The satisfying “Godzilla” loads up on acclaimed actors (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, Golden Globe winner Sally Hawkins), but makes it clear there is only one star.
Director Gareth Edwards ( “Monsters”) gives Godzilla a piecemeal, slow-build introduction reserved for the most glamorous screen figures. There’s a little leg here, a hint of tail there, and finally those enticing back scales emerging from the ocean as the shoreline floods.
By the time the monster appears in full, we have seen too much of a different, lesser monster, and too many shots of Cranston in a broke-down wig (ostensibly to cover up his Walter White baldness). But rather than frustrate, the wait enhances the delight at finally seeing this next-generation Godzilla, a glorious, 30-story-high monster that looks like a muscular boxer wearing a mountain-range suit.
Then Godzilla opens his mouth, the tin-can rattle of his roar from the original Godzilla film, 1954’s “Gojira,” deepened by bass-enhanced 2014 sound technology. The film’s 3-D presentation feels like it’s sending sound waves through the screen, if that’s possible.
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But this snazzy, technologically advanced Godzilla remains just old-school enough to evoke the nostalgia of his Saturday TV matinee appearances. The face is familiar, and Edwards and his CGI artists lend a hesitancy to Godzilla’s movement that suggests more-rudimentary animations.
Like “Gojira,” a Japanese-made allegory for nuclear dangers release just nine years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the new film ties the emergence of long-dormant prehistoric monsters to radiation exposure.
The message is less elegant here, though, as it extends past Godzilla to two radiation-gobbling MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) that look more “Alien” than Mothra, and to the U.S. military fighting the monsters with nuclear weapons – a seemingly coals-to-Newcastle approach.
More resonant is a Japanese nuclear plant accident in which Cranston’s physicist character, Joe, loses his wife and fellow scientist (Binoche). Though the movie incident happens in 1999, it cannot help but evoke the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Alluding to a real-life tragedy in a monster movie could seem tacky or inappropriate, but it doesn’t. Playing off real-life disaster is a “Godzilla” tradition, and this film’s involvement of a force greater than ourselves – a 355-foot-high scaly one who hates the MUTOs as much as people do – in a man-made crisis ultimately will prove a comforting idea.
But enough of anti-nuke messages and metaphors. We came to see things get smashed. “Godzilla” delivers.
Las Vegas, Honolulu and San Francisco take poundings, with chunks of buildings made dust by errant tails or mano-a-mano MUTO-Godzilla fights. (If the San Francisco scenes look off, it’s because they were shot in British Columbia).
Edwards often shoots from the ground, enhancing a feeling of human smallness in monsters’ presences. He also ratchets up tension with scenes of people trying to outrun something, whether it’s a tidal wave or smoky plumes of radiation.
One runner is Binoche, but her character cannot beat the radiation, and her husband must close a security door separating the irradiated from the healthy during the plant accident. Through a window in the door, she asks Joe to take care of their son, Ford.
Instead, as we see when the film jumps forward 15 years, Joe went full whistleblower/kook. He’s convinced the accident was not caused by a natural disaster, as was the official word, but something else.
He has papered his walls with newspaper clippings and alienated his son, who grew up to be the buff, bland Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”). Ford is a Navy bomb disarmer (yes, that skill comes in handy in “Godzilla”; monster-movie characters rarely are accountants or master brewers). Ford lives in San Francisco with his nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen, also blah) and their own young son.
Taylor-Johnson and Olsen might simply lack the experience to pull off the delicate balancing act of monster-movie acting. Cranston, by contrast, achieves it, as do Hawkins and Ken Watanabe, who play scientists, and David Strathairn, as an admiral. These actors find a tone just between overly grave and hysterical. This line separating high drama from camp was established in “Gojira” and has not failed since.
It’s a tone set by actors who can set a scene without drawing too much attention to themselves. It says, “Yes, I took this job for the money, but I will do my best to keep things interesting until Godzilla next appears.”