I had such high expectations for “Godzilla” that it would have been almost impossible for the film to meet them. And the film didn’t meet them. But it came pretty close.
Directed by Gareth Edwards, the British director who made a splash with the low-budget South of the Border alien invasion tale “Monsters,” the new “Godzilla” is true to the spirit of the 1954 original, and revives the long-running franchise in fairly spectacular and thought-provoking fashion. Like the original film, “Godzilla” is concerned with the potentially terrible consequences of nuclear power; in the earlier film, made less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear weapons.
The new film offers a post-Fukushima take on the character, depicting Godzilla — and the other SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! monsters in the film — as ancient beasts that feed on radiation and nuclear waste. As someone whose hometown was once a proposed nuclear waste dump site, I especially enjoyed the ominous scenes of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. It’s been over 25 years since I marched in protests to keep New Hampshire from becoming the site of the country’s first nuclear waste dump, and the riddle of what to do with all the waste that’s been accumulating over the years has still not been solved. In “Godzilla,” the waste becomes fuel for scary, destructive monsters, which seems fitting.
Godzilla films are often goofy, but they can also be quite serious, and the new film falls into the latter category. Edwards isn’t joking around, and brings a certain awestruck reverence to the material. There are countless scenes of terrified gazing upward as a terrifying monster approaches, and what comes across is the hugeness of the monster, and the smallness of the humans. Perhaps this is why Edwards is so willing to SPOILER ALERT! kill off big name members of his cast; when Juliette Binoche died within the first 15 minutes of the film, I wondered why he had even bothered to include her in the movie. Later, I concluded that he was trying to convey something about the fragility of human life — about how quickly it can be snuffed out by a devastating event. And Binoche’s death is important: It hangs over the rest of the film, and when we move forward in time, we learn how it impacted her husband and son. The husband (Bryan Cranston) has become obsessed with her death, and intent on proving an underlying conspiracy, and the son has become an ordnance disposal expert, intent on moving on with his life.
“Godzilla” is an action-adventure film, and it doesn’t stint on special effects. But it’s more mysterious and elegantly composed than the average big budget Hollywood film, featuring shots and scenes that are eerily beautiful, such as an aerial shot of Godzilla gliding under an aircraft carrier at sea. The earlier Godzilla films are often maligned as cheap, silly and poorly made, but they often contain strange and striking moments of beauty: In the 1989 film “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” the plant-creature Godzilla confronts is a thing to behold. Oddly enough, my main complaint about new “Godzilla” is that it doesn’t have enough Godzilla — that it needed more footage of the King of Monsters, and less of the human characters. Like last summer’s “Pacific Rim,” “Godzilla” also makes the mistake by focusing too much on its boring-but-serviceable male lead, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
“Godzilla” is actually interesting companion piece to Edwards first film, “Monsters.” “Monsters” isn’t a great film, but it contains a knockout sequence toward the end, where the protagonists, cowering in fear, witness an alien mating ritual, rather than the violent attack they expect. “Godzilla” has a similar “Do Not Fear the Monsters” message — a message that of course hearkens back to films such as “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” In this film, Godzilla is not an enemy, but a friend, who SPOILER ALERT! bravely battles and destroys the bad monsters before returning to the sea. If you like a heroic Godzilla — and I do — “Godzilla” should bring a smile to your face.
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