Monday, May 26, 2014
Believe it or not, although the Japanese made their landmark monster movie “Godzilla” in 1954, Hollywood beat them to the punch with “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.” Adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story published in “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, “Beast” concerned a prodigious prehistoric amphibian awakened from hibernation by atomic bomb blasts. Wasting no time, the scaly leviathan wended its way to New York City where it wrecked havoc on a heretofore unparalleled scale. Even before “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” Hollywood had made a 1925 silent-era movie “The Lost World” where a dinosaur on the loose rampaged through London. Anyway, about a year after “Beast” came out, the Japanese released “Gojira,” and the Toho Company went on to exploit its radioactive creature for every cent it was worth. Godzilla stomped Tokyo to smithereens, and the film proved so profitable that Hollywood reedited it to accommodate American actors and changed the title from “Gojira” to “Godzilla.” Afterward, Hollywood entrusted the gigantic monster genre to the Japanese. Meantime, Toho has churned out at least 28 Godzilla epics over a 60 year period and coined millions at the box office with their man in a rubber suit. Eventually, rival Japanese studios produced Godzilla knock-offs; the chief example was the titanic turtle “Gamera” that breathed fire.
In 1998, “Independence Day” director Roland Emmerich helmed the first American “Godzilla,” but it took too many liberties with the Toho legend. First, Big G lost his incendiary breath. Second, Big G resembled a Komodo dragon. Emmerich and co-scenarist Dean Devlin rewrote Godzilla’s origins. Comparably, “Godzilla” (1998) sold only half as many tickets during its opening weekend as “Monster” director Gareth Edwards’ ambitious, second American reboot of Big G. Unlike Emmerich’s “Godzilla” that synthesized spectacle and slapstick, Edwards and “Seventh Son” scenarist Max Borenstein have shunned humor in favor of catastrophe. The new “Godzilla” (*** OUT OF ****) doesn’t embroil lame-brained amateurs, but grim-faced scientific and military types. Indeed, this “Godzilla” treats the Toho icon with genuine respect and dignity. This time around Godzilla isn’t searching for someplace to lay its eggs. Instead, Big G has embarked on its own crusade to defend mankind and thwart a couple of nuclear-age behemoths that want to lay their eggs in San Francisco. Ironically, Big G wins the battle of the monsters, but he doesn’t garner as much stomp time as he did in Emmerich’s “Godzilla.” You’ll have to wait patiently about an hour for Big G to show up. Nevertheless, Godzilla makes a dramatic entrance, and he dominates the action for the last half-hour. Edwards’ straight-forward version of “Godzilla” eclipses Emmerich’s comic version.
Most of the amusing “Godzilla” movies from the 1960s & 1970s pitted Big G against two enemies, and the new “Godzilla” adopts the scenario of the outnumbered hero. The battle scenes between Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) are thoroughly invigorating. Unfortunately, the two biggest drawbacks to Edwards’ largely entertaining “Godzilla” are its dreary, one-dimensional humans who clutter up the action and the bland MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) monsters that resemble gargantuan mosquitoes that walk on their knuckles like gorillas. A cast of familiar faces cannot compensate for their sketchy characters. Mankind isn’t half as interesting as Godzilla, especially when he tangles with the MUTOs in a world class smack-down brawl. Ironically, Big G appears to get the short shrift. “Godzilla” isn’t so much about the monsters as the spectacular collateral damage that Godzilla and two airborne giants wreck on mankind. The destruction, or perhaps urban renewal, matches the wholesale mayhem of the “Transformers” trilogy and Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Traditionally, filmmakers have employed Godzilla as allegory for the appalling consequences mankind has paid for tampering with our environment. Essentially, Godzilla has always been the cultural embodiment of global warming.
The action unfolds in 1954 when the military detonates atomic devices at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in a futile effort to destroy Godzilla. We catch a glimpse of Big-G’s heavily spiked back emerging from the depths as the explosions erupt. Later, a nuclear power plant in Japan collapses, and the radioactive ruins become the equivalent of Area 51. Janjira Plant Supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston of “Drive”) watches in horror as his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche of “The English Patient”) dies when the reactor blows up. Afterward, the government quarantines the collapsed plant, but Brody suspects the government is orchestrating a cover-up. Meantime, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Savages”) grows up, joins the Navy, and specializes in explosive ordnance disposal. He marries Elle (Elizabeth Olsen of “Oldboy”) who is nurse in San Francisco. Naturally, they have a son Sam (Carson Bolde). Fifteen years after the Janjira disaster, Joe hasn’t recanted his crazy theories about a cover-up. The authorities arrest him for trespassing in his old home in the quarantine zone. They escort him to meet two scientists, Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), who have established a secret facility within the Janjira ruins. All hell breaks loose a second time, and a colossal, winged reptile materializes.
Clearly, the last thing director Gareth Edwards wanted for us to do is snicker at his “Godzilla” reboot. Not only does he want us to take Godzilla seriously as a monster, but he also wants us to take the movie “Godzilla” seriously. This new “Godzilla” shares little in common with the-man-in-a-rubber-suit “Godzilla” franchise. If you haven’t seen either “Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla” (1994) or “Godzilla vs. Megalon” (1973), you haven’t seen some of the vintage “Godzilla” entries that challenge your suspension of disbelief. Edwards draws on Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jaws” as a template for both the presentation and the pacing of this impressive, beautifully lensed, two hour plus CGI monstrosity. Like the 1998 “Godzilla,” the new “Godzilla” rewrites the creature’s origins. Despite the outlandish sci-fi fantasy elements, the visual effects make everything appear believable. The spectacle of destruction in Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas and San Francisco is stunning. Altogether, Edward’s “Godzilla” breathes new fire into a old franchise.