Godzilla (2014)

The King of Monsters returns for another atomic blast of glory in the new big budget American blockbuster reboot!

This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the release of the original “Gojira” in 1954, and over the course of all those decades the Japanese thunder lizard has starred in 30 films and one misguided Hollywood disaster, making him arguably the biggest movie star in the world. After defeating Mothra, King Ghidorha, King Kong, Mechagodzilla, Destroyah and dozens of other mutated behemoths, his biggest foes proved to be Hollywood hacks, producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, who nearly wrecked his big screen movie career with their gigantic dinosaur turd in 1998.

It has taken 15 years to get the foul taste of that cinematic atomic bomb out of the collective mouths of movie fans everywhere, and now finally after the long grace period, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures have put their faith in neophyte director, Gareth Edwards, whose sole other feature directing credit was the low budget, “Monsters” (2010), in hopes that he can return the King of Monsters to his rightful throne both at the box-office and in the hearts of movie fans.

Needless to say, Godzilla has some really, really big shoes to fill. Does Edwards have the gargantuan talent to pull it off?

Mostly, yes!

Bad dubbing, hack-and-slash editing and Mystery Science Theater spoofing has soiled the reputation of the big lizard over the years, and the sequels admittedly got wilder and sillier as they began to chase the almighty box-office dollar and appeal to younger and younger children, but it didn’t start out that way. “Gojira” (1954) remains a somber and serious allegory for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Edwards has chosen to return Godzilla to his more thoughtful, mournful roots.

However, he also draws inspiration from the numerous sequels and realizes that audiences enjoy a good monster bash, so he introduces not one, but two giant creatures called MUTOs for Godzilla to battle. Like in several of the Godzilla films of the late 1970s where Godzilla had become something of a superhero that audiences liked to cheer on, here the King of Monsters is a balancing “force of nature” that awakens from his ancient slumber not to destroy humanity, but to protect the earth from being overrun by these evil MUTO parasites.

Jaws” and “Jurassic Park” are clearly influences on Edwards’ “Godzilla,” both of those films keeping their star creatures off screen for most of the movie, but giving their eventual on screen moments maximum impact. In the case of “Jaws,” this became a necessity because the mechanical shark wasn’t working and in “Jurassic Park,” the effects crew could only afford a small amount of the brand new computer generated technology used to bring the dinosaurs to life.

Today, teasing the audience with the presence of the lurking monster and building tension and suspense requires a great deal more restraint from the filmmakers because computer technology has given them the ability to show anything they want as much as they want. This can easily result in splattering the screen with so much spectacular computer generated mayhem that the audience just glazes over in sensory overload.

Here, Edwards holds back his monsters for the first hour of the film in the hopes that when he finally unleashes them upon the screen that they will have built up the power to shock and amaze a jaded popcorn munching crowd. He mostly succeeds, but I can’t help but feel he holds the reigns just a wee bit too long.

At the point when the full scale radioactive star of the film finally fills the screen in his first big close-up, the audience in the screening I attended roared with approval right along with Godzilla, but Edwards immediately reverts back to the hide-and-seek technique of only showing the monster in TV news clips for the next 20 minutes, and I could feel the energy of the audience deflate.

When Godzilla takes on the MUTOs in San Francisco in the film’s climax, Edwards delivers an eye-popping old school monster bash in astonishing photo real glory, but for some less patient viewers it might be too little too late.

The human part of the story involves nuclear plant manager, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), dealing with a nuclear accident that took the life of his wife (Juliette Binoche) and left he and his young son with broken lives. Fifteen years later, Brody’s son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has become a Special Forces bomb disposal expert with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child of his own. When his father finds himself in trouble overseas for trespassing into the nuclear quarantine zone in search of the truth about the accident that he believes the government is hiding, Ford uses his military access to get him out of jail.

As father and son, they begin to mend their strained relationship as they set off to find the truth together. Cranston delivers a powerful dramatic performance, but like the other star of the film, his screen time is a bit too brief. Taylor-Johnson takes on the action hero role that keeps him the central character of the film, but unfortunately his performance is a little too one note to be particularly engaging.

In the 60 years that he has been featured on theater marquees, no one has ever paid to see a Godzilla movie to appreciate the human drama, so it’s not a deal breaker that the human drama here isn’t always completely compelling. At least Edwards creates a human story that can be taken seriously.

The new, bulkier Godzilla design is a winner, and the King of Monsters is given a scrappy personality worth rooting for. I didn’t care as much for the MUTO designs, which in some way reminded me of the “Cloverfield” monster, but their glowing red, visor like eyes kind of also reminded me the classic Toho titan, Gigan, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Godzilla” (2014) goes a long way in healing the wounds created by the first Hollywood attempt to give the giant radioactive lizard a summer blockbuster career. Based on the cheers and applause I heard in the theater this weekend, I think Godzilla has at least another 60 years of atomic breath left in him.

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