Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, and creature violence.
Running time: 123 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
When the bombastic “Pompeii” came out a few months ago, I asked: “Is it wrong to root for the volcano?” Now, having seen “Godzilla,” I have to ask: “Is it wrong to root for the kaiju?” But I mean this as the greatest possible recommendation for the movie.
The Godzilla of this “Godzilla” is a classically fearsome monster with his hulking size and piercing roar, but he’s also an irresistible bad-ass who becomes an unlikely hero of sorts. My good friend and “What the Flick?!” co-host Matt Atchity and I found ourselves actively clapping and cheering for the creature when we saw the movie at a packed press screening. We wanted him to do his thing, and do it as ferociously as possible.
And he does — but it takes a while for him to show up and do it. Director Gareth Edwards dares to go for the slow burn — dares to wait until about the halfway mark to reveal the monster in all his majesty. It’s a risky approach, reminiscent of the one Steven Spielberg took in “Jaws,” which allows for not just tension but context. The people matter in Max Borenstein’s screenplay (although whether the esteemed actors playing them, including Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn, all register is another matter). But you get the sense that their experience and their terror are as essential as the massive set pieces that usually mark this kind of summer blockbuster.
And man, are they doozies. Unlike so many effects-laden extravaganzas in which the battles are just noisy, indiscernible blurs of slamming and destruction (we’re looking at you, “Transformers”), you can actually tell who is doing what to whom here. The results are visceral, thrilling, frightening. There’s texture and perspective, a sense of both intimacy and enormity. And the impeccable sound design does wonders to heighten the feeling of dread. “Godzilla” is full of ominous creaks and clicks, moans and groans. Waiting for these creatures to arrive is as delicious as witnessing the full brunt of their power.
Yes, creatures plural, ones with ancient roots and a legacy to consider. This is not a spoiler, folks.
“Godzilla” begins in 1999 with a pair of startling events: the discovery of a massive crater full of radioactive, fossilized remnants in the Philippines and a meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant, where seismic activity appears to be the culprit. Surely, this cannot be a coincidence — and sure enough, skeptical scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who had worked at the plant, drives himself to obsession in search of the truth.
Cut to 15 years later. Joe’s grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a Navy lieutenant looking forward to returning home to his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son, Sam (Carson Bolde), in San Francisco. Olsen, an actress with great presence and a daring streak to her choices, doesn’t get to do much here beyond play the supportive nurse and worried mom — but with those beautiful, wide eyes, she has the perfect face to play a horror movie damsel in distress.
But soon after Ford arrives, he’s called to Japan to bail his father out of jail for trespassing — and gets sucked into the old man’s conspiracy theories all over again. Turns out, Joe was right. And Ford happens to be in Japan at the perfect moment to find out just how right Joe was.
Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins bring just he right amount of gravitas to their roles as the scientists who’ve been investigating these elusive monsters, and the electromagnetic pulses their activities create, for decades. Strathairn, as the admiral coordinating the military element of the fight, functions as a singularly stoic and stern presence. And then there’s Taylor-Johnson, who’s pretty but bland and a weak link at the film’s emotional center.
But as an action hero, the young man who has played both a lanky John Lennon in “Nowhere Boy” and a vigilante crimefighter in the “Kick-Ass” movies has bulked up and is ready for the challenge, and Taylor-Johnson does figure prominently in some of the more visually arresting sequences Edwards has to offer. (Seamus McGarvey, whose work ranges from “Atonement” to “The Avengers” to “Anna Karenina,” is the cinematographer.) One takes place on a dark and quiet train trestle in the middle of the night. The other finds Ford and a group of soldiers leaping from a plane into the smoky, hellish blackness that used to be downtown San Francisco, the sight of the film’s climactic clashes. Red flares trail from their feet as they descend into the unknown. The image is eerily beautiful.
If you take a step back, though, and consider the location, all the havoc and destruction is also slightly amusing. This is what you get, San Francisco, with all your douchey, flashy, dot-com money: You get stomped on by Godzilla. Now that he’s served his purpose and restored balance, he can slink back off into the Pacific Ocean for a leisurely afternoon swim.