Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) arrives on a remote island to explore a recently unearthed cavern housing the fossilized remains of giant prehistoric monsters. Meanwhile, a short distance away at the Janjira nuclear plant a mysterious incident causes personal tragedy for American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Fifteen years later, Joe's now grown-up son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal expert with the US military, returns to Japan to bail his father out of jail. Obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the incident Joe and his estranged son unearth shocking evidence of monstrous activity at the abandoned site that spreads to threaten the entire world. Mankind's only hope rests with a recently revived towering radioactive dinosaur. You might have heard of him...
Sixteen years after the first infamously botched attempt to adapt Japan's most iconic giant monster for a western audience, Hollywood has given Godzilla another go under the auspices of Legendary Pictures, the production outfit behind Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, and British effects artist turned auteur Gareth Edwards, the visionary behind offbeat indie genre gem Monsters (2010). An audaciously ominous teaser trailer hinted at an apocalyptic experience tonally akin to Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008), yet what Edwards presents us with, though dark and foreboding in parts, runs a lot closer to a traditional Godzilla movie than many were expecting or perhaps comfortable with. Speaking as a lifelong Godzilla fan, for whom Big G was a gateway to Far Eastern cinema in general, one breathes a sigh of relief and feels some elation in recognizing Edwards has updated the formula for a global twenty-first century audience without betraying its original spirit. Clearly care and attention were paid, not just to crafting a believable, living, breathing CGI Godzilla but to what he represents, and it pays off. Though not without flaws, this is a rare laudable reboot.
Interesting to note the presence of Yoshimitsu Banno, director of Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971), among the producers. Though far more grounded and sober by comparison, Edwards' film echoes some of its ecological concerns and shares a similarly schizophrenic approach in juxtaposing scenes of grandiose apocalyptic terror with a beguiling sense of wonder aimed at a family audience whenever the endearing title character rampages across the screen. Time and again Edwards cuts to a child reacting to events underlining Godzilla's eternal appeal to young viewers as a misunderstood monster, whether it is Brody's son (Carson Bolde), the little Japanese boy dressed very much like the child hero of Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), or the young girl on the beach who is the first to witness his spectacular arrival. Rather than Nolan the guiding influence seems to be Steven Spielberg given how often the film evokes Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Edwards mounts the action on an epic scale, crafting monster set-pieces with a sprightly visual dexterity worthy of vintage Spielberg. That incredible first entrance along with the already much celebrated soldiers sky-diving against Godzilla's silhouette are magnificent moments.
Yet interestingly, more often Edwards downplays these monster battles and foregrounds character interplay. Godzilla's first confrontation with the MUTO unfolds largely via television. Edwards is as interested in relationships as he is in the monster stuff, lending equal weight to the father-son dynamic. Though the plot boils down to rather familiar B-movie incidents Edwards and an outstanding cast (seriously, whoever thought we'd see Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche in a Godzilla movie?!) play the drama for maximum intensity. Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in particular delivers a full-throttle performance channeling some of Jack Lemmon's righteous indignation from The China Syndrome (1979), though the film suffers from an abrupt switch onto a more familiar, less interesting family plot thread. Also disappointing is the comparative lack of Japanese characters as aside from Ken Watanabe's exposition providing scientist (named in honour of both the heroic scientist from the 1954 Godzilla and its director Ishiro Honda) the rest are mere bystanders. Max Borenstein's screenplay revolves around themes of family, sacrifice and the disposal of bombs both literal and figurative, that are an ingenious development of motifs from the original film. Too often misrepresented as a symbol of nuclear threat, Godzilla is here restored to his rightful position as the embodiment of nature rising up to chasten, though crucially not punish, the arrogance of mankind.
The film draws an explicit parallel between Brody and Godzilla with both cast as stoic, stalwart yet long suffering soldiers bearing the brunt of all kinds of pain to diffuse various explosive threats to the planet. Some complained about the relatively scant screen time allotted to Godzilla by comparison with the MUTOs, who, despite some positive fan reaction, rank among his less memorable opponents. Yet the fact remains the best entries in the original series always focused primarily on human beings with Godzilla often only entering at the halfway mark. The big showdown in San Francisco is arguably the closest the film gets to a "traditional" kaiju battle and even there Edwards gives us a ground's eye view focused as much on the human cost as Godzilla's plight. With special effects input from the legendary John Dykstra the digitally rejuvenated Big G is an impressive behemoth with a winning personality to match. Happily, this time he retains his trademark radioactive breath unveiled in crowd-pleasing fashion. Also worthy of mention, Alexandre Desplat's score delightfully evokes the original themes of Akira Ifukube with their moody mystical ambiance.