It's been 60 years since Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla, his cinematic metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons upon the world. As timescales for reboots go, two generations sounds about right. (We're going to pretend that the 1998 remake did not happen.) And 2014's simply and elegantly titled Godzilla goes about updating the King of All Monsters for the 21st century in ways that work beautifully and have moved in tandem with the global zeitgeist. Hollywood's tedious myopia means the movie as a whole isn't quite so beautiful, and that's a problem, but it only prevents this from approaching masterpiece status, and not from keeping it from B-movie fabulousness.
Instead of nukes, global warming is the bugaboo behind today's monster. Like last year's Pacific Rim, no one speaks the phrase "climate change," but that's what this Godzilla is all about: a natural world that is so utterly oblivious to us that it doesn't even notice us as it is destroying our coastal cities, our nuclear power plants, our beautiful infrastructure. We are as gnats to nature, and that should scare us more than any made-up monster ever could. There's a slyness in how the script sneaks up on its metaphor. See, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) works with a secret research group that has been studying Godzilla since the 1950s, when all those nuke "tests" in the Pacific were actually attempts to kill the damn thing. And now, Serizawa is overseeing a project at a destroyed Japanese nuclear power plant where they've got some sort of cocoon, or egg, or, well, it's nasty and enormous and clearly not something we should be poking with a stick. "Why don't they just kill it?" you find yourself wondering (in between the geeky desire to get closer, of course).
Turns out, Serizawa is way ahead of us. To no avail. And he's the expert here.
The less you know about what happens next, the better. I found my jaw dropping more than once, in between nerdy giggles of delight. Director Gareth Edwards—who wowed us with his indie wonder Monsters—clearly loves him some Spielberg, and without being slavishly imitative, he invokes both Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind here. Not in any way that you can quite pin down: it's not that he's swiping plot points or visuals, but a sense of wonder and that sense of "I knew capital-T They were hiding something!" Edwards himself hides more than he reveals, with the major monster action happening at night, enshrouded in dust and smoke and fog: he knows there's far more geeky titillation in letting our imaginations do as much work as the CGI is doing.
The only real disappointment in the film are the humans. There's little fresh in them, and it's only the charms of the cast that elevate them above the cardboard. Any of the three plot-driving characters here—Bryan Cranston's nuclear engineer turned monster conspiracy theorist, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his soldier son, and Watanabe as the monster scientist—could have easily switched places with the women who thanklessly support them: respectively, Juliette Binoche's nuclear scientist, Elizabeth Olsen's nurse, and Sally Hawkins' monster scientist. There's no guarantee, of course, that giving any of these significant monster-battling roles to a woman would have made the human drama any more intriguing, but perhaps the teensy bit of thinking out of the boys' box that would have required might have jarred one of the two male screenwriters into coming up with something new.
Still, there's good stuff here. Not just in the cool monster FX but in the attitude that underlies it. I like the idea that all the cool military hardware on display here might be repurposed for something that does not involve killing other human beings. Of course, it's being repurposed in an attempt to restore a balance to nature that we unbalanced in the first place...and the rebalancing might be beyond us. Godzilla doesn't have a lot of sympathy for humanity on the whole, but what's really scary is that even when it looks rather kindly on Godzilla, Godzilla still doesn't even seem to see us at all.
Dir. Gareth Edwards