless roles: Ken Watanabe spends much of the movie on the verge of tears; Sally Hawkins, so great in quirky British comedies, spends a lot of time looking off camera; David Strathairn plays the obligatory military commander; and poor Elizabeth Olsen, the critical darling, is trapped in a subway shelter with nothing to do.
The human characters chew the scenery for much of the first half of the movie as Edwards obscures Godzilla off screen, in shadows or in clouds of dust made of building materials and, presumably, human bodies. In an early scene, the frame is filled with Godzilla’s giant toeless turtle/elephant foot and that tiny glimpse feels like a generous gift. Hiding the monster is Edwards’ devious little ploy and it mostly works. Godzilla geeks will cry that the film didn’t feature a Playboy-style pictorial with 40-minutes of freezeframes and camera pans up the monster’s huge body. I enjoyed the mystery, and found that the effect made the final battlecry more fist-pumpingly magnificent.
It is funny, though, how Godzilla just kinda shows up during the first fight with MUTO and then the camera cuts away, denying the audience that first big battle. After MUTO flees to the West Coast, Godzilla goes for a swim that is basically a very long morning commute. He’s flanked by battleships, aircraft carriers and Navy destroyers as he casually lizard-paddles through the Pacific while MUTO and his recently hatched girlfriend terrorize California. And, aside from those jagged armor plates cutting through the Pacific Ocean with their Navy entourage, that’s all you see of the iconic monster for like 40 minutes. It’s a tease. An effective one.
Despite not knowing how to utilize its actors, Godzilla is not overly complicated like so many other big-budget action extravaganzas. The humans try some questionable stunts with nuclear weapons, but otherwise there is little holding the movie together other than the familiar faces the movie has chosen to follow and the lure of monster-on-monster boxing. That simplicity is a refreshing element to its composition. It also helps that Edwards, who cut his teeth on the noteworthy Monsters, provides some clever sequences, including a Spielbergian scene with soldiers checking radiation vaults in Yucca Mountain. They walk through a hallway opening little hatches that look into dark nuclear storage lockers. After several uneventful vaults, one soldier opens a port and light pours out revealing a terrifying segue into the next sequence.
In another scene, this one from 32,000 feet up, soldiers skydive into the gaping maw of MUTO’s hellish destruction. Red smoke trailing from flares attached to their ankles, the soldiers punch through the first layer of clouds as Alexandre Desplat’s haunting soundtrack — reminiscent of György Ligeti’s score from 2001: A Space Odyssey — builds from a gentle whistle to a seismic scream. These images served as early poster art, and you can see why here in the larger context of the film: it’s the first moment we finally see Godzilla doing his thing and the skydiving build-up serves as an appropriate red-carpet entrance to the event.
I’m not a Godzilla purist, so I can’t speak to how Godzilla’s legacy is protected here. I always liked the nuclear paranoia of the original films — a result of American atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II — and that’s all mostly absent here, though I don’t think it hurts the overall canon. If anything harms the Kaiju legacy, it’s the way Godzilla is seen as the world’s hero, not its villain. The people of San Francisco pretty much give him a sloppy valentine for his role in the destruction of their city. A shot of the mayor drafting a comically long bill for the damages, sadly, does not appear in the post-credits sequence.
Still though, I’m thoroughly impressed at Godzilla's overall size and power, and the breadth of his destruction and ruin. It felt like a Godzilla movie in almost every way, including that scene where he spews electric-blue atomic barf into the broken mouth of his adversary. That moment, punctuated by that trademarked roar, is the high-water mark of the movie’s sonic awesomness.
And any time you can write “spews electric-blue atomic barf” in a positive review is a film worth celebrating. Cheers, Godzilla.