In Godzilla, director Gareth Edwards sets out to revive something that has practically disappeared from big-budget Hollywood spectacles: A sense of awe. Instead of revealing his hand right from the start and then trying to top himself a la Transformers or Pacific Rim, Edwards makes you wait for the good stuff, teasing you along the way with crumbs but keeping his main attraction offscreen until the second half (Spielberg is an obvious influence here, specifically Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Everyone knows an enormous fire-breathing lizard is eventually going to emerge from the ocean and stomp on puny humans. But by raising your expectations and making you anticipate the star’s entrance, Edwards ramps up the excitement, so the payoff is even bigger. Here, finally, is a giant monster movie made in the anything-goes CGI era still capable of making your jaw drop.
That’s not to imply the first hour of Godzilla is all set-up and talky exposition. Working from a script by Max Borenstein, who cleverly pays homage to the 1954 original and the sequels that followed, the movie opens in 1999 Japan, when a nuclear reactor disaster sets the plot in motion. The film then flash-forwards to the present-day, and the consequences of the accident become evident. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play nuclear scientists; Aaron Taylor-Johnson is their U.S. Marine son, who is married to Elizabeth Olsen. Ken Watanabe is another scientist who may know more than he’s letting on, and David Strathairn is the American military commander whose resources are about to be sorely tested.
The previews for Godzilla have thus far done a stellar job of preserving the movie’s plentiful surprises, so you won’t get any plot summarizing here. The performances are fine, even though the characters are on the thin side, the way they always are in this genre (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen do exactly what’s required of them, which is to make you care for them as a couple and hope they manage to survive the carnage). Edwards, whose previous (and only) movie, the low-budget Monsters, centered on the effects of an invasion by giant aliens, uses the big-bucks studio resources for ingenious setpieces and scenarios, such as a suspenseful sequence in which a train must cross a trestle bridge while a huge creature is hiding in plain sight from the audience and the characters.
And when the director finally pulls back the curtain on the big guy, Godzilla eschews the rapid-fire editing of most contemporary blockbusters and lets you take in the monster and the disasters he’s causing in long, uninterrupted takes (Edwards’ version of Godzilla is so humongous, this is the rare movie that really deserves to be seen in IMAX 3D; the sense of size and dimension is astounding).
Unlike Roland Emmerich’s lousy 1998 take on the character, this new Godzilla plays everything seriously, although the film is littered with funny Easter eggs for the hardcore fans. The picture doesn’t quite cross over into must-see territory; Godzilla can’t impart the shock of novelty the 1954 version had (and just last summer, we had Pacific Rim).
But Edwards manages to balance the monstrous with the human to engaging effect: The movie is a cartoon, and it doesn’t leave much of an imprint, but watching it is a blast, and Edwards proves he knows how to craft a memorable image or three. This is an impeccably made movie. See Godzilla on the biggest screen you can and you’ll come away tickled, if not entirely entranced. And the film manages to appropriate a Japanese cinematic icon with the utmost respect and care, paying homage to its roots while relocating the action to America. To paraphrase Blue Oyster Cult, there goes Las Vegas.
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn. Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins.
Director: Gareth Edwards.
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 123 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, monster mayhem. Opens Friday May 16 at area theaters