When the audience is cheering, you know you got it right.
In 1999, scientists with an organization known as Monarch investigate a mine collapse in the Philippines. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) discovers the remains of an ancient alpha predator and two dormant spores, one of which seems to have tunneled off unseen. Hundreds of miles away at the Janjira nuclear plant in Japan, operations engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) witnesses the collapse of the entire facility with no reason as to why. Fifteen years later, the truth of what happened that day and what really went wrong comes to light… and it’s about to become a gargantuan problem.
It’s amazing what fans and audiences want from a Godzilla film. Originally Gojiri in Japanese, Godzilla was little more than a city-stomping monster, but the real popularity happened when it became a sort of protector to Japan… and later for the entire world. For a feature film, however, it just doesn’t make any sense to have 90-120 minutes of monster battle; there has to be reasons for it, which means you need a plot with relatable (read: human) characters. That means introducing mortal heroes and villains to go with our monstrous ones, or at least well-meaning yet misguided folks who manage to take a bad situation and make it worse. Isn’t it interesting when the scientists are the ones emoting all the “we must have faith” speeches?
Just to get it over with: yes, it’s a real Godzilla film. If you’re a fan of the classic movies, you’ll find plenty to love here along with state-of-the-art special effects and none of that 1998 Roland Emmerich “I based the look of the monster off of my pet iguana” stuff – ugh. This is “the big guy” and everything you love about him, even new and improved with actual facial expressions and CGI body language (yeah, he’s a she in Japan, but so are more of their Anime characters than the average American can count). While the story is basic – a decent group of actors adds far more to the characters than what the dialog suggests was on the scripted page – but the plot points are clever enough, providing a cohesive timeline from where everything starts until cities start getting stomped flat. It can be argued that films like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim stole from the original Godzilla films to work, but the King of the Monsters steals what worked best for those films all back again. It’s a true summer blockbuster spectacle and all that that implies.
It’s easy to poke fun at the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, but among that film’s biggest problems is that it wasn’t the Godzilla fans know and love. This is by no means a perfect movie and it can be argued that it doesn’t really matter as long as we see giant monsters thrashing about, but that would be a lie. Many of the stock parts are very cliché, from the scientist who believes in Godzilla and is against nuclear options (Ken Watanabe) to the soldier struggling to get back to his family but keeps being drawn into the action (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). There’s also the alarmist no one is listening to trying to warn everybody about what’s coming (Bryan Cranston) and the dutiful wife/hospital nurse crying in the shelter (Elizabeth Olsen).
While Watanabe and Cranston are perfectly cast, I could see no reason other than sheer laziness that Johnson and Olsen couldn’t have flipped roles; does it really matter who is rushing home dodging monsters and who is waiting patiently for their loved ones to come back alive? While the story has a few clever bits to keep involving the characters in events they have more of a negative than no positive effect upon, it stretches credibility more than a few times. In addition, how does a skyscaper-sized monster sneak around making no noise when Jurassic Park T-Rexes can be detected with a cup of water?
In spite of issues, the story employs a number of clever feints to keep audiences guessing, from the extent certain characters will play roles in the story up to who the real enemy is, not to mention more than a few stupid ideas from the military. Example: if you think that a 355-foot long monster capable of swimming at over 30 knots is a little dangerous, why would you keep your fleet ships in close proximity right next to it, no matter how frickin’ cool it looks? It’s a running theme, looking awesome over what-the-hell-were-the-writers-thinking – the same argument, by the way, could be made for most of the classic Godzilla films – but for those who seek an overblown blockbuster popcorn flick to kick off the summer, this is the creature comfort you’ve been looking for.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)