Godzilla. Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures
MANILA -- Here's something I didn't expect coming in to watch "Godzilla," Hollywood's new take on the 60-year-old Japanese monster icon: Godzilla fights two monsters and they both come from the Philippines.
This is the second Hollywood movie to feature giant monsters coming from this part of the world. The first, Guillermo del Toro's excellent "Pacific Rim," didn't show the giant beast fighter but did show the monster's giant pile of radioactive dung in Manila.
So, were the Pacific Rim kaiju and Godzilla's beetle-like beasts related? Was it a giant dung beetle that passed Manila in Pacific Rim and a giant "kuto" (head lice) in Godzilla? Did Hollywood scriptwriters watch the old Darna movie where Vilma Santos fights a giant toad and go: "Hey, maybe there are giant, radioactive monsters in the Philippines." Where’s the connection?
Philippine connection or not, there’s plenty to like in this new screen adaptation of "Gojira." Gone is Roland Emmerich’s lighthearted take on "Godzilla": this giant dino is mean, porky and has a design that hews very, very closely to the Toho original. In fact, it is so faithful to the original that it still looks like a giant man in a suit. Picture a giant Barney dinosaur, only greasier. At one point, the BFG (Big, Friendly Godzilla) tries to hug one of the giant insect things with his big, brawny arms but the insect doesn’t like hugs so they fight it out. Godzilla wins then goes to sleep. Cue end credits (“I love you, you love me…”)
The starting credits show nukes being set off in the Pacific as governments secretly try to kill the monster after waking him up in 1954. They fail and there’s a question whether all the Japanese Toho features really did happen in this fictional universe.
A secret organization monitors signs of Godzilla and further monster activity before finally getting one in the Philippines in 1999. There, scientists Ichiro Serizawa (an always worried Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) find the fossil of a giant monster as well as two monster eggs, one of which has already hatched.
Cut to Japan where seismic activity similar to that in the Philippines has started up near a nuclear plant there. Joe Brody (the excellent Bryan Cranston) is worried about the tremors, especially since his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), has to work closer to the radioactive material in a lower level of the plant.
The movie trailer spoils what happens in the nuclear plant but it is during this early part that we get the best character work and the best acting in the entire movie.
Cranston puts so much humanity in his role as the husband and father who loses a loved one to an unexplainable event that you can’t help but pull for him.
The movie takes a 15-year jump from the nuclear plant accident to the present day and Joe eases us into the transition because he hasn’t moved on; he’s still looking for answers after the plant and the entire area surrounding it becomes a military zone.
Brody is the everyman who can’t move on after an act of nature destroys everything precious in his life. When he drops out of the movie about a fourth of the way in, you feel the story slightly deflate – why remove a character that you are so emotionally invested in when the alternative is so much weaker?
Ford Brody (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) gets center stage after the death of his father and we get his background in narrative shorthand, he’s got a wife and child that he has to leave because of unfinished business with his father and they don’t get back together until the very end.
Johnson doesn’t give Ford much of an inner life and he’s sometimes treated like filler material, which is fine because this is a movie titled "Godzilla" and not Ford Brody. Ford keeps getting shoehorned into the main fights between Godzilla and the two monsters but he’s largely irrelevant; every time we cut away from Godzilla and back to the humans, the excitement meter just dips.
The action takes place in different places: The Philippines, Japan, Nevada, San Francisco and the middle of the ocean, giving a sense that this is a global event. Edwards has a great eye for setting atmosphere, whether it’s a Japanese city left to rot, jampacked highways or a football stadium full of refugees. When paratroopers do a HALO jump into the heart of destruction, you know you’re in the hands of a master visualist.
The disaster feel never lets up; the story is mostly humorless and dour as monsters fight, buildings crash, and people run. We also get a sense of scale: the movie gives an eye-level view of these monsters as their movements cause earthquakes, tidal waves and other disasters.
And finally, Godzilla. He’s not quite the metaphor for nuclear terror as in the previous films but more a benevolent force of nature that causes just as much damage as the other, more violent monsters by simply moving.
Godzilla is still King of Monsters. Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures
Edwards treats his movie as a string of reveals: we get a full look at the MUTO – that bug-like creature from Japan early in the story but never a full reveal of Godzilla until the end. Instead we get huge dorsal spikes and a tail that levels skyscrapers, one scene that pops out is a tidal wave hitting a beach, flooding an entire town and then soldiers firing flares at the leg of Godzilla, just the leg, and it’s bigger than anything in the town.
Is the final fight scene between Godzilla and the two MUTOs (Muto and Kuto, the monster couple) worth the price of a ticket? Absolutely. You get kaiju vs kaiju action without a single human-powered jaeger in sight. Godzilla proves himself the King of Monsters yet again with a sweep of his tail and a blast of his atomic breath. The screech-roar still resounds, deafens, and thrills.
Perhaps the next movie will give us less bait-and-switch, more monster vs monster fights, but for now, this will have to do. It took Hollywood 60 years to get the King of Monsters just right, and it’s about time.