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The big guy is back, and better than ever. Certainly better than the dreary 2000 version. It’s a testament to GODZILLA, the monster and the franchise, that both are robust enough for another incarnation. Set in the present, it’s a nod to its original, right down to a cute Japanese boy in a baseball cap, getting its essence without being a remake. Instead this GODZILLA is almost contemplative as it makes human folly and hubris at least as scary as prehistoric monsters jarred back to life by the nuclear weapons made possible by the said folly and hubris.
There are nods to more recent times, too, as the film begins in 1999 with a nuclear power plant in Japan destroyed by mysterious seismic waves that, unlike most seismic waves, follow a pattern. The chief engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), is so disturbed by what might happen that he forgets that it’s his birthday. In the wake of the ensuing disaster, and the loss of his wife (Juliette Binoche), Joe will never forget it again. Instead, 15 years later he has becomes a conspiracy buff, certain that there was more to the disaster than the government is letting on, and provoking the government by trespassing into the now quarantined power plant and the city next to it. Enter Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Joe’s son, now grown with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son of his own. And no patience for Joe’s obsessions. Forced to return to Japan when his father is arrested for trespassing, the two find themselves in the midst of a monster mash, as Godzilla rises from the deep, and he’s not alone. Using the familiar device of having scientists (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) reveal the secrets Joe has suspected of existing, Ford, and we in the audience, are brought up to speed before Ford and the film gear up for an unexpectedly effective somber chase across the Pacific to San Francisco, and a story that favors suspense over shock.
Director Gareth Edwards has an unfailing instinct for balancing the seen and the unseen, the heard and the not heard, and for exchanging the one for the other. There are big effects aplenty, but the mood is set not by explosions but by small moments, such as catching Joe’s reflection in a window as he talks about why he can’t let go, rendering him the perfect picture of the ghost mired in the past that he has become. Though the music swells perhaps to emphatically at times, the performances are small, but thoughtfully nuanced. In addition to that by Cranston, who makes obsession both poignant and explosive, Johnson is low key the way his character, an expert on dealing with unexploded ordinance should be, while Olsen is the warm nurturing wife and mother that the role demands, plus she has the best look of stunned disbelief in the face of a monster attack in films today. As is requisite, they are both attractive, but excessively, remaining, unlike the premise, rooted in reality.
For the bigger scenes, in which things get blown up or toppled over or both, even they are more than the usual orgy of destruction. For scale, we get Godzilla seen from above skimming just under the ocean and dwarfing an aircraft carrier. For being put in our places, the creatures of the piece pay no more attention to humans or their infrastructure than children do to the insects or worms they mash while marching across a forest floor. Skyscrapers fall, but only because they are in the way. There is nothing personal involved. Small spoiler, it isn’t Tokyo that gets trampled, it’s Vegas, baby.
GODZILLA builds its excitement the hard way, by keeping us off-balance both with the way this new version offers new twists on the old story. Edwards is more interested in exploring the eeriness, taking the time to give us the soldier’s-eye view as a troop parachutes into the San Francisco fog past Godzilla, close enough to touch him, if they were so inclined. It’s the stuff of nightmares. GODZILLA, however, is anything but. It’s a great, and engrossing, popcorn flick that raises the bar on that genre.
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