Godzilla Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
He may be the title character of Godzilla, but the giant lizard takes second billing as a villain in director Gareth Edwards’ reimagining of the classic Japanese monster movie. It takes a good hour for Godzilla to even make an appearance, and before he does, he’s overshadowed by two deadly creatures known as MUTOs (for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), which pose a far greater threat to humanity. The rampaging, city-destroying Godzilla audiences might expect instead turns out to be mankind’s unlikely savior.
Sixty years after the original Godzilla and 16 years after Hollywood last adapted the source material, Edwards attempts to honor the serious intentions of the 1954 film, to deliver a modern summer blockbuster and to incorporate elements of the long-running series of (often dubious) Godzilla sequels. He isn’t able to make a movie that functions as all things to all people, but he succeeds more than he falters, and he successfully erases the memory of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 flop.
Edwards made his directorial debut with 2010’s Monsters, a low-budget horror movie that kept its deadly creatures mostly offscreen and focused on the relationship between the two main characters, and how the constant threat of death-by-monster informed their interactions. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein focus on human interactions again for most of Godzilla’s first half, but this time the relationships are pretty uninteresting, and the movie doesn’t really take off until it shifts focus from soldier Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his family to the potential world-ending threat of the MUTOs.
Before that, there’s drama between Ford and his scientist father (Bryan Cranston), who’s become a crazed conspiracy theorist after experiencing a disaster that marked the emergence of the MUTOs, and some rote family bonding between Ford, his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son. The generally strong cast also includes Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche, but none of their characters is compelling enough to compete with the giant monsters.
Luckily, Edwards knows how to make those monsters fascinating, whether it’s during a haunting, poetic scene of paratroopers freefalling past Godzilla, or witnessing the destructive power of the MUTOs as they thoroughly destroy the Las Vegas Strip. The movie’s final battle is pretty awe-inspiring, even if the plight of the human characters is never half as interesting as the showdown between Godzilla and his prey. The topical resonance is a bit superficial as well, but it does impart some seriousness to what is at heart a rather silly story about rampaging beasts. Those beasts are what really matter, though, and this movie mostly does them justice.