Sixty years after Ishiro Honda unleashed the H-bomb-spawned “Gojira” on Japanese audiences still reeling from the horrors of Hiroshima, Godzilla breathes atomic fire once again in this crowd-pleasing reboot from director Gareth Edwards. But while the scaly sexagenarian glimpsed here is vastly superior to the wrong-headed monster seen in Roland Emmerich’s disastrous 1998 reimagining starring Matthew Broderick, at least that version of the giant lizard wasn’t reduced to playing a cameo role in his own film.
Nevertheless, Edwards’ reverential rendition of the King of the Monsters—while much larger and created with expensive CGI—is much closer in design and temperament to Honda’s, which in reality was nothing more than a man inside a sculpted rubber suit. Stomping on miniature reproductions of Tokyo across nearly three dozen films and series, the creature became a Saturday afternoon staple for American youths who sat glued to televisions, unresponsive to their mothers’ repeated pleas to turn off the TV and go outside.
So it’s a shame that this admirable interpretation does so much right while relegating everyone’s favorite reptile mostly to the shadows.
In opening scenes, set in 1999, we’re introduced to Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant, Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who arrive by helicopter at a dig site in the Philippines, where they soon discover some prehistoric bones. If this resembles the opening moments of Jurassic Park, it’s wholly intentional; as the rest of the movie makes clear, Edwards is a Steven Spielberg fan.
Descending below ground, the scientists find themselves within the fossilized remains of a gigantic rib cage, which stretches as far as they can see.
A stunned Graham asks, “Is it him?”
“No,” Serizawa replies. “This one is much older.” While Godzilla isn’t housed within this tomb, another recently hatched creature was—and it’s headed toward Japan (of course), where it will cause the meltdown of both a nuclear facility and an American family, the Brodys (a familiar name for fans of Spielberg’s Jaws).
Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a supervisor at the plant, as is his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche),who perishes as he watches in horror. Their son Ford (CJ Adams) witnesses the catastrophe from his grade-school window, one of many over-the-shoulder shots that present a human-eye view of devastation, accompanied by numerous slow zooms toward actors’ faces, their mouths agape—another signature Spielberg touch.
As we shift to the present day, a lead character emerges: a hardened Ford (now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and their 5-year-old son, Sam (Carson Bolde). But Ford must return to Tokyo, where an obsessed Joe has been arrested at his former job site, now a quarantine zone.
A Fukushima disaster allegory is squandered in this boilerplate screenplay, which trades in familiar tropes. Consider: Joe is the scientist no one listens to until it’s too late—for them and him.
Spoiler alert: Though the movie’s advertising prominently features the Breaking Bad star, Joe doesn’t survive long enough for Godzilla’s reveal, which caused an eruption of applause at this critic’s screening. And compared to Joe, Ford is even more thinly written; the understated Taylor-Johnson can’t sustain the tone established in Cranston’s scenes.
Instead, we’re left to delight at fleeting appearances of the Big G as he brawls with two other giant monsters, and at more of those Spielberg moments: an overhead shot of Godzilla’s dorsal fins dipping below the water as he swims beneath a boat offers another Jaws homage; a submarine in a jungle evokes a desert-marooned oil tanker in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; a defeated Ford drawing his pistol on an insurmountable enemy recalls Tom Hanks’ final moments in Saving Private Ryan.
Edwards enjoys teasing an audience, keeping his creature under wraps, like Spielberg with his shark or his dinosaurs. But Godzilla doesn’t appear until almost an hour into this movie, a test for viewers rather than a tease. However, Spielberg might crack a smile at this inspired bit: Ford’s son sits in front of a TV telecasting images that look just like one of those man-in-suit monster battles that used to transfix kids to their sets—only it’s a news report from Hawaii. “C’mon, Sam,” says Elle, comically unfazed by the unreal broadcast. “Turn the TV off.”
It’s a smart, surreal touch in a movie that could have used more of them.
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, CJ Adams, Carson Bolde, Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston. Screenplay by Max Borenstein, based on a story by David Callaham. Directed by Gareth Edwards. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.