Why does it feel like a modest triumph that the new version of Godzilla is actually not bad? This is really the best thing to say about Godzilla—if said in a surprised, huh, who’da thunk it? kind of way: Hey, not bad! It’s an achievement of a kind when a film about a rubber-suited character featured in some of the most infamously ridiculous pablum ever made (Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla) doesn’t make you giggle. Whatever its flaws, and they are many, this Godzilla never does.
That is primarily due to the inspired direction of Gareth Edwards, a young whiz who was entrusted with a $160 million budget after making a $150,000 movie called Monsters (2010) whose special effects dazzled everyone who saw it. Edwards justifies the thousand-fold budgetary increase by a simple directorial gambit: However Michael Bay would have shot a scene in Godzilla, Edwards does the opposite.
Bay, the go-to man in Hollywood for colossally expensive effects films like the three Transformers pictures, goes for endless sequences of urban destruction, which he chops up into thousands of short cuts that make it impossible to get a sense of where the action is taking place or what is happening. It’s all flash and noise, exhausting and maddening, and instantly forgettable—like watching an utterly charmless toddler smashing his toys. (The first Transformers was enlivened here and there by some funny bits of character business for its actors, but by the third film, Bay pretty much dispensed with actors and stories and just set about destroying Chicago.)
The original 1954 Godzilla postulated that the atomic-bomb attacks on Japan both revived the titular dinosaur and made him the height of a skyscraper. The new movie plays ripped-from-the-headlines games as well, and cleverly: It begins with a mine collapse in the Philippines, reminiscent of the one in Chile a few years ago, and then proceeds to a Fukushima-like crisis. An American engineer played beautifully (natch) by Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad works at a Japanese nuclear plant that is destroyed by a supposed earthquake. He realizes, however, that the calamity was not the result of a seismic disaster but something far stranger. His obsession with the case turns him into a reclusive crank. Fifteen years later, Cranston is arrested for trying to sneak back into the city where the plant had been located—a city entirely abandoned and under quarantine due to radiation.
Cranston realizes there was, in fact, never a radiation breach. The city was sealed off because there is something at the plant the world cannot know about. Just as in the original Godzilla, nuclear tests in the 1950s brought back a giant dinosaur that emerged from the deep, made trouble, and then returned to it.
An international organization was created to locate Godzilla before he could reemerge to destroy all of humankind. But it turns out it was not Godzilla that took out the nuclear plant, but the arrival across the seas from the Philippines of some kind of prehistoric hatching pod attracted by the radiation. The creature that emerges from it is a terrifyingly sleek flying bug about 100 feet tall—and it’s come to look for friends.
This is the first half-hour of the new Godzilla, and it’s terrific—ominous and compelling, and for a monster movie aimed at adolescents, surprisingly tough. What follows isn’t anywhere near as good, because it’s little more than the serial destruction of three cities and the well-meaning but lame efforts of the U.S. military to stop the creatures. Godzilla appears eventually, and for once, the problem isn’t that Godzilla is laughable; rather, the plot is. For example, even though the military honchos know the creatures live off radiation and cannot be killed by it, they keep conveniently putting nuclear weapons within easy reach. (Apparently Hollywood big-shots don’t know you can use powerful missiles that don’t have nukes on them.)
But by not showing us too much of the giant monsters, as last year’s dreadful Pacific Rim did, Gareth Edwards makes sure we remain unsettled by them. And watching Godzilla doesn’t give you a headache the way Michael Bay’s movies do. No wonder the movie made far more money in its first weekend than its studio dared to dream it would; after a decade of watching monster-disaster movies that try to top each other by piling on the wreckage, audiences are finding Edwards’s less-is-more approach a thrilling change of pace.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.