In 1999, Drs. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, "Inception") and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine") are called to the Philippines where a valley has cratered at a uranium mining site. Deep down beneath the earth, they find an awe-inspiring radioactive fossil. 'Could it be him?' asks Vivienne. But Serizawa says this creature was ancient and notes the troubling sign of a parasite. They spy a trench leading out to the sea. Across it, Janjira Nuclear Power Plant manager Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, AMC's 'Breaking Bad') has been tracking disturbing seismic activity and before the day is out, he will have lost his wife in the plant's meltdown. Fifteen years later, Brody's still trying to find answers and when his son, naval officer Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, "Kick-Ass"), arrives to get him out of jail, they will witness the awakening of the creature which Serizawa has been studying in his quest to find "Godzilla."
Four years ago, director Gareth Edwards got critical acclaim for his micro-budgeted independent "Monsters." Now he takes the reins of the mega-budgeted reboot of the most popular monster series of all time and while one can see the visual style of his first film (lots of fog and mist), it looks a lot like Edwards has been studying "Jurassic Park." The film's better than Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, but there is still no Godzilla movie as good as Toho Co.'s 1954 original.
"The Expendables" series' Dave Callaham has come up with a story (screenplay by Max Borenstein) that respects Godzilla's origins, radioactive material the food for its enemies, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), blended with the series' later depictions of Godzilla as the good guy. Edwards has gone with the less is more approach, keeping Godzilla under wraps until a brief appearance in the movie's Honolulu midsection before the big climactic San Francisco showdown. What we do get a lot of are those MUTOs, which look something like humanoid bats with anvils for heads. (That seismic activity and the 'calls' Brody's been tracking are revealed to be between the winged male in Japan and a female whom Serizawa thought neutralized years earlier, a giant warning against radioactive waste.)
Taylor-Johnson's as generic a hero as we've seen (Taylor Kitsch would have been an improvement), only springing somewhat to life when he's left caring for a Japanese kid (Jake Cunanan) separated from his parents on Honolulu's airport monorail. The character, a bomb defuser, is one of those who always manages to pop up where the action's happening, getting involved in Admiral William Stenz's (David Strathairn, "Lincoln") plan to lure the MUTOs out to sea with nuclear warheads before blowing them to kingdom come. Serizawa, meanwhile, advises to wait for Godzilla, who's being escorted across the sea by warships (we only see the horned back on a massive body beneath the surface), to fight the MUTOs. But Stenz's plan backfires when the male MUTO, earlier found chomping on a Russian nuclear submarine, gets the device to enrich his mating (Edwards' use of phallic symbolism is subtly amusing as the male delivers the warhead to the female at a certain anatomical level). When Godzilla finally makes his appearance on the eastern side of the Pacific he's like the big bungling uncle you have great affection for, but don't want to get too close to your china cabinet. He's a magnificent creation, from his expressive, intelligent eyes to his massive body and sound system overloading roar and his final breath of fire is a doozy.
But as many shots one might recognize having been borrowed from "Jurassic Park," the filmmakers have forgotten that that film had human personalities. Veteran actor Watanabe puts across historical resonance (he has his dad's stopwatch, stopped at the time of the Hiroshima bomb) and respect for nature and it's great to see someone like Hawkins give a minor role heft, but other than these two the only actor who breathes life into her character is the quickly gone Juliette Binoche ("Certified Copy") as Brody's doomed wife. Cranston's saddled with a bad wig that distracts while "Martha Marcy May Marlene's" Elizabeth Olsen can't do much as his daughter-in-law, a San Francisco nurse fretting over the return of her husband and care of their son Sam (Carson Bolde). Victor Rasuk ("Raising Victor Vargas") is the only member of the military who doesn't blend in with all the rest.
The film's effects, which include the destruction of Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco (where of course myriads gather on the Golden Gate Bridge), all more than pass muster with the exception of those not very biological looking MUTOs and Edwards and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("Atonement") achieve some lovely imagery (soldiers checking the viability of a trestle bridge in obscuring mist; a group including Ford parachuting through the night fog trailing red vapor, a color picked up in the red lanterns of Chinatown). There are also plenty of 9/11 references, from the missing posters papered over a devastated city to the jagged spikes of the hero's back, jutting up through the wreckage like the remains of the World Trace Center. Alexandre Desplat's score isn't memorable, but doesn't dominate - that's left to the sound guys, as it should be.
"Godzilla" arrives on a wave of marketing hype, but while the monster himself is a pleasure to behold, most of the rest of the movie is, frankly, not that memorable. The filmmakers have paved the way for a franchise. If they can figure out a way to have their human characters do more than react to destruction they just might have a good one.
Robin did not see this film.
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