Attacked by Monsters: The Return of the American Godzilla

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Godzilla prepares to save mankind.
Godzilla prepares to save mankind.

Everybody loves Godzilla, the world-famous Japanese monster. At least most people seem to like it enough so that Hollywood has decided to bring it back to the silver screen after a 16-year hiatus once more. Not that it’s the least bit surprising, given the American film industry’s recent penchant for remakes, reboots, and sequels. The dinosaur-like beast has been around for six decades since its first appearance now. In a way, the new Godzilla by director Gareth Edwards is therefore also a kind of birthday present for one of Japan’s favorite export goods.

The Philippines, 1999: Mine workers accidentally awaken a giant prehistoric monster dubbed ‘Muto’ (Massive Unknown Terrestrial Organism). The creature proceeds to destroy a nuclear power plant run by American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and kills his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) during the attack.

Fifteen years later, their son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a family man of his own who works as a bomb expert for the U.S. Army. He is called to Japan because his guilt-ridden father has been incarcerated for trying to enter the restricted area around the former electricity station. After his release, the elder Brody is able to convince his offspring that the government huggermuggered the true reason for the disaster there a decade and a half earlier.

Returning to the site of the erstwhile plant, both become witness of the male Muto’s reawakening. The creature has parked itself inside the ruin and nourished on the remaining radioactive material. Soon after, Joe is hurt and dies in a rescue helicopter when the monster escapes and lays waste to all the facilities created to prevent such a break-out. Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), whose organization Monarch has long examined the Mutos, calls Ford for help.

Meanwhile the creature flees to Hawaii and eats the reactor of a nuclear submarine. All attempts to dispatch it fail. It moves on to reproduce with a second Muto, a female, hidden in the United States – something that Joe Brody predicted because he spotted a mating call intended for the male monster. At the same time, Godzilla appears to track down the first Muto in Hawaii. Serizawa calls it an ‘alpha predator’ and mankind’s only hope. Representatives of the U.S. Army, however, see things differently…

While Gareth Edwards’ take on the Japanese legend is certainly truer to the original than Roland Emmerich’s previous Hollywood version, each possesses rather obvious flaws. The worst of the new Godzilla is the screenplay by Max Borenstein, which has little to offer in terms of character depth and pacing. For that reason, even usually great actors like Breaking Bad common-man-turned-villain Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Juliette Binoche remain rather anemic. At least the three veterans fare better than budding stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (playing Ford’s wife Elle) and make the best of the limited screen time they receive.

Another weak point is the introduction of the eponymous monster. Even though the movie bears the title Godzilla, the prehistoric giant lizard seems to be relegated to a supporting role for the most part. It had to fight similarly malevolent antagonists in its many Japanese films. Here, however, the connection between the three big monsters feels a little awkward or shaky at best until the ‘grand finale’ in San Francisco, where Godzilla becomes mankind’s savior by liberating the desperate people from the Muto plague.

In fact, apart from some of the more entertaining action sequences, the ending may be the movie’s big saving grace. It turns the two-hour blockbuster into a spiritual event of sorts. By protecting the humans from the satanic nuclear creeps, Godzilla effectively becomes a knight in shining armor of almost religious proportions – and demonstrates that there will always be special places in people’s hearts, even for monsters.

For that reason, if not on a particularly high note, Gareth Edwards’s film at least ends on a positive note. It becomes a feel-good story when the gargantuan prehistoric lizard enables Ford Brody and so many others to return to their families. That, in itself, makes amends for some of the movie’s duller moments and for the complete absence of humor and comic relief. For all its obvious flaws, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla didn’t take itself all too seriously, while Gareth Edwards and company have taken the totally opposite route.

As with all remakes and reboots, we’re left with the question whether the new version was really necessary. In this instance, the answer must sadly be a ‘no,’ since this Godzilla is no must-watch movie. That doesn’t mean that it’s a horrible film. It’s a decent, enjoyable monster flick if you’re into something with a darker, broodier atmosphere. Additionally, it’s good to see the legend of Godzilla introduced to a new generation of viewers, but unfortunately, it could have been so much more. Maybe Gareth Edwards takes something away from his first experience at the helm of a big-budget project. The sequel to this one has already been announced for 2018, anyway.