Godzilla

Cast:
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ford Brody
Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa
Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody
Elizabeth Olsen as Elle Brody
Carson Bolde as Sam Brody
Sally Hawkins as Vivienne Graham
Juliette Binoche as Sandra Brody
David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz
Richard T. Jones as Captain Russell Hampton
Victor Rasuk as Sergeant Tre Morales
Patrick Sabongui as Lieutenant Commander Marcus Waltz

Directed by Gareth Edwards

Summary:
Despite a slow build and frustrating teases, the new “Godzilla” is a fun popcorn flick that should please longtime fans of the King of Monsters. It remains true to the heart of the original films while taking full advantage of modern effects, sound systems, and cinematography.

Story:
At the dawn of the Atomic Age, new sources of radioactivity from atomic bombs to nuclear power plants have secretly awoken massive creatures that have lain dormant since the time of the dinosaurs. From the 1950s on, mankind has secretly been tracking the creatures and fighting them all over the world.

None of this is known to Joe and Sandra Brody, two nuclear engineers working at a power plant in Japan in 1999. When an unseen force destroys the plant and kills Sandra in a lethal dose of radiation, Joe and his young son Ford must flee the area. The entire city is declared a quarantine zone.

Fifteen years later, Ford is now in the U.S. military with a family of his own in San Francisco. Unfortunately, his father has spent all that time obsessively trying to figure out what attacked the power plant and killed his wife. As he follows his conspiracy theories and he attempts to trespass on the quarantine zone, Ford is called back to Japan to bail his father out of jail, but little does he realize that Joe may be onto something and that a much, much bigger threat looms in the near future.

“Godzilla” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.

What Worked:
I am a lifelong Godzilla fan. I watched all the movies I could in the ’70s and ’80s. I religiously watched the Saturday morning cartoon, read the Marvel comics, and bought all the toys. When I went to Japan, I specifically sought out Godzilla toys to bring home. I frequently play the Blue Oyster Cult song just for the heck of it. I’ve since brainwashed my own young sons into becoming Godzilla fans as well. So I’ve long waited for an American Godzilla film that got it right. I think Gareth Edwards finally delivered what I’ve been looking for.

Despite the big budget and stunning CGI, this film is still very much a Godzilla film at heart. He slowly rises out of the water in a triumphant arrival. When he battles another giant monster, he takes him out in signature wrestling moves. He has the familiar roar which is all the more impressive with modern theater sound systems. There are other Godzilla trademarks that you would expect to see which I won’t spoil here. And, surprisingly, he’s not simply treated as a faceless force of destruction. The King of Monsters has personality like the rubber-suited original. Kids will walk out of theaters thinking of Godzilla as a hero rather than something to have nightmares about. That is exactly what the original Japanese films have tried to do over the years.

While the 1999 “Godzilla” changed the design of the creature to the point that it was almost unrecognizable as Godzilla, this version makes the necessary tweaks while still making him familiar. He’s got the giant back spikes, the similar stance, and the long tail, but where they do depart from the original, it works well. Godzilla looks solid, all muscle, and like a brawler. And the new creature, called M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), has a great design. While there are elements reminiscent of the “Cloverfield” monster, we get significantly better looks at it. Edwards manages to give it some personality as well while still clearly making it the ‘bad guy.’ In short, all of the changes work well.

My son told me that when he watches a Godzilla movie, he just fast forwards to the parts where the Big Guy shows up. That’s somewhat the case here, too, but the human cast still manages to keep things interesting. I’m a fan of Bryan Cranston, so seeing him as Joe Brody was a treat. He had the unenviable task of being the focus of the film until the monsters showed up, yet he keeps the story engaging. Godzilla movies always have a slow build up to the final battle, but his performance kept me interested and helped sell what would otherwise be a preposterous concept for a film. The rest of the cast is adequate, but honestly they are not called on to do all that much beyond deliver exposition and stare while looking stunned.

As you probably gathered from the trailers, Gareth Edwards has some really beautiful imagery in this film. You’ve already seen the great shots of the skydivers freefalling into San Francisco, but in the film you get a first person view as they fall right next to Godzilla’s ticked off face. It’s a great moment. The M.U.T.O. is also beautifully terrifying as we see it snacking away on a nuclear submarine. The reveal of it is beautifully choreographed. And an encounter with the M.U.T.O. on a train trestle gives you one of the best views of the creature and one of the most frightening. Then as Godzilla makes his way through clouds of dust and his tail swirls through smoke, it’s a great sight to behold. Overall, this is not only the most cinematic and beautifully shot Godzilla movie made to date, it’s one of the better ones of 2014.

I also have to give recognition to the score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s delightfully reminiscent of the big, bombastic score from the original “Godzilla.” Yet it never takes away from the CGI spectacle on the screen. It adds to it. I just wish the Blue Oyster Cult song had been played during the credits.

What Didn’t Work:
When I heard Gareth Edwards was making “Godzilla,” I wondered about one thing. I loved his film “Monsters,” but it had an agonizingly slow build up to the reveal of the creatures. When we did get to see them, they were very impressive, but it was clear Edwards liked to slowly build anticipation for the ‘big reveal.’ Well, he sticks with that strategy in “Godzilla” as well. It takes somewhere around an hour for Godzilla to show up, and when he does, we only get to see little clips of him until the big final battle. To make matters worse, there are several occasions where Godzilla and the M.U.T.O. suddenly dive into battle… and the camera cuts away. My son actually yelled out in the theater, “Oh, COME ON!!” the second time they did this. It’s quite clear that Edwards is teasing the audience (or at least saving visual effects dollars), but it is a tad unsatisfying.

And as much as I enjoyed this Godzilla movie, I have to concede that the giant monster battles in “Pacific Rim” were bigger, badder, and generally more impressive. The big battle in this film is pretty much anti-climactic by comparison. Don’t get me wrong – it is still cool and there are moments to cheer, but the “Pacific Rim” fights were better. Luckily there is enough good stuff here to make you immediately want a sequel as soon as the credits roll.

The rest of this is nitpicking, but here goes. The movie early on establishes that the U.S. has a long history of fighting giant monsters and Godzilla in particular. Yet they seem completely lost and caught flat footed when they turn up in the present day. Don’t you think they would have some monster fighting plan in place? Then in another scene, San Francisco is being attacked by giant monsters. As the M.U.T.O. flies by an office building, we see people sitting at their desks and working at computers surprised as they fly by. What were they doing? Blogging the monster fight? Why not evacuate? There are tons of other inconsistencies in this movie that seem like they could be easily addressed, but you eventually just have to say, “This is a movie about a giant lizard. Get over it.”

Finally, this “Godzilla” movie lacks one thing – humor. It’s played so straight and serious the entire time. There’s not a single character that’s any sort of comic relief to ease the tension. Now I’m not saying it needed to be as campy as the 1999 “Godzilla,” but a one liner from Ford Brody or any other character at some point would have been OK in my book.

The Bottom Line:
Godzilla fans should be happy with this newest version. It’s true to the original while taking full advantage of modern effects and cinematography. As my youngest son declared, this was his favorite of all of the Godzilla movies. It’s also a great start for the summer popcorn flicks.

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