In the sixty years since he made his big screen debut with Gojira, Godzilla has made dozens of movies; some good (1971’s Godzilla Vs. Hedorah), some bad (1985’s The Return Of Godzilla), and some…just awful (1998’s Godzilla). But the new Godzilla is not just the best Godzilla move since 1975’s Terror Of Mechagodzilla, it may be the best one since Gojira, one of the best movies of the year, and maybe the most exhilarating movie since 2012’s The Avengers.
In 1999, a disaster at a nuclear power plant rendered an area of Japan uninhabitable. But when an American scientist (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) who was there, and lost his scientist wife in the accident, returns to the scene fifteen years later, convinced the Japanese government is covering up the real cause, he not only learns the truth, but gets to witness that truth coming home to roost. Literally.
While you may be thinking that you know where this is going, you don’t. Which one of many pleasant surprises about Godzilla. Without spoiling anything, the movie doesn’t play out like you might expect. Instead, it has a rather clever take on the whole Godzilla thing, taking a new look at the character, with elements that give it a new spin, but in a way that that has roots in his previous films. (It’s also, longtime fans might like to know, the first time the series has totally rebooted; previous restarts always kept the first film as part of the new story.)
This is just one of the ways in which Godzilla plays it smart. Taking a cue from 1975’s Jaws, for instance, we don’t get a good look at our hero right away. Instead, we just get little glimpses and teases of Godzilla doing his thing. Some of which are actually quite clever. Though when we finally go get to see him in all his glory, it’s a rather spectacular payoff.
And “spectacular” may be an understatement. While it never meanders, Godzilla really takes after you-know-who shows up, and the resulting action is on par with such eye-popping moments as when Los Angeles got trashed in 2012, or when the White House got destroyed in Independence Day, or the opening of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith. It really is a sight to behold.
More importantly, unlike that 1998 debacle, this is actually Godzilla. This isn’t a movie about a giant lizard that is Godzilla in name only. Not only does he look like himself — though he is a lot taller here than he’s ever been, and a big beefier — and sound like himself, but he also acts like himself. Granted, it’s mostly in little ways. He doesn’t, for instance, do that stupid jumping dance move he did a couple times. But if you’ve seen a bunch of his older films, especially the ones from the ’60s and ’70s, you’ll recognize him as the real McCoy.
This even has some of the slight humor of other Godzilla films, though it’s never the groan-inducing kind that you might expect from a big budget summer popcorn flick. There’s no bad puns, no one spouts a catchphrase, and no one makes an obvious reference to one of the other movies. In fact, there’s only two real reference to Godzilla’s cannon, and they’re the kind of things that, if you didn’t know they were references, they won’t seem out of place.
This isn’t the only way that Godzilla differentiates itself from those olds film. For one thing, this is far better made movie. Not only is the story not as silly as many of those early flicks, but it’s better acted, better directed, better edited, and so on. It also doesn’t have any badly dubbed moments. Or any jokes about badly dubbed Japanese movies.
It also doesn’t have any of the stupid shit that ruined some of those other movies. Or other monster movies, for that matter. Not only does Godzilla not talk, but he left his kid at home with a sitter. More importantly, unlike Cloverfield, this isn’t about a bunch of uninteresting people who have to survive a disaster that just happens to be monster-made; this is a monster movie. Yes, there are humans in it, and they’re not just there to be stepped on, but there’s no denying who’s the real star of this movie. Even if doesn’t take center stage until about the midway point.
Though, on the flipside, it also doesn’t have the goofy charm of his ’60s and ’70s movies. It’s clearly not a guy in a rubber suit fighting another guy in a rubber suit, while they step on cardboard buildings and plastic cars. But then, if I want to see that, I’ll just watch King Kong Vs. Godzilla.
Instead, Godzilla takes the idea of a giant lizard running amok very seriously…and is all the better for it. In this regard, it reminds me of the first time I saw the original Blade, which was the first comic book movie to take its subject matter, and the making of the movie itself, seriously…and, again, was all the better for it. And while Pacific Rim beat it to the punch as far as serious monster movies go, Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie to it…and, well, you know.
As good as Godzilla may be — and it really is quite good — it’s decidedly better if you see it in a theater. A big one. With a good sound system. While the 3D didn’t add much, seeing it in IMAX was great because this is a big, big movie. Not only are the scenes with Godzilla stomping around visually spectacular, but seeing it on a big screen, with a nice sound system, really gave this film an appropriate sense of scale, something it won’t have if you watch it on your phone or iPad.
It’s no exaggeration to say Godzilla is a triumphant return for one of the most enduring characters in cinematic history. It’s a spectacular, invigorating monster movie that not only treats this icon with respect, but treats the audience the same way. Sure, it’s a movie in which a giant lizard trashes the joint, but as movies in which giant lizards trash the joint go, this is easily one of the best.
For another perspective on Godzilla, check out the piece my friend Raymond did on it for his site, RPad.TV