In many ways Godzilla is a strange beast. Beyond the fact that he’s a bipedal reptile who breathes fire and stands as tall as a building, I mean. The original kaiju began its cinematic career as a metaphor for the very real, very sobering nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, but it evolved very rapidly into a heroic, monster-fighting superstar with subplots involving time travel and kooky moth cults. It would be tempting to return Godzilla completely to its dead-serious roots with this modern remake, Batman Begins-inating a franchise that had long since become synonymous with camp, but that wouldn’t be very much fun, now would it?
Fortunately, director Gareth Edwards seems to understand that a sense of balance is in order, and has therefore directed a new Godzilla that succeeds in both having its cake and stomping on it too. The first half of Godzilla is human, suspenseful and dramatic, and the second half segues – albeit a little awkwardly – into a series of breathtaking monster brawls that are simultaneously a little ridiculous and also tons of melodramatic fun.
Moreover, Edwards succeeds in finding new ways to both show this action in all of its glory and also cut away from it at clever moments. The resulting film manages to deliver all the big crowd-pleasing moments we want from our blockbuster devastation epics and leave us wanting more, in the best possible way. Godzilla gives us all the Godzilla we need; any more would be simply exhausting, just another tiresome parade of video game cinematics devoid of emotion or showmanship.
But before the battle can begin, the stage must first be set. The carcass of an enormous leviathan is discovered at a mining site, but something inside of it has hatched and makes its way for Japan, where Bryan Cranston and his wife Juliette Binoche are running a nuclear power station. Tragedy strikes but… wait, where’s the monster?
Anyway, years later, Cranston is a conspiracy-obsessed kook with “crazy” ideas about what actually caused the disaster and his son has grown up to be Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a military explosives expert (just go with it) who is more than a little embarrassed by dad’s outlandish attempts to prove his theories. Funny thing though… when they visit the site of the tragedy, the military is already there and guarding a big glowing monster-looking thing that’s HOLY CRAP RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!
What follows is a tour of the Pacific Ocean and its adjacent landmasses that reduces every single city that Aaron Taylor-Johnson just happens to visit to rubble. Coincidences pile up, a scientist played by Ken Watanabe develops a quasi-religious faith that Godzilla will save the planet (for, presumably, reasons), and there’s an ongoing micro-subplot that implies that Godzilla and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are total bros. Towards the end, our human hero is trudging his way through a smoldering San Francisco when our monster hero falls to the ground beside him, and they exchange a look that can only be interpreted one way: “Mondays, am I right?”
And yet the striking, ominous cinematography and absolute sincerity from the entire cast makes even the most ludicrous moments in Godzilla seem plausible, if only while you’re watching them. Godzilla impressively captures the enormous scale of the kaiju genre like few (if any) movies ever have, developing a mostly effective human drama along the way and exploiting the nuttier aspects of this franchise only as much as necessary to make this Godzilla movie actually feel like a proper entry in the long-running series.
It’s hard to turn a nigh-Lovecraftian behemoth into a good guy we love as much if not more than our human cast, but Godzilla succeeds without reducing the title character into a cartoon. He is a monster, through and through, but one who defends the Earth when it suits him, and I hope to see him kicking ass on the big screen again and again and again.