Godzilla shows up fairly late in the new movie that bears his name, and he also shows his age. Though this gigantic monster is, within the film?s own mythico-scientific terms, the long-slumbering reminder of a primordial, prehuman age, by the calendar of popular culture, he?s a baby boomer. And now, roughly 60 years after he first appeared (as Gojira in the still unsurpassed, recently restored Japanese original), everybody?s favorite skyscraper stomper is exhibiting some familiar generational traits. He seems grumpy and underslept, as well as thicker around the jowls and midriff. And though he arrives dragging the usual heavy allegorical baggage, you can detect a trace of wistful worry in his rampages, as if he had begun to doubt his own relevance.
In the old days, after all, Godzilla really meant something. He was the supreme embodiment of atomic-age terrors, meting out punishment (and also offering redemption) for humankind?s technological hubris. There is still plenty of that to contend with, but the focus of global anxiety has shifted from nuclear annihilation to climate change and related problems. Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards from a screenplay by Max Borenstein, doesn?t engage these matters directly, though it does contain some perfunctory scolding (?Such arrogance,? mutters a scientist played by Ken Watanabe) and a soothing fantasy in the midst of all the destruction. We?ve made a big mess of things with our missiles and our power plants, but Godzilla (again according to Watanabe?s character) is nature?s way of restoring balance.
He also shoots radioactive beams out of his mouth and levels tall buildings with a flick of his tail. And this Godzilla, though it surpasses Roland Emmerich?s 1998 Hollywood version, remains safely within the bounds of the modern action movie spectacular. It is at once bloated and efficient, executed with tremendous discipline and intelligence and conceived with not too much of either.
Appreciation of a movie like this requires an almost morbid degree of connoisseurship, which may, in practice, be hard to distinguish from bored acquiescence. Evaluating its components is a little like scoring gymnastics or figure skating. You factor in degree of difficulty, technical accomplishment and various subjective responses, and it is always helpful to have points of comparison. How does the obliteration of, say, Honolulu stack up against the smashing of Chicago in that Transformers movie? Are the fights between Godzilla and the other Kaiju as cool as the Kaiju-Jaeger battles in Pacific Rim? Does Elizabeth Olsen, as the worried wife and mom, have more to do than Mireille Enos did as the worried wife and mom in World War Z? Can Aaron Taylor-Johnson?s neck really be thicker than Channing Tatum?s?
I know, I couldn?t believe it either. Taylor-Johnson, who was the pretty-boy Vronsky in Anna Karenina and the avenging nerd in the Kick-Ass movies, reports for duty as a muscly military guy whose family business is mixed up with Godzilla?s. His name is Ford Brody, and his parents (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, a dream couple if ever there was one) were engineers at a Japanese nuclear plant where something went very wrong in 1999. Now, 15 years later, Ford?s dad has become a wild-eyed truther, the walls of his tiny Tokyo apartment plastered with newspaper clippings and charts. He?s convinced that whatever happened at his former workplace was no natural disaster.
We have suspected as much all along, but Godzilla is in no hurry to show us the monsters. Edwards? first feature was the clever, low-budget Monsters, and even with a lot of money at his disposal, he often prefers subtlety and indirection to obvious noise and spectacle. He seems more interested in showing the aftermath of a calamity than the event itself, and the vistas of trampled cityscapes are frequently more memorable and always more haunting than the chaotic scenes of smashing and flooding that clutter the film?s climax. Two sequences - one on a rainy San Francisco bridge, the other at a railroad trestle somewhere in Nevada - offer master classes in how to create suspense out of shadows, quiet and the sheer agony of waiting for something to happen.
What does happen is hardly surprising. A lot of people die, almost all of them anonymous citizens of unlucky metropolises. Most of those you expect to survive do so. You might not care about them quite as much as you?re supposed to, since the characterizations are thin, and the talents of the actors mostly squandered. Still, one of the pleasures the movie offers is the thought that actors who have done splendid work elsewhere - Cranston and Binoche, and also Sally Hawkins as another scientist - are being paid well for shouting, grimacing and spouting expository claptrap.
The soul of Godzilla, to the extent that it has one, dwells with the monsters. Not only with the great, angry lizard, but also with the pair of insectlike Mosura (evocative of Mothra, Godzilla?s historic nemesis) that are causing most of the trouble. These sleek and scary creatures eat ICBMs like Tic Tacs and are preparing to meet up in San Francisco to spawn. Godzilla?s job is to spoil the romance.
People are thus somewhat incidental to the story, and their feelings - mostly fear and determination - are less interesting than those of the ancient giants, who in their slimy, scaly, computer-generated movements and expressions register rage and anguish with an intensity beyond what the humans can muster. And in Godzilla?s eyes you see something else, too: the desire, at long last, to be left alone.