In the 60th year of the movie franchise, director Gareth Edwards once again restores Godzilla to his rightful place as King of the Monsters with a big-budget offering that matches blockbuster spectacle with a degree of menace lacking in the series since its inception.
Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film, Gojira, was a parable for the nuclear age, its scaly star wreaking a terrible destruction on the people of Japan, less than a decade on from the atomic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Although Edwards’s update cannot match the experience of capturing a nation’s suffering, there are distinct parallels here to modern-day disasters, with the events of 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami and the meltdown at Fukishima all eerily evoked.
The story begins with an emotionally devastating prologue, where a nuclear accident in Japan robs Bryan Cranston of his wife (Juliette Binoche) and his son of a mother. Flash-forward to the present, and the lad has grown up into (a gym-pumped) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s returning to his own young family in San Francisco after a tour of duty as a bomb-disposal expert. But he’s nary a time to be reacquainted with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child when a call sends him back to his troubled father back east, who’s still obsessed that the disaster that killed his wife was no earthquake.
From there on, we get our first tantalising glimpses of the real star of the show – but not before we’re introduced to some new supersized playmates. Fans of Godzilla will be pleased to know that not too many liberties have been taken with the character, except this time he’s big – and I mean skyscraper-dwarfingly big. But once he emits that familiar, earth-shattering roar, it’s as if the big guy is announcing his triumphant return.
Edwards earned the director’s chair for the film on the basis of his well-received debut, Monsters, a low-budget alien-invasion movie that prioritised character-based drama over the creatures themselves. The human element certainly drives the story this time, too, although the characters conform more readily to type.
Taylor-Johnson is a likeable presence in the lead, even if he spends much of the film in a state of bewilderment (which is fair enough, given what his character is put through). Ken Watanabe co-stars as a monster expert, but his aura of haunted resignation does become rather wearing after a while. It’s left to Cranston to inject some much-needed pep into proceedings, and his committed performance is the standout. Of the women, Sally Hawkins has little to do as Watanabe’s sidekick, but Elizabeth Olsen manages to invest her working-mom role with more emotional clout than one suspects was in the script.
But it’s the set pieces and monster-on-monster action that come to dominate the picture – and rightly so. After a slow-burn first hour, the titans are allowed to demonstrate their awesome power, including clashes at a Hawaiian airport and in the city of San Francisco. Elements from Jurassic Park, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds and the Alien saga are all thrown into the mix, but special mention should go to the Halo-jump sequence, which is an atmospheric showpiece par excellence.
Edwards clearly demonstrates an understanding of what makes a good Godzilla story work: the unfolding monster mayhem is given focus by a family caught up in extraordinary events, while the conspiracies and cover-ups are nicely judged. (What were those atomic tests in the 50s really about?) But despite an arresting opening and a thundering finale, the story does sag rather in the middle, and keeping the primary characters apart means it lacks a certain focus. Top-notch special effects go along way towards papering over some of those cracks.
To put this latest film in the context of its forebears, it certainly lacks the kitschy appeal of the cardboard-city-trashing 60s and 70s movies – moments of levity are few and far between here. Likewise, there’s little of the kiddie appeal of the animated TV series – the 12A certificate precludes that, and sorry folks, there’s no Godzuki this time. But anyone still smarting from Roland Emmerich’s lumbering 1997 adaptation will certainly breath a huge sigh of relief: the king has returned, and once more he’s a force of nature.