Review: Godzilla

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GodzillaOn its 60th birthday and 10 years after the last movie to bear its name, Godzilla returns, bigger than ever, in an incarnation directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters). Penned by Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham (The Expendables, Doom), this Godzilla offers just what you’ve come to expect from the film franchise: random destruction, mayhem and giant monsters fighting.

The story meshes nicely with the 1954 original, with a pseudo-scientific background that presents the monster as a government secret and the actual target of all those south Pacific 1950s nuclear tests. It pays homage to the gigantic creatures as prehistoric gods.

After an emotional and heart-rending first act that introduces the Brody family -- Joe (Bryan Cranston), Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) -- the monster attacks begin in earnest, and the action follows adult Ford, as do the monsters, which seem to be following him around the planet, hell-bent on destroying his family.

Johnson’s character, some kind of military nuclear weapons expert who also just happens to have specialized high-altitude low-opening (HALO) parachute training and a 1950s-era mechanical nuclear detonator in his back pocket, manages to always be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to be the only person who can save the world in spite of his entire existence being exactly as irrelevant to the ultimate goings-on as Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.

In spite of Johnson's existence as less than an insect in comparison to the impossible monsters onscreen, director Edwards has them repeatedly appear to notice the character's presence, as an enormous pair of eyes focuses on him momentarily. There is no interaction, besides the inevitable running away, but this repeated tease, as if to intimate Ford Brody is somehow teaming up with the god-lizard, is in direct conflict to the true theme of not just this movie but the entire Godzilla series: man's utter impotency before the full force of nature.

Meanwhile, David Strathairn as Pacific Fleet Admiral William Stenz commands a flotilla that follows the monsters around and allows for several shots of battleships riding the surge, as a crocodilian the size of the Chrysler building swims beneath them but does little else. Strathairn’s enormous talent is wasted, as Stenz really does nothing and has no strong personalities to play against. On the bridge with him is expert scientist and leading Godzilla authority Dr Ichiro Serizawa, played by Ken Watanabe, who spends the entire film babbling mystic koans and begging Stenz not to use the nukes, just let nature work itself out.

Visually, Edwards knows how to make great-looking gigantic monsters, and these are beautiful, faithful to the look of the original but more authentic in mechanics and motion (Andy Serkis provided guidance for the monsters' movements). It’s an amazing movie to look at, and worth an IMAX ticket. His desire to build the action to an final climactic battle, however, has led to complaints of boredom. In the first "attack" of the film, there is no visual sighting of a creature, only seismic tremors. Later, when the first monster appears, we are shown only the aftermath of an attack, something that becomes more or less a pattern. We don’t even see Godzilla himself during the first third of the film.

So, not much more nor less than expected. Godzilla as a franchise may always be torn between warring desires of its audience: those who want better story and those who want only monumental giant monster action. Each director brings different talents and aesthetics. Edwards has perhaps been too successful in capturing the essence of the original, creating a faithful and enjoyable, but far from perfect film.

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