Audiences are going to be surprised by “Godzilla.” They will be surprised when, instead of a sleek and slick monster born of 21st-century CGI, they are given a lumbering, awkward, slightly campy creature. They might be even more surprised when they are asked to cheer for it as it smashes our cities to pieces. In effect, this is your grandfather’s Godzilla.
“Godzilla” is a film that knows where it came from and knows what it is.
Godzilla was born in 1954 as a cautionary tale about atomic testing, then evolved into a cult hero through a series of films where a man in a rubber suit stomped on cardboard buildings, fought everything from King Kong to a mechanical version of himself, and singlehandedly made the concept of voice overdubs notorious.
Sixty years later, instead of taking the usual Hollywood route of using modern technology as an excuse to reboot and modernize a fan favorite for a cynical culture (see: “Man of Steel”), 2014’s “Godzilla” is an attempt to celebrate the heart and soul of what made the creature such a beloved big screen hero in the first place. And if you understand that going in, “Godzilla” is fantastic fun.
The plot is a tad overcomplicated, but it boils down to this: Strange seismic goings-on lead to the collapse of a nuclear power plant in Japan. A physicist named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, fresh off “Breaking Bad”) suspects a government cover-up. More strange goings-on ensue. Joe is proven right, and eventually a 400-foot monster shows up to take care of business.
Along the way, we meet other notable-but-not-critical characters: Juliette Binoche plays Sandy, Joe’s wife. Elizabeth Olsen plays Elle, Joe’s daughter-in-law. David Strathairn plays Admiral Stenz, the obligatory military character. And Ken Watanabe plays Dr. Serizawa, a character taken directly from the original 1954 film. They are all fine actors, but none of their characters is relevant. There’s also a theme about man vs. nature, but that isn’t relevant, either.
“Godzilla’s” greatest success is that it strikes a keen balance between cool and camp. It’s just serious enough to inspire awe and just silly enough to give a knowing wink to its audience. Audiences accustomed to the bleak grittiness of 21st-century, Christopher Nolan-style blockbusters may be taken aback, but “Godzilla” is a brave attempt to make the summer season fun. And taken with the right grain of salt, it succeeds.
It will be most appreciated by longtime fans of the original films pitting the rubber suit against a variety of atomic adversaries, and a relief to those disappointed by the sleek, glorified Velociraptor that Matthew Broderick encountered in 1998.
Rather than overindulge in CGI action sequences (see again: “Man of Steel”), director Gareth Edwards tries to echo Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” philosophy, building suspense gradually and making the action more of a payoff. It’s a noble strategy, though he might have overcorrected just a bit. “Godzilla” could probably have used a little more Godzilla, if we’re being honest.
But there are plenty of money moments that make the slower bits pay off, such as the descent of paratroopers into a ravaged San Francisco while Ligeti’s haunting “Requiem for Soprano” plays on the soundtrack. Or a particular move that will put Chuck Norris and his roundhouse kick to shame.
Make no mistake: “Godzilla” is not a perfect movie. The plot is a mess, it drags a bit and the creature doesn’t always stay the same size from scene to scene. But “Godzilla” is a fun movie with a lot of personality, and in this case, personality goes a long way.
“Godzilla” is rated PG-13 for profanity, action violence, mayhem and some sensuality.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.