Return of the King

A bit of history first. It was 60 years ago that Godzilla first lumbered onto the silver screen in Japan. He originally stood 50 meters (162 feet) tall, and his original name was Gojira – a combination of the Japanese words for gorilla and whale. The idea of a monster from the past awakened by atomic tests who has radioactive dragon’s breath played on the fears of the people, separated by only 9 years from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  When the film was prepared for international release, the studio changed the name to Godzilla, which is actually the correct Japanese pronunciation for Gojira.

The Original Big Boy

Two years later a small American production company, Jewell Enterprises, bought the film and added scenes with Raymond Burr playing a reporter. Burr was known mostly as a heavy in those pre-Perry Mason days; he’d been the wife-killer watched by Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window two years earlier. His good guy role in the Americanized Godzilla, King of the Monsters! might have helped him land the Perry Mason role the next year. The monster had a growth spurt to almost 400 feet tall, because of the difference with construction in Japan. Buildings were made more compact there because of the danger of earthquakes. The American version cut the original severely, so that even with the extra Burr footage, it runs 80 minutes instead of the original 96 minutes. (All references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki were cut as well). The film was a success and inspired a series of sequels such as King Kong vs. Godzilla (the king wins that one), and Godzilla vs. Gigan (he protects the planet against monsters from space). With the sequels, the thrill factor went down as the camp factor went through the roof.

In 1998, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the team behind Independence Day, decided the time was right to make a new, major Godzilla. While it made money thanks to the international market, the film was a failure in almost every other way. They miscast Matthew Broderick as the hero and had the monster come to New York City – why, they never really explained, except that destroying Tokyo was old hat. There was a backlash amongst fans of the original movie, who called the new one G.I.N.O. (Godzilla in name only). In the film, Devlin and Emmerich had Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene, a bit of nose thumbing at Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, the “At The Movies” film critics who’d panned the duo’s earlier films. Ebert and Siskel, though, had the last laugh, naming Godzilla one of the worst movies of the year. It actually was one of the worst of the decade.

For their new version, Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures wisely decided to go for the feeling of the original film, putting the thrill back into the story. They chose Gareth Edwards as the director, who’d only directed one low-budget feature (2010’s Monsters). However, he’d started in film doing visual effects, and his expertise shows on the screen. Based on a story by Dave Callaham, who’s known mostly for writing The Expendables series, the screenplay was written by Max Borenstein, who’d done only one movie before, the micro-budgeted Swordswallowers and Thin Men (which he directed, shot, edited, and acted in). On paper, it seems crazy that they were given $160 million to play with, but in this case it was crazy like a 400 ft. tall lizard.

The movie begins with a nod to the original film during the opening credits. Black-and-white footage in the style of 1950s newsreels shows scenes of the A-bomb & H-bomb tests in the Pacific, but mixed in with the footage are brief glimpses of a huge beast in the water, and there are references to a company called Monarch involved in the tests. The credits themselves look like redacted documents.

Flash forward to the Philippines in 1999. A Monarch helicopter arrives at the site of a huge mining excavation looking for uranium. On board is Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). The floor of the excavation has collapsed into a huge radioactive cavern. When the researchers descend into it, they find the cavern was created by the decomposed body of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism – MUTO for short. They also discover what looks like a huge dormant cocoon, but across from it is what’s left of a cocoon that has hatched. The helicopter finds what appears to be a path dug to the nearby ocean.

In Japan, power plant manager Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandy (Juliette Binoche) get their son Ford (CJ Adams) off to school before going to the nuclear station where they both work. Joe is bothered by what feels like tremors that have been hitting the plant, though he thinks they’re not natural earthquakes. He sends Sandy to lead a team to check the reactor while he heads for the control room. Once he’s there, the plant is hit by a huge tremor and begins to collapse. Joe races to the containment door Sandy entered, ready to close it once the team makes it out. But the cloud of radioactive steam overtakes them and Joe must close the door before Sandy and the others arrive. From his school, Ford watches the plant – and his world – crumble.

In present-day San Francisco, a now grown Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a lieutenant in the US Army’s bomb disposal corps returning to his wife Elie (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) after a long deployment. The reunion is cut short by news from Japan that Joe Brody has been arrested trying to enter the containment zone around the old plant. Joe has become obsessed with proving the destruction of the plant wasn’t caused by an earthquake. Ford helps his father sneak back to their old home, but then they discover the plant has been taken over by Monarch, under the direction of Serizawa and Graham. The MUTO from the Philippines has been lying dormant for 15 years, feeding off of the plant’s reactors. From Joe’s warnings, Serizawa decides to shut down the experiment and contain the MUTO, but it’s too late. The MUTO escapes, but its cries awaken its prehistoric enemy – Godzilla.

Kudos should be given to the trailer editor, who manages to show scenes from the movie without giving away almost anything of the plot. In fact, if anything it hides the story, so you enter the theater with expectations of how the movie will go, and then it goes off in an unexpected direction.

This isn’t a movie that you see for the acting, though the producers have assembled a good cast that are effective in their roles. In the trailer it seems that Cranston is simply the crazy guy who’s guessed what’s going on, but this is moderated in the film itself. About halfway through the movie, David Strathairn enters the picture as Admiral William Stenz, who’s in charge of trying to stop the destruction. Watanabe and Hawkins have the unenviable task of providing exposition for the story, but they do it in a believable way that doesn’t interrupt the movie’s flow. The name of Watanabe’s character, Ishiro Serizawa, is a tribute to the original movie, whose main scientist character was Daisuke Serizawa-hakase and was directed by Ishiro Honda. The main character here is Ford, who Taylor-Johnson portrays with a stoic honor.

But the star is Godzilla, no longer simply a man in a costume on miniature sets but is rendered in the full glory of computer graphic imaging. The production don’t cheat the audience by hiding the monsters with constant rain and night, like the 1998 movie, though they wisely limit the appearances until the final battle, following the playbook developed by Steven Spielberg 40 years ago in making the preeminent summer monster movie, Jaws. Kudos also to the writers and director for taking a hackneyed sequence, the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge – what major disaster movie in the last twenty years hasn’t destroyed it – and having a bus driver with a load of kids actually behave with some intelligence. That made it worth the inclusion.

While it has some coincidences in the movie that strain credulity, if you simply watch the movie it is a satisfying story well-told that gives moviegoers today the thrills that the original gave their parents or grandparents back in the 1950s. The original Godzilla played on people’s fear of nuclear weapons. This version has broadened the scope to tap into our current fears. As Serizawa says to Admiral Stenz, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” As with all good science fiction, it entertains, but also has a message for our world today.

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