When it comes to monster movies, while zombies, vampires and demons have all served as stand-ins for a variety of real-life social ills, Godzilla has remained consistent. In one way or another, the city-leveling lizard has always represented humanity's arrogance. This is certainly the case in the latest installment of the storied Kaiju.
As with all comic book-ish reboots of late (read: Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy), there is nothing campy about this "Godzilla." Director Gareth Edwards ("Monsters"), aims to keep things serious, and succeeds, which is good thing. The film is leagues ahead of the previous American Godzilla film -- 1998's ill-conceived and unintentionally goofy take on the radioactive reptile, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring a strangely cast Matthew Broderick.
"Godzilla" begins in 1999, with Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), two scientists who have devoted their lives to studying MUTO, or massive unidentified terrestrial organisms for a secretive global organization. On the day we are introduced to Serizawa and Graham, a mining operation in the Philippines has uncovered a gigantic spore, deep beneath a dig site where the miners had been hunting radioactive metals.
That same year we are also introduced to Joe Brody (Brian Cranston), who lives with his family in Japan, where he works as a scientist at the local power plant. On the day we meet Brody something goes terribly wrong at the plant. Massive tremors a meltdown, Brody's wife Sandra is killed and the course of their son's life is altered forever.
Flashing forward to modern day, an all-grown-up Ford Brody (the square-jawed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son Sam (Carson Bolde) live together in San Francisco. Ford, just back from a tour of duty, is preparing to spend some quality time with his family when a phone call from Japan throws a wrench in his plans. His father, Joe, has been arrested in the containment zone and he decides to go bring dad home.
"It's not the end of the world," Elle reassures him. Heh…
Of course, it is the end of the world, and Ford is quickly thrust into the midst of an epic adventure that brings him face-to-face with a pair of nuclear-warhead-scarfing, insect-like MUTOs, hellbent on procreating, as well as the film's titular monster, who -- spoiler alert -- turns out to be the good guy when all is said and done.
For what it is, "Godzilla" is quite good, and works on multiple levels. There are plenty of eye-popping special effects and edge-of-your-seat shoot-em-up sequences, Edwards tastefully applies 3D without overdoing it, and the "science" explaining the monsters isn't lazy and even feels plausible at times. And then there's the cast.
Cranston is stellar (natch), and the emotion and terror Olsen conjures throughout the film is palpable. But perhaps the most pleasantly surprising display of emotion comes courtesy of the film's CGI team, who contort the face of the film's namesake beast into expressions that convey rage, pain and empathy.
In one of the film's most powerful moments, Ford looks the monster in the eyes and finds a sentient being looking back at him. In that moment, the monster -- near death's door after an epic battle with the two radiation hungry MUTOs -- seems to confirm that it was indeed fighting to "restore order," as Dr. Serizawa had predicted earlier in the movie.
It is in moments such as these that "Godzilla" becomes more than a well cast, finely executed action film. Through the monster's languishing we realize that if it weren't for all the nuclear testing, and the Cold War's arms race -- if, in other words, humanity could have just been peaceful -- it's likely none of this would have happened.
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence. Two hours, three minutes.