The original Godzilla, made in 1954, isn’t as much a monster movie as an ominous call to Hiroshima and the H-bomb. The beast, an enormous, radiation powered dinosaur hybrid, was a living representation of nuclear warfare come to wreak havoc on human society. Godzilla’s destruction of Tokyo was a way for Japan to convey their unease with such hazardous weaponry as the only country actually attacked by an atomic bomb.
As years passed by, Godzilla became more or less a blistering anti-hero. He would still tear through Japan now and then but would also protect the nation and the world from other creatures with worse intents. The schlockiness of these movies appealed to me at an early age, back when seeing two giant monsters duking it out was enough for me to get excited about. Even now when I look back at the old Godzilla movies I find them hard to criticize because the camp factor of the films make them so enjoyable.
The main reason why Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version was such a colossal failure was because it had no connection with the Japanese Godzilla, not just because the Americanized mutated iguana in no way resembled the bipedal dinosaur but the monster had no personality or spirit. The previous Godzilla movies may not be very credible pieces of cinema but they gave the eponymous beast a character. We recognize Godzilla not as a man in a bad rubber suit but a creature hell-bent on destruction. Emmerich’s Godzilla, though, was soulless; feeling more like millions of 1s and 0s on the screen instead of rampaging and confused beast.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla wipes away the grime Emmerich put upon the Japanese icon and returns the monster back to his roots. For the first time in sixty years since the original, Godzilla has become a symbol for radioactive destruction. Yet this Godzilla is marveled for a post-9/11 age. Through Edwards’ bleak imagery, Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren’t just evoked but the nuclear crisis at Fukushima only a few years ago as well as the collapse of the World Trade Center. This is the Godzilla movie that fans have been waiting for, the one that the radioactive breathing monster has deserved for a long time.
Without giving away much, Godzilla’s arrival is similar to that in his 1954 origin. An ancient beast that feeds on nuclear energy, Godzilla is awakened in the atomic age, along with other monsters whose presence proves to be a threat to humanity’s existence. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has suspected that the world’s been hiding this secret for years after his wife (Juliette Binoche) is killed in the meltdown of a Japanese nuclear disaster in 1999. Cut to fifteen years later and Joe is still obsessed with what the Japanese government is covering up. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has just returned from a tenure working on the bomb squad in the US army, comes to bail his father out of jail after he enter prohibited radioactive areas. But soon Ford finds himself entrapped in the rise of these creatures.
Edwards, whose previous film Monsters was built on a miniscule $500,000 budget, proves a different visual flare than most directors. Godzilla feels darker and grittier than any other blockbuster in years, being grave and serious without the smirk and pretension of the 1998 version. Edwards pays tribute not only to the Godzilla movies to the past but many other notable pictures, most notably the blockbusters of Steven Spielberg (like Jaws, Godzilla isn’t fully seen until a good portion of the picture and like Close Encounters, there’s a childlike wonder of the spectacle the characters are witnessing). In a world dominated by the Marvel movies, most of which are just the same picture over and over, Godzilla is a refreshing breath of air.
Still, Godzilla has its share of faults, particularly with its human characters. While Cranston and Binoche deliver strong performances worthy of their reputations (Cranston in particular evokes the despair and anger of his antihero Walter White in Breaking Bad), Aaron Taylor-Johnson feels like the weak-link in the picture, though that’s mostly because his character is pretty much the stock army hero audiences have become all too familiar with. Not to mention the introduction of the monsters felt a bit too rapidly accepted and some extra time showing the shock of the radioactive beasts would have helped the movie plot-wise. However, Godzilla succeeds in its goal of a modern monster movie, being both entertaining and horrifying.