The Return of the King

Confession time: when I was a kid, I loved Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie. Please don’t judge me too harshly, I was only ten when it came out and that movie was pretty much geared toward 10-12-year-old boys.

Sure, now that I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, I realize that the movie was pretty lousy. It didn’t really feel like a Godzilla movie, it just took a giant lizard monster and stuck it in New York to cause mayhem and destruction. If it hadn’t been called Godzilla, it could have been just about any generic movie monster. And there was that whole dumb subplot with the Godzilla babies, the less said about which the better.

So yeah, in retrospect, it was a pretty bad movie. But I was still cautiously optimistic about the idea of a new Godzilla movie. The first teaser trailer got me genuinely excited. I loved the vibe of apocalyptic doom the trailer had going on, and how it teased the big guy himself without showing too much.

Godzilla teaser poster

It also had a good cast and an intriguing director. The movie was directed by a fellow named Gareth Edwards, whose only previous directing credit was a low-budget indie called Monsters, and I’m always intrigued when Hollywood gives a big franchise to a relatively new director.

I was excited about Godzilla all last week, and when I finally saw the movie in 3D on Friday, I am happy to say that I came away happy.

Pacific Rim was one of my favorite movies last year, and it helped me realize just how much I enjoy the sight of giant monsters and/or robots duking it out amongst crumbling cities.

Pacific Rim was one of the most purely entertaining movies I saw in 2013, and the new Godzilla isn’t quite as much fun.

This is not to say that it’s a bad movie, however. The best way I can think to describe it is that, if Pacific Rim was The Avengers of monster movies, then Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the Batman Begins of monster movies: darker, grittier, more intense, maybe not quite as much fun, but still really good in its own right.

Godzilla-new-poster

Edwards takes a Spielberg-esque approach to the film, in that, much as Spielberg did in Jaws, he keeps the titular beastie off-screen for much of the film, to the point where the big guy almost seems like a supporting character in his own movie.

This is a little frustrating at times, since there were a few moments when the camera pulled away and I thought “No! I want to see that!” But limiting the title character’s screen time has the effect of making every one of his appearances have a lot more impact. Every time the G-unit shows up, his appearance feels like it has weight and significance, and isn’t just an opportunity to indulge in state-of-the-art special effects.

And the effects are awesome. Godzilla himself looks fantastic, and I never had a problem suspending disbelief whenever he appeared.

He’s also a hell of a lot bigger than in previous incarnations, which leads to city-leveling destruction (Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco are all thoroughly owned. The poor old Golden Gate Bridge seems to be a frequent casualty in monster and disaster movies. I’m pretty sure it bit the dust in Pacific Rim too).

Godzilla size

It’s also no great spoiler (since it was in the trailers) that Godzilla battles a few other massive beasties in the movie. These are called MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. I won’t spoil too much about what they are or what they’re up to, except to say that the movie spends almost as much time developing their story as it does Godzilla’s.

And it’s a good story, too. It incorporates a lot of the nuclear fears that were a big part of Godzilla’s origin story and which were largely glossed over in the 1998 version. It pays tribute to 1954’s classic original Godzilla while still putting its own spin on it.

The human characters, unfortunately, aren’t quite as captivating as the giant monsters. They’re not unlikable or anything and I generally didn’t have a problem rooting for them, they’re just kind of bland. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Elizabeth Olsen do what they can, but their characters are kind of thinly written (Coincidentally, both actors will be in Avengers 2 next year, playing brother and sister instead of husband and wife).

The supporting cast fares better, with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as the tormented father of Taylor-Johnson’s character, whose wife was killed in a nuclear reactor meltdown under mysterious circumstances. Also present is the great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (Inception) as a scientist tracking Godzilla and his ilk. I would have liked to have seen more of him and of Monarch, the mysterious organization he works for, but there was plenty of other stuff going on in the movie so I didn’t mind too much.

Godzilla bridge

And, despite Godzilla himself being kept in the shadows for much of the film, the movie is action-packed. There are numerous close calls and tense encounters, all of which are characterized by palpable suspense and top-notch effects work. The HALO jump sequence showcased in the trailer I linked to above was a definite highlight, and probably my favorite scene in the movie.

It’s a harrowing, heart-pounding sequence, and it puts the viewer right there in the middle of the action. The incredibly ominous soundtrack and striking visuals make the scene feel like something out of Dante’s Inferno, a descent into a creature-filled hell. It’s one of the most intense and memorable scenes I’ve seen in 2014 so far.

Godzilla jump

The movie did a really great job of capturing what it would actually feel like to be a tiny, puny human in the middle of a giant monster attack. The sense of scale of the monsters is really impressive. Humans are used to being the most dominant species on the planet, and this movie did an incredibly convincing job of turning that on its head.

The epic final monster battle, while it takes a while to arrive, is well worth it. Edwards clearly understands the need to reward viewers’ patience, and he does so in spectacular fashion with a city-demolishing final battle that showcases the big G in all of his immense, terrifying, fire-breathing glory. It’s a great sequence, and it really differentiates itself from other, similar movies.

In Pacific Rim, for example, the biggest action sequence takes place in the middle of a brightly-lit, rain-drenched city, full of vivid neon colors. By contrast, Godzilla’s final battle takes place in a city darkened by EMP blasts, and much of the light comes from the fires raging throughout the city. Again, think of the bright colors of The Avengers versus the darker color palette of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

Godzilla is the granddaddy of giant monsters, and Gareth Edwards’ film pays fitting tribute to his legacy. At the end of the movie, as the great beast returns to the briny deep from whence he came, I found myself itching for more.

And more is coming, because the G-unit stomped the competition on his opening weekend, proving that people still like giant monster movies, and that the name Godzilla still carries weight. Hopefully Edwards will be involved in the sequels, since the guy clearly knows what he’s doing.

One of my first posts was about the original Godzilla, which is a movie that still retains much of its original power, so check that out if you’re interested. The Criterion Collection edition is well worth picking up, it even has cool packaging that unfolds into a little pop-up Godzilla.

Godzilla criterion

On an unrelated note, yesterday, May 18, marked the two-year anniversary of my first blog post. Since that first post I’ve gotten more than 2,500 total views, which to me is mind-blowing. It still kind of amazes me to think that there might be people out there who are actually interested in what I write, so to each and every one of you I just want to say thank you very, very much.

Here’s to two more years! Thanks so much everybody!!

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