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May 16, 2014

There’s a reason Godzilla is called “King of the Monsters”. And yet there’s never been a good American adaptation. The name conjures up cheap, corny Japanese B-movies aired on television to fill late-night timeslots, or Roland Emmerich’s ill-fated 1998 version with Matthew Broderick. But now comes Gareth Edwards, fresh off the acclaim of Monsters, to try his hand. His new Godzilla isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid, action-packed kaiju flick that stands among the best of Toho’s offerings.

Ironically, a giant monster movie stands or falls on the strength of the human characters. Too much emphasis on monster battles, or too much silliness on the parts of the humans, and the movie degenerates into camp. The human story is, I admit, one of the weaker parts of Godzilla, but it’s at least there and serviceable enough to support the rest without becoming a joke.

Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a navy bomb technician spending too much time away from his wife (future Age of Ultron co-star Elizabeth Olsen) and son in San Francisco. Ford was partly raised in Japan where his father, Joe (Bryan Cranston), was an engineer at the Janjira nuclear plant before it was destroyed in a mysterious accident in 1999. Fifteen years later, Joe is still traumatized by the loss of his wife, and he haunts the area, convinced that there’s more to it than a simple earthquake and meltdown.

Ford goes to pick up his father after yet another arrest for trespassing in the quarantined zone around the plant. They both go back in to try to find Joe’s old records from their house, only to realize that there’s no background radiation at all. And then they’re swiftly arrested and brought to the plant. Something has been cocooned there for the last fifteen years, feeding on radiation until it’s ready to burst forth as a giant insectoid monster, heading east.

Ford hops onto a U.S. aircraft carrier, where he meets two scientists from the Monarch foundation (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins), who are advising the commanding admiral (David Strathairn). The creature is dubbed a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object or “Muto”, but that’s just the start. It seems to have awakened Godzilla, Monarch’s real purpose, from his sixty-year undersea slumber. And so the chase is on to find both Godzilla and the Muto, determine their purpose, and try to stop them.

Pitting Godzilla against another monster is a large part of why this film works where the 1998 version failed. Without something like the jaegers from Pacific Rim, it’s impossible to place human beings and Godzilla in the same scale. And without the heavy metaphorical layer of the 1954 original it’s hard to make the story very interesting with that kind of mismatch.

But here we have giant monster battles, and they are awesome, with plenty of amazing and brutal moves to talk over as the credits roll. The monsters are obviously CGI rather than rubber-suit creations, but something in the motion capture manages to recall the classic Godzilla monsters. Even the flying Muto seems to move more like Rodan or King Ghidorah than a real flying creature would. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out they’ve actually used a hybrid technique, with rubber suits and marionettes providing the motion to be captured and rendered with slick computer graphics.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the people. Strathairn and Watanabe are perfect in their roles, but they’re more here for exposition than for the real emotional core of the film. Olsen and Cranston are much better at that, but neither one is on screen enough. The bulk of the narrative is shouldered by Taylor-Johnson, who brings all the charisma of an action figure, which is a real shame after his work in Kick Ass.

Still, there have been far worse human-level stories in Godzilla films before, like in the Heisei series. The story may not be the most emotionally engaging here, but it’s good enough. And with wonderfully moody scenes throughout — the HALO insertion sequence is, start to finish, one of the most darkly beautiful in any blockbuster — there’s plenty for both Godzilla fans and newcomers to love.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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