Godzilla Review: The King Has Returned

out of 5

For many in my generation, Godzilla represents much more than the rampant destruction of cities worldwide, and allegories of man versus nature and the dangers of atomic/nuclear testing/bombs. My Godzilla has always been a hero. When I grew up, The King of Monsters was on my TV battling giant moths, and three headed dragons, and smog monsters, and even mechanical versions of himself. Godzilla was a superhero to me, and because the content was so cheap at the time, my local NBC affiliate could show his adventures daily in a Monster Theater type of show and I ate it all up.

I bring this up, because Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a grand and glorious callback to those days of watching Godzilla be a hero. I was instantly taken back to my childhood while watching this, and every time The King of Monsters was on screen, my body erupted in goosebumps. Every. Time.

Edwards has taken an icon and reimagined it to fit the modern world. Sure, there are still the themes of man versus nature and the danger of trying to harness nuclear power — which is more haunting after the real-life Fukushima reactor meltdown in Japan a few years ago. This Godzilla fits well into this world, and Edwards is a master of the reintroduction.

The new film opens in 1999 as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) is helicoptered to a mining site in the Philippines. The scene is homage to the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park when Alan Grant and company first arrive at the doomed theme park. The miners have discovered something… giant, and Serizawa, who works for an organization called Monarch, is called in for his expert opinion. Before long, he deduces that what they found was a spawning ground and something has hatched.

Godzilla Review: The King Has Returned
In Japan, we meet the Brody family. Dad Joe (Bryan Cranston) works at a nuclear reactor with his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), and they have a young son, Ford (C.J. Adams). Joe believes that recent seismic activity in the area is cause for concern and that the plant needs to be shut down until they can ascertain the cause of the underground tremors. Of course, all hell breaks loose when no one listens to Joe and the reactor is destroyed, turning most of the city into a quarantined nuclear wasteland.

Flash ahead 15 years to present day and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is all grown up and works in explosives ordinance disposal (EOD) for the U.S. Navy. Ford has just completed a tour of duty and goes home to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son Sam (Carson Bolde). He gets a call from Japan that his father has been arrested for trespassing on the quarantine site and Ford has to fly over to bring Joe home.

When father and son are reunited, a series of coincidences leads to the rebirth of something terrifying, and nature goes out of balance. Luckily for humanity, nature has a fail-safe to restore that balance, and that fail-safe is Godzilla. The rest of movie focuses on Ford trying to do everything he can to get back home to San Francisco to save his family, all the while huge monsters cause billions of dollars of property damage.

Edwards’ strength — as it was in 2010’s Monsters — is in shooting the human element in a world where behemoths exist and even fight each other. Ford has the odds stacked against him, but since he is military, he catches rides to where he needs to go, and is even called upon countless times to aid in the fight to save humanity. Unfortunately, this is also a flaw of the film.

Ford Brody is made out to be some kind of G.I. Joe super-soldier. It’s clearly stated that he is Navy EOD, but he tags along with an army convoy as infantry, and later even participates in a sub-orbital HALO jump. Ford is whatever the script (written by Max Borenstein, based off a story by Dave Callaham) needs him to be. Taylor-Johnson is a fine young actor, and he plays the role well, the problem is the role is too broad, even for a film like this.

Godzilla Review: The King Has Returned
David Strathairn, who plays Admiral Stenz, the head of the U.S. Military presence in the film, rounds out the primary cast. He and Serizawa constantly butt heads on how to proceed with dealing with the monsters. Serizawa believes that Godzilla must be allowed to do what he does, and Stenz believes that all monsters must be destroyed.

Watanabe’s Serizawa acts as the bridge between the old and the new, and even the Japanese and American takes on Godzilla. He is the Japanese equivalent to Raymond Burr’s American presence in the 1954 original film. Serizawa is given a weak backstory having to do with Hiroshima, and his employer, Monarch, is a shadowy organization that tracks Kaiju, alluding to the fact that there may be more than we see here. Weak story aside, Watanabe is truly the soul of the film, as his mere look speaks volumes and his call to “let them fight” is one of the highlights of the film.

But human element aside, all that really matters is how the monsters look and act on screen, and this is where the film delivers in boatloads. When we are first introduced to Godzilla in all of his glory, Edwards stages it like a master reveal that steals the breath away. And that roar. That roar is worth the superior IMAX sound all by itself.

After that, most of the action is shown via TV screens in the background via 24-hour news channel coverage, or in cleverly staged set pieces involving monsters hiding in darkness and fog. It’s a bold choice, but unlike, say, the terrible Transformers films, it works, because the payoff for all of this comes in the incredible third act. Gareth Edwards unleashes his monsters in a classic brawl centered in San Francisco and you can’t help by root for Godzilla to triumph. This is not a man in a suit. This is not some iguana-looking abomination. This is The King of Monsters, and it is exhilarating.

Godzilla Review: The King Has Returned
Story problems and uneven pacing cannot derail what is, without a doubt, one of the better Godzilla films to date. Sure, more time is spent in the beginning setting up the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) than actually giving the titular hero a backstory, but we all kind of know his backstory, and what is given to us in the script is enough. For me at least. The incredible third act and the promise that this could easily be a series of films, as well as the fact that Gareth Edwards has made Godzilla the superhero I grew up with far outweigh those early issues.

This is my Godzilla. This is My King of Monsters. And I am glad that he has returned.

Godzilla is PG-13 and opens nationwide on May 16th.

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