'Godzilla': A Fire-Breathing Behemoth Returns To The Big Screen

May 16, 2014
Originally published on May 16, 2014 3:41 pm

Transcript

DAVIE DAVIES, HOST:

Since 1954, the fire-breathing behemoth Godzilla has had many incarnations. In the Japanese original he was a thinly disguised symbol of the atom bomb but in later films he would fight other giant monsters and even space aliens. In 1998 there was a poorly received American remake by Roland Emmerich. Now comes another American version at a time when the restored original is also in theaters and available on DVD.

The latest "Godzilla" is directed by Gareth Edwards with a cast that includes Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The 1954 "Godzilla"was released when the trauma of the A-bomb was fresh, its title creature an unholy fusion of reptile and radioactive automaton. In the original Japanese cut, not the American version that shoehorned in Raymond Burr as a reporter - it's the grimmest giant monster picture ever made - a vision of nuclear Armageddon that remains unrivaled.

The new American "Godzilla," on the other hand, is served sunny-side up. Its finale is boffo, its message upbeat. I found that slant bewildering for all kinds of reasons, but I have to admit that the last 20 minutes rock. Not so much what comes before it, though. The first three-quarters is choppy and withholding and packed with cliches.

It opens in the Philippines where a foreman leads scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins into a titanic underground cavern. I've been diggin' holes for 30 years, he says, I've never seen anything like it!" Cut to a Japanese nuclear power plant, where engineer Bryan Cranston, under wavy dark hair, confronts strange seismic activity and tries to keep Juliette Binoche as his scientist wife from perishing when things go boom.

Fifteen years later, Cranston is a fanatic, convinced the Japanese government is hiding something, something alive and about to bust out. His son, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is a military specialist trained in bomb dismantling and he thinks his dad is nuts. But we know who's right - we've seen the previews. So we wait, eager to see if state of the art computer generated imagery will give us the Godzilla of our dreams.

Director Gareth Edwards made a successful low budget giant monster picture in 2010 with the generic title "Monsters" in which he mostly kept the creatures offscreen. "Godzilla" has a much bigger budget but holds to the strategy of less is more. On one level, that's refreshing. Too many modern effects movies throw everything at you, making miracles seem cheap.

Edwards handles Godzilla's revelation like a striptease, one scaly green piece at a time. He does the same with two other monsters - nasty spiderlike creatures with flaming slits for eyes and the endearing acronym MUTO Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying our weapons of mass destruction don't work on the MUTOs and that the best hope to stop them from mating and making more MUTOs is Godzilla.

Watanabe's scientist says as much to a military commander played by David Strathairn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GODZILLA")

DAVID STRATHAIRN: (as Admiral Stenz) This alpha predator of yours, Doctor, do you really think he has a chance?

KEN WATANABE: (as Dr. Serizawa) The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around. Let them fight.

EDELSTEIN: Those are wooden readings by Strathairn and Watanabe isn't the life of the party, either. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is nominally the lead but isn't up to his big scenes. Cranston isn't around long and his hair is a distraction. Now it's all about the monsters - what there is of them. In the first encounter between Godzilla and the MUTO, the big lizard starts to give it to the big spider and the director cuts to soldiers locking and loading.

There are more soldiers, more people on the streets of San Francisco where the monsters face off, the camera dollying in on their goggle-eyed faces, a move cribbed from Steven Spielberg. I don't think I was alone in muttering show us the money! Finally, briefly, we get the monster brawl. And it's excellent. The climax is a rouser. I laughed, I cried, I cheered.

And I felt a little taken aback. The original "Godzilla" was a cautionary tale and in the big monster movies that followed in Japan and America the invaders were emblems of humanity's arrogance. We've poisoned the Earth, the movies said and the Earth has come back at us. But this "Godzilla" says explicitly that nature is self-correcting.

That no matter what we do, a higher power will belch forth a savior. With so many threats to the planet, the timing is odd, don't you think? I know it's just a dumb genre picture, but even dumb genre pictures have a tradition of speaking to their era. In this one, the nuclear roar becomes a reassuring purr.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.