It's been 60 years since Ishirô Honda unleashed Godzilla, his cinematic metaphor for the dangers of nuclear weapons upon the world. As timescales for reboots go, two generations sounds about right. (We're going to pretend that 1998 did not happen.) And 2014's simply, elegantly titled Godzilla goes about updating the King of All Monsters for the 21st Century in ways that work beautifully and have moved in tandem with the global zeitgeist. Hollywood's tedious myopia means the movie as a whole isn't quite so beautiful, and that's a problem, but it only prevents this incarnation from approaching masterpiece status — it still keeps its B-movie fabulousness.
Instead of nukes, global warming is the bugaboo behind today's monster. Oh, no one speaks the phrase "climate change," but that's what this Godzilla is all about: a natural world that is so utterly oblivious to us, it doesn't even notice us as it destroys our coastal cities, our nuclear power plants, our beautiful infrastructure. We are as gnats to nature — and that should scare us more than any made-up monster ever could. There's a slyness in how the script — by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham — sneaks up on its metaphor. See, Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) works with a secret research group that's been studying Godzilla since the 1950s, when all those nuke "tests" in the Pacific were actually attempts to kill the damn thing. Now, Ichiro is overseeing a project at a destroyed Japanese nuclear power plant where they've got some sort of cocoon or egg or … well, it's nasty and enormous and clearly not something we should be poking with a stick. "Why don't they just kill it?" you find yourself wondering (in between the geeky desire to get closer, of course).
Turns out, Ichiro is way ahead of us. To no avail. And he's the expert here.
The less you know about what happens next, the better. My jaw dropped more than once, in between nerdy giggles of delight. Director Gareth Edwards — who wowed us with his indie wonder Monsters — clearly loves him some Spielberg, and without being slavishly imitative, he evokes both Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind here. Not in any way that you can pin down: It's not that he's swiping plot points or visuals, but a sense of wonder and that sense of "I knew capital-T They were hiding something!", Edwards hides more than he reveals, with the major monster action happening at night, enshrouded in dust, smoke and fog. He knows there's far more geeky titillation in letting our imaginations do as much work as the CGI is doing.
The only real disappointments in this are the humans. There's little that's fresh in them, and it's only the charms of the cast that elevate them above cardboard. Any of the three plot-driving characters here — Bryan Cranston's nuclear-engineer-turned-monster-conspiracy-theorist Joe Brody, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ford, his soldier son, and Watanabe as the monster scientist — could've easily switched places with the women who thanklessly support them: Juliette Binoche's nuclear scientist Sandra Brody, Elizabeth Olsen's nurse Elle Brody and Sally Hawkins' monster scientist Vivienne Graham. There's no guarantee, of course, that giving a significant monster-battling role to a woman would have made the human drama any more intriguing, but maybe the teensy bit of thinking out of the boys' box that would have required might have jarred one of the two male screenwriters into writing something new.
Still. There's good stuff here. Not just in the cool monster FX, but in the underlying attitude. I like the idea that the cool military hardware on display might be repurposed for something not involving killing other human beings. Of course, it's being repurposed in an effort to restore a balance to nature we unbalanced in the first place — and the rebalancing might be beyond us. Godzilla doesn't have a lot of sympathy for humanity on the whole, but what's really scary is, even when it looks rather kindly on Godzilla, Godzilla still doesn't seem to see us at all.