In 1954, at the height of the Cold War and nuclear hysteria, a fishing boat called The Lucky Dragon was caught in the radioactive ash of an American hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. Released that same year, Ishirō Honda’s Gojira opens with an unlucky fishing boat destroyed by a monster with skin reminiscent of keloid scarring and powerful atomic breath that lays waste to entire cities. The haunting imagery of Tokyo reduced to holocaust and hospitals filled with the horribly burned made the film resonate with Japan in ways American films never could. It spawned a massive franchise that quickly became a healing process for a traumatized nation, beloved despite (and because of) its cheesy hijinks and low-budget effects.
With Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards attempts to give the big guy a modern and distinctly American subtext as he did in his previous film Monsters — a film about immigration more than anything else — while still preserving its Japanese legacy. The disaster at Fukushima now serves as the reference point, as nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) witnesses the inexplicable and total destruction of the Japanese power plant in which he works. Haunted by the death of his wife in the disaster, he spends the next 15 years of his life trying to uncover the truth. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now a bomb disposal expert with the Navy, attempts to convince him to give up his crusade, only to inadvertently discover the existence of a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism hidden in a secret government facility. The escape of this MUTO and the emergence of Godzilla as its native predator forms the basis of a plot largely concerned with the humbling power of a natural world that humanity has arrogantly exploited for far too long.
The last time an American reboot was made, it took the series to arguably its lowest point since Godzilla’s Revenge. This time, we’re treated to a film that gilds the King of Monsters in a majesty he hasn’t had in half a century. Shot elegantly and beautifully from the fleeting angles of eyewitness glimpses through fog, rain, and ash amidst the ethereal glow of flashing explosions, flares, and lightning strikes, Godzilla finally rekindles the sense of indescribable awe with which the world first saw him. Edwards walks a fine line between the gritty realism the modern age demands and the gleeful cheesiness of a proper kaijū eiga, and does it to near Spielbergian perfection. Somehow, the intimate horrors of massive urban destruction (something noticeably lacking in most contemporary superhero films) do not feel out of place next to giant monsters clobbering each other like professional wrestlers.
While Pacific Rim was an homage to the more lighthearted Toho films that make up the majority of the genre, Godzilla attempts to reimagine the original film’s political and cultural relevance. Nuclear holocaust has been replaced with environmental catastrophe. Power plant disasters and nuclear waste tie this film to the original, while images of FEMA relief workers and ash-coated firefighters struggling to manage evacuation routes, shelters, and rescue efforts distinctly evoke Katrina and 9/11, as well as other disasters viscerally familiar to a global audience. While the allusions to 9/11 are perhaps thematically out of place, the film largely succeeds in delivering a comparable message to Honda’s masterpiece: that the forces we unleash upon the world will have consequences beyond our control, and we will be reduced to horrified spectators before the brutal indifference of a changing natural world.
If the film has a crippling flaw, it is that it takes the theme of powerless spectator perhaps a bit too far. With the exception of Ford, none of the human characters get to do much of anything at all aside from providing exposition and context for the monster brawls. The few things Ford attempts fail miserably, which is something the other characters should have at least been allowed to try as well. Failed efforts do more to communicate a sense of helplessness and insignificance than merely standing around watching things happen. As it is, the lack of character arcs makes it difficult to sustain interest in a second act that drags while we wait for the monsters to confront each other for the first time.
Still, the film accomplishes its most important goal: making Godzilla freakin’ awesome again. If you watch this film and don’t find within you a childlike desire to cheer when he pulverizes an adversary into oblivion or when he first unleashes his atomic breath, you should never have bought your ticket.