Godzilla (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on May 16, 2014

In the pure, visceral fashion of Steven Spielberg's 1975 and 1993 opuses, "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park," "Godzilla," an update of perhaps the most famous movie monster of all time, discards the dull bombast of its Roland Emmerich-directed 1998 counterpart in favor of a slow build toward the third-act brawl between the titular creature and two--if possible--less friendly ones. Fortunately, this summer-movie pleasure doesn't come at the expense of the human moments in Max Borenstein's screenplay, which focuses first on the build-up to Godzilla's (or Gojira's, depending on one's pronunciation) arrival, concurrent with those of two other monsters, then on the military's plan to wipe them all out.

It's a simple structure with which Borenstein is working and which he treats with a surprising complexity. It begins in 1999 in the Philippines, as Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), scientists who have been tracking seismic activity, unearth a massive skeleton. An implosion at a nuclear power plant in nearby Janjira, Japan, followed similar seismic activity, and its tragic ramifications (Bryan Cranston, strong with limited screen time, plays a worker at the facility named Joe Brody, whose wife Sandra, played by Juliette Binoche, is killed by the incident) dictate the events of 15 years later (Do the math, and you're absolutely right the year to which the film fast-forwards).

Joe and Sandra's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and their son Sam (Carson Bolde) have reunited after 14 months' separation on Ford's part; he is a lieutenant in the United States Navy. Happenstance brings him back to the now-deserted nuclear power plant in Janjira when Joe is arrested for trespassing, and when they discover further cover-up on the part of the local and U.S. governments to hide what is really happening, the repercussions are massive. An enormous, winged creature emerges from a cocoon, something else rumbles ("responds," according to Dr. Serizawa) in the deep, and the admiral (David Strathairn) leading the charge against these creatures is at a loss for rational options, even as they stare him in the face.

The remainder of "Godzilla" is more conventional than what came before, but Borenstein and director Gareth Edwards insist upon instilling a desperate humanity in the face of considerable destruction. Mere "9/11 imagery" (a dim complaint about an aspect of cinematic special effects blowouts that holds weight when done well), this is not, though the theme of "Godzilla" lore, stretching all the way back to the 1954 original, has always been sociological in nature. There is certainly an urgency when Edwards zeroes in upon news footage (even when, at one point, it is used as a morbidly amusing punchline). When taken merely as scenes of monsters pummeling each other, there is awe inspired; even in 3-D, Seamus McGarvey's cinematography is quite lush, and Bob Ducsay's editing is strangely serene, even when juxtaposed with the otherworldly sound design and Alexandre Desplat's score.

The actors are mainly here to connect us with the human plight, rather than for three-dimensionalization or complex human drama. Taylor-Johnson is a solid guide through the events of the second half of the film, while Watanabe sells Dr. Serizawa's years of exhaustive and exhausting search for the beast and Strathairn is a steadfast presence as the admiral just trying to hold it together. "Godzilla" really delivers, though, upon the promise of simple but haunting set-up: the glimpse of a monstrous presence (The visual effects, indeed, are impressively detailed for each monster on display), a pause to wait for an arrival from a long tunnel, the moments before the operators of tanks must fire upon the unknown beasts. The payoff is all the more dramatically potent for waiting it out, and, yes, it's worth the extended cameo Godzilla himself makes in the proceedings.

Film Information

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Elizabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ichiro Serizawa), Sally Hawkins (Vivienne Graham), David Strathairn (Adm. William Stenz), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Anthony Konechny (Thach), Victor Rasuk (Sgt. Tre Morales), Richard T. Jones (Capt. Russell Hampton), CJ Adams (Young Ford Brody), Carson Bolde (Sam Brody), Brian Markinson (Whelan), Ty Olsson (Jainway), Al Sapienza (Huddleston).

Directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Max Borenstein.

Rated PG-13 (intense destruction/mayhem/creature violence).

123 minutes.

Released on May 16, 2014.