There has always been something lovable about the Japanese movie monster we all know as Godzilla. Sure, the creature wrecks havoc on Tokyo and turns vehicles and people into pancakes. But he is an angry innocent, a creation of the atomic age born in the only country to experience the devastation of not one but two A-bombs.
I’m not sure how much I love the new “Godzilla” movie though. He is very much of the 21st century, re-imagined in a smart movie made by people who care about Godzilla unlike the embarrassing Roland Emmmerich 1998 dud of the same name.
Let me explain my ambivalence: The angle of attack taken by English director Gareth Edwards (who earlier made a modestly budgeted movie called “Monsters”) and writers Max Borenstein (screenplay) and David Callaham (story) is associate the movie’s monsters — three in all —with some of the most horrific images from the new century.
These include a Japanese nuclear plant meltdown — seemingly caused by an earthquake but not really — a tsunami wiping out Waikiki Beach and high-rise buildings in several cities crumbling to bits.
When such catastrophic disasters have hit our world since 2000, eyewitnesses say the same thing: It looked like a Hollywood movie. Is “Godzilla” an attempt by Hollywood to reclaim these images for make-believe?
So you see what I mean: In the name of entertainment — and make no mistake “Godzilla” is entertaining — filmmakers are throwing in all these starkly horrifying images recorded for real in and around Asia and Ground Zero to support a movie monster originally born out of Japan’s confrontation with the nuclear age.
Were the new movie shlocky or campy, as was the Emmerich film, or another marathon battle of Marvel Comics superheroes then I might not feel so queasy about this re-run of terrible images.
Why, I wonder, are we so fascinated by overwhelming destruction? We gaze at these events in hypnotic wonder — Oh, look there goes Waikiki! — as we snuggle safely in theater seats.
The movie addresses this, I think, in touching on the arrogance of man in his Dr. Frankenstein mode as he attempt to control or even alter nature only for nature to turn the tables. There is a Darwinian subtext here that witnesses the return of dinosaurs, yet these dinosaurs feed on nuclear energy; they feed on an energy source (as well as a source of infernal destruction) with which mankind is playing a fool’s game.
Scientists assure us that nuclear energy can be safely generated and its waste disposed of despite continuing evidence to the contrary. The chief creature villain here, which the movie dubs M.U.T.O (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), escapes from a nuclear power plant and then heads for an American nuclear dump site in Nevada. Interesting.
Okay, enough temporizing, let’s get to the monster mash-up. The movie begins in 1999 Philippines where a mining foreman leads two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) into a newly discovered huge underground cavern where there’s radiation leaks and a skeleton of a gigantic creature. Clearly something was recently hatched here and has made its way to the sea.
Cut to coastal Japan where a couple played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche are scientists working at a nuclear power plant (although why a Western couple is working for the Japanese, all of whom seemingly speak English a a matter of course, is never clear). Tremors destroy the joint and the family suffers a grievous loss.
Fifteen years later, their son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has grown up to become, conveniently, a bomb disarmament expert for the U.S. Navy. Dad has stayed in Japan where he has become a conspiracy theorist, insisting that those tremors were no earthquake.
No one listens to him but authorities don’t mind arresting him when he trespasses into the permanently quarantined area that was once the family’s home. Ford arrives to bail his dad out, just in time for tremors to hit in the exact same pattern as before.
This second round of chaos sees the rise of M.U.T.O., a giant Praying Mantis-like creature with a triangular head, that then takes off for Hawaii and on to Las Vegas and San Francisco. You might suspect the filmmakers are having witty fun by trashing so many American vacation spots. Alas, this a singularly humorless film so I think this is merely coincidental.
The story becomes unnecessarily confusing in its maneuvering of three creatures — M.U.T.O., its male mate and Godzilla who seemingly takes the human’s side — into a showdown in the heart of San Francisco. Some of this involves making sure that our man Ford is where the action is at all times even if logic is thrown to the wind.
Ditto that for his wife, a nurse played by Elizabeth Olsen, and small son. Meanwhile for some reason an admiral played by a rigidly straight-backed David Strathairn decides to slip a nuclear device into San Francisco, despite the fact these creatures gulp down such devices like so many breath mints.
So there is a subplot about disarming a devise that shouldn’t be there in the first place while the creatures duke it out in the playground that is — was — a city.
As you might imagine, the Golden Gate gets its close-ups, naval ships are tossed about like bathtub toys and downtown goes down. It’s a rousing set piece, one that leaves open possible sequels, but there’s a strange anti-climatic feeling to it perhaps because of the need for sequels.
The actors haven’t much to do other than convey plot points to the audience. Taylor-Johnson mostly blocks scenery while the always competent Olsen has little to play. Only Cranston seems like a character worth keeping around, which the movie fails to do.
CG creatures and all visual effects are splendid as you would expect. Edwards is in his element when the final battle commences even if there is no doubt about the outcome.
Seeing Godzilla, even if it’s unintentional, taking the side of foolish humans to extinguish enemies created or at least fed by their own dubious technology gives the battle a strange twist though.
So how is this series going to continue? Will Godzilla continue to come to the rescue of these tiny humans every time they screw up?If not, how will future filmmakers turn him back into a villain albeit a lovable one?
One thing for sure: “Godzilla” will always return.
Opens: May 16, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Legendary Pictures
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Wantanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Richard T. Jones, CJ Adams, Victor Rasuk
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein
Story by: David Callaham
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers
Executive producers: Patricia Whitcher, Alex Garcia, Yoshimitsu Banno, Kenji Okuhira
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Visual effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel
Editor: Bob Ducsay
PG-13 rating, 123 minutes