Understated "Godzilla" Reboot Comes Through In The Clutch

Thirty minutes into Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” – the gold standard of monster movies in the CGI era – eccentric mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) mocks the park’s creator for an as yet uneventful excursion. “Ah, now eventually you might have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour, right?” It’s peculiar, then, that Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” – a film so clearly influenced by and indebted to Spielberg’s classic – keeps its monster hidden for much of its running time. Where “Jurassic” deliberately held its giant lizards back in order to build tension, it did, ultimately, unleash them spectacularly. Edwards’ approach is stingier, keeping the film from realizing its full potential, but the approach pays off in other ways – particularly in a seismic finale that ranks among the genre’s best.

Following an appropriately old-timey opening title sequence – the series dates back to 1954 – a prologue introduces us to nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, TV’s “Breaking Bad”). Set in premillennial Japan, the prelude sees Joe lose someone close to him in a work-related accident. We quickly jump ahead 15 years, and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, “Kick-Ass”) is now Lieutenant Ford Brody, a US Navy bomb technician, with Joe having devolved into a disheveled conspiracy theorist, seemingly detached from reality. As he tracks a series of unexplained sonar readings, he begins to kick back against a Japanese government that’s seen his former home quarantined without explanation. Soon his prying leads him and his son to a mysterious military compound.

It’s at this facility that one Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, “Batman Begins”) and assistant Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”) are conducting experiments on an unidentified, presently entombed creature, referred to as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). When the insect-like creature escapes its crusty cocoon, wreaking havoc on nearby electrical devices via electromagnetic pulse, the story’s focus shifts to the heroics of Taylor-Johnson’s character, essentially (and disappointingly) leaving Cranston out of acts two and three. For seemingly no other reason than Serizawa’s opaque mysticisms about nature’s innate system of checks and balances, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific Ocean to take on the MUTO.

The cast is uniformly serviceable, with Cranston keeping the first act afloat on charisma alone, but the story struggles to establish a foothold. Watanabe is one of the few players who seems genuinely excited by the material, no doubt aided by his charge of speaking in joyfully silly, trailer-friendly sound bites. Elizabeth Olsen (“Oldboy”) is underused in a bit role as Ford’s wife, Elle, who, along with their 4 year-old son, exists only to give Ford something to fret about. David Strathairn (“Good Night, And Good Luck.”) gets even shorter shrift as a Navy commander, tasked with leading a subplot that feels entirely tacked on. Whenever he and his military cohorts start talking, the film grinds to a halt, evoking the worst kind of 90s-style action pic.

From there, the narrative awkwardly globe-trots, stammering its intentions of maybe, possibly, eventually turning into a full-blown monster movie. When Godzilla is finally revealed at the hour mark, he’s whisked away just as quickly, like a celebrity meet-and-greet gone awry. It’s a trend that escalates well into the pic’s final act, with Edwards cutting away any time he thinks we’ve seen too much, but the glimpses we get are enticing enough to keep our attention. The action sequences are astonishing, the film’s sense of scale unmatched in the genre, and the big guy looks terrific. The film often plays like a fully-realized theme park ride, moving audience members like chess pieces in a game destined to end via violent board-clearing.

Where another Spielberg classic and obvious influence here, “Jaws,” withheld its main attraction with purpose – technical limitations that ultimately made its villain scarier – holding Godzilla back is a more frustrating prospect. Godzilla (the protagonist here) isn’t Jaws (a classic antagonist) and Lieutenant Ford Brody (a hero by proxy) is no Chief Martin Brody (as wonderfully played by the late Roy Scheider in “Jaws”). But the “less is more” approach isn’t unexpected from Edwards, whose confident debut “Monsters” held back on showmanship due to budgetary concerns. Free from the limitations of small-scale filmmaking, he remains locked into a mindset of minimalism – and it suits him well.

This leaves “Godzilla” to occasionally play like its own sequel, limiting action to the background, but it’s essential to the pic’s enormity. It’s a confident, borderline cocky move to treat the material as if we’ve seen it all before, making the limited number of action beats all the more exhilarating – and all the more frustrating when they’re stolen away. However, all is forgiven when Edwards brings these ingredients together for a stunning finale set in San Francisco. It’s bravura technical filmmaking, the likes of which are certain to be ripped off, never duplicated. From the moment Ford partakes in a HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump from high above the San Francisco skyline, “Godzilla” becomes unforgettable.

Ultimately, the pic’s highs outweigh its lows – lows that aren’t offensively bad – and it plays even better on the second viewing. If only the enthusiasm of Guillermo Del Toro’s deeply flawed “Pacific Rim” could be fused with the artistry of Edwards’ “Godzilla,” audiences would have a monster movie for the ages. But as it stands, “Godzilla” circa 2014 towers over the majority of its monster movie brethren. It’s far more reverent than Roland Emmerich’s universally loathed 1998 “Godzilla” pic, and it’s been made with the kind of passion rarely afforded to summer blockbusters. It’s not exactly the pop spectacle that Spielberg constructed so regularly in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but it’s fantastic in its own right and certain to please fans of Toho’s legendary franchise.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: May 16, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence)