I have previously written on Godzilla as a franchise and what he meant to me from my childhood onward. Now Legendary has finally released the second American-made Godzilla movie (after the disastrous 1998 movie) and I have seen it.
THIS is what Godzilla is intended to be. Before I move into detailed and possibly spoilery discussion, I want to just say that this was a great Godzilla film, one of the best of the entire franchise. It includes all but one of the elements I outlined as key elements of Godzilla, and the one it misses – the classic music – is of course replaced with its own soundtrack. I can't quite judge how good that soundtrack is – the one drawback of current IMAX theaters is that they seem far too enamored of figuring out how to crank the volume to 11 on a scale of 1-10, so I couldn't appreciate the music so much. Visually, though, it's extremely good, and the kind of movie you SHOULD see in a big theater if you can.
As with the best of the earlier films, this movie gives us a backstory and a human story to go along with the monster-focused story. In this case, the deeper backstory – humanity's first encounter with Godzilla and their attempt to stop him – is given during the credits, with no dialogue, just images, that show the entire process. It's brilliantly done and compresses what could have been a half-hour of film into a few minutes with no loss of story for those watching carefully.
The movie proper then begins in 1999, with a mysterious radioactive cavern filled with impossibly huge bones and… something else, then going to Japan and a nuclear reactor that has an eventually fatal problem. Here we meet our protagonist (though not the one we think is the protagonist at first) and his family, a family soon to suffer a huge loss.
Fast-forward to today, and we find the young boy of the flashback, Ford Brody, is a grown man, a soldier with advanced explosives/ordnance training, a wife named Elle, a son named Sam, and a father – Joe Brody – with an obsession into finding out what happened, what really happened that day at the nuclear plant. Against his will, Ford finds himself drawn into his father's final attempt to enter the cordoned-off exclusion zone around the old plant – and discovers that his father was right all along.
There was no earthquake, no ordinary natural disaster. The exclusion zone is perfectly safe, no traces of radiation. Instead, inside, within the ruins of the nuclear plant, is something, something alive and growing, being studied by a combined Japanese-American military force led by Dr. Ichiro Serizawa. Serizawa's studies, which include data on the first encounter with Godzilla in the 1950s, have convinced him that in the early history of Earth there was an ecosystem of creatures who used nuclear isotopes in reaction as a source of energy; they have gone dormant, or burrowed deeper into the Earth, as the available nuclear materials on the surface became more scarce.
Of course, to such creatures, our nuclear plants represent some of the most concentrated food that has ever existed on Earth…
The creature chooses that moment to awaken, and despite the precautions taken, the humans are unable to kill it and it escapes containment, revealing itself to be a freakish monstrosity combining features of insects, crustaceans, reptiles, and perhaps other things – a creature of titanic stature but also capable of high-speed flight. It departs over the ocean, killing hundreds – including Joe Brody – in its escape, leaving Ford in the middle of the devastation, thousands of miles from his family. And the monster – named "MUTO" for "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism" – is headed straight for the United States.
Shortly thereafter, a second MUTO – larger and slightly different in construction – emerges from where the military had stored what they thought was a dormant or dead sample of these creatures. It is quickly determined that this is a female and the first is a male, and they are heading for each other – to meet at San Francisco.
Serizawa believes that the other creature they have been studying – Gojira, or Godzilla – is a relic of the ancient time, the greatest alpha predator and perhaps more, a being whose purpose was to keep the true monsters under control. As Godzilla begins his own swift journey towards Hawaii – and later, towards San Francisco – Serizawa urges the military,especially Admiral Stentz who heads the task force, to allow Godzilla to deal with the MUTOs – especially since the only apparently feasible way to kill them appears to be a multi-megaton nuclear weapon, and Serizawa (like many people, Japanese and otherwise) is utterly against the use of such a weapon.
This movie is wonderfully done. Like the best Gojira films, Godzilla 2014 introduces us to the mythology and the problem in measured stages, allowing the screw to be turned slowly and inexorably until we finally arrive at a climactic confrontation between humans, monstrous MUTOs, and Godzilla himself.
Godzilla is perfect. He looks like himself – a new variation, yes, but the Japanese had at least a dozen significant variations of his appearance over the years too, so that's no big deal. He is more bulky/massive than the prior ones, but not fat – he has the massive power of a wrestler or bodybuilder. He moves with the dramatic, slow deliberation characteristic of him throughout his tenure on the silver screen. He is utterly uncaring of the threat of ordinary human weapons. He has his breath weapon, and it is indeed as awesome as it should be. And he is something clearly more than just a dumb animal.
As a straight-up monster/disaster film, Godzilla is a success. It gives human dimension to the cataclysm with the characters we get to know, and presents – at least in my view – just the right balance between hints and shadows of the monstrous opponents and some straight-up screen time for the kaiju to take the gloves off and start kicking some ass.
Moreover, the characters are used smartly. The main character, Ford Brody, is given skills at the beginning which are important to keep him relevant to the plot, so that his constant presence at key events isn't stretching things too far. Serizawa and Admiral Stentz, while arguing what approaches should be used, maintain a mutual respect for each other. There are no Idiot Balls carried for long distances in this film. Stentz recognizes, as time goes on and Godzilla's behavior supports Serizawa's thesis, that Serizawa has good reason for his beliefs, and in some ways would sincerely LIKE to believe that theory; but as a military man he has an obligation to use whatever resources are in his command to protect the people of the United States and the world, and he will do so.
Like many disaster films, it does skip over some other questions by simply not bringing them up and hoping we won't either (for instance, why the MUTOs don't head straight for the OTHER operating nuclear reactors instead of going after nuclear bombs being moved), but hey, for the sake of the movie I'll let that slide.
What makes this film really fun for a fan of Gojira-sama and other kaiju films is that there are a huge number of nods and references to other Gojira/Toho films and even other films related to the monster movie genre. Perhaps one of the funnier ones is the main protagonist's last name, and that of his wife: Brody. For those who don't remember, the name of the sheriff played by Roy Scheider in the classic Jaws was Brody; for extra points, the sheriff's wife was named Ellen, often referred to as "Ellie", and in Godzilla the name of Ford Brody's wife is "Elle". I very much doubt this is coincidence.
The MUTO design combines many Kaiju features, perhaps the most obvious and interesting being the strangely wedge-shaped head which strongly draws on the design of Gyaos from Gamera tai Gyaos. Mothra, one of the most famous of the Toho stable of films, is referenced twice – once in a label of the fishtank in the old Brody home, and then by a quick glimpse of two pink-dressed women standing at the edge of a shattered building; they strongly resemble the Cosmos, the two tiny girls who were effectively the priestesses of Mothra. The combat between the two MUTOs and Godzilla nods to multiple Godzilla films, most notably Gojira Tai Megaguirus and Gojira 2000.
The humans also have notable roles to play even during the kaiju throwdown, and there are moments where human and Godzilla intersect in a way that indicates that unlike some incarnations of the King of the Monsters, this Godzilla can recognize some kinship between himself and these tiny beings.
Overall, this is just about as close to perfect as I could possibly have hoped for in an American Godzilla film. About all I could have asked for that I didn't get was to have had them make some use of the original Godzilla theme music. Five stars, and I am sure to see this one again – and buy it when it comes out!