Godzilla was always the coolest. Godzilla was the dragon/dinosaur monster created by the perfect world of science and reason gone wrong. There were other monsters – King Kong, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and The Wolfman – and all owned their little niches and cult followings, but there was always something that somehow seemed superior about the monster that stomped and chomped its way through Tokyo in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 Toho Co. low budget Japanese tour-de-force Godzilla. The first one, and its remake for an international audience two years later, starring Raymond Burr, was a big boffo hit. The gigantic, slimy, scaly creature was the perfect representation, at the perfect time, of the unspeakable existential rage that followed two world wars and the boredom of boomerdom that folks everywhere felt, but were barely able to express.
Godzilla rises from the sea, created by man’s biggest mistake ever, the blasé underwater testing of nuclear bombs. Permanently irritated by a gamma-ray hangover, Godzilla staggers and stumbles through the city of Tokyo, thrashing at power lines, crushing skyscrapers, obliterating tiny houses and people beneath his mighty clawed feet. The chaos, the destruction, the threat to humanity… We loved him!
The first two Godzilla pictures spawned a bunch of spinoffs, including my favorite Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964), and a much criticized, albeit overblown 1998 Roland Emmerich epic very much miscast with the fey Matthew Broderick impersonating a leading man. Still, any movie in which that big ol’ French sexpot Jean Reno impersonates Elvis is okay with me.
This time Godzilla features a cast of character actors: Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, the doe-eyed Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen. None of these actors are in the film very much so it’s a case of ‘buyer, beware’ if you’re star-struck. Actors are simply so much window-dressing to frame the movie’s star: Big G.
The director, Gareth Edwards, began his career as a visual-effects artist, directing one previous feature, the 2010 sci-fi thriller Monsters. To Edward’s credit, Godzilla is pretty convincing, although we don’t actually get to see too much of him. When we do, the monster looks convincingly prehistoric enough for you to pull back from his open jaws when he leans into the crowd. There’s a fantastic moment when Big G poses ominously from behind a row of tangerine-colored lanterns high over San Francisco’s Chinatown. The lanterns bob-bob-bob in the air, their peaceful existence interrupted not by the coastal Frisco breeze but by the trebly vibration caused by Big G’s big crude footsteps.
The finest moment in Godzilla comes when the scientist played by Ken Watanabe – a fine Japanese actor who’s only around for a few minutes – mesmerizes a roomful of the usual pea-brained military brass, telling the sorry tale of the origins of our irradiated giant boomer. How Man made a big sorry mess of things with His missiles and power plants, but Godzilla – “We call him Gojira!” – is nature’s way of restoring balance.
The second best moment is the fantastic sight of Big G using his super-powered radioactive heat-ray breath to fry a creature nearly as cool as he is. I’ll say no more…
A lot of people die pointing and screaming in Tokyo, San Francisco and Manhattan. Everything worthwhile in Godzilla has to do with the monsters: mainly Big G, of course, because he owns more integrity and ethics than the humans and just wants to be left alone. I also got into the pairing of the bug mutant Mosura (a sort of salute to Mothra, Godzilla’s historic nemesis) who make lots of mess. These scary creatures gobble up ICBMs like so much pepperoni pizza and ruin every liberal’s favorite city when you-know-who steps in to save the day.
As with other ‘big’ monster movies, the studios and their hired hands build huge, elaborately beautiful sets featuring ruined architecture, destroyed cities, caves, the guts of nuclear-reactors: Big Science meets Big CGI! Yet, somehow, the big spectacle still shrinks in the shadow of the original.