Here there be some light spoilers. Ye be warned.
The only proper way to discuss a Godzilla movie is in relation to other Godzilla movies. If you hear someone complaining about the special effects in, say, Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero, that person has already missed the point. That’s one reason the 1998 American version of Godzilla felt so disappointing. It felt the need to distance itself as far as it could from the Japanese series, but it turns out that Godzilla really does work best in the context of what’s gone before.
At least until now, that is. In what amounts to a huge 60th birthday party for the franchise, another American studio is taking a crack at Toho’s crown jewel. Thankfully the results this time are far better. The 2014 iteration of Godzilla is a great summer movie, but it is also a great Godzilla movie. People who know nothing about Godzilla will be glued to their seats as they are enthralled by some of the best special effects I’ve seen in a long time. Those who have grown up with Godzilla will just be happy that they did right by the big fella.
Not that anyone is going to mistake this for the rubber monster suit we knew growing up. This a modern summer blockbuster through and through, albeit a very well-made one. But there are little notes and elements that were clearly done in homage to the original movie. The big guy doesn’t even appear until an hour into the movie, and the old movies often waited a good while to introduce him. Here Godzilla is pitted against two monsters who feed on radiation, continuing the tradition where he is thrown in the ring against the likes of King Ghidorah or Mothra. This is a good move, because it helps the audience have a little investment in what happens to him. He’s not a character, more a force of nature, but most of the original Japanese movies treat him as a de facto good guy, and that’s the case here.
But the execution has to be seen to be believed. That hour of screentime before he appears is not time wasted. We’re introduced to all of the characters, but also to the two M.U.T.O.’s. (That’s Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects for those detail-oriented types.) Instead it spends that time slowly building suspense, only giving us a burst of release every so often. When Godzilla finally appears it feels like we’ve earned a huge reveal, which is exactly what we get.
After that I feared we might be forced to absorb wall-to-wall CGI. There’s plenty of that, but director Gareth Edwards knows to meter out the big stuff. It’s not just 20 minutes of giant monsters wrestling. Of particular note is a frightening scene on a railroad bridge, which doesn’t even involve Godzilla. When we do see the monsters, there is such a sense of scale that I felt dwarfed sitting in my seat. Most of the shots are done from a human point of view, looking up at the monsters. They look just as big as they should, something that hasn’t been true since Godzilla towered over a burning Tokyo skyline in 1954. Edwards clearly knows how to work with special effects. There’s no relentless skakey-cam, no sense that the generated images have less mass than they should, and is always a perceptible sense of danger for the human characters.
Indeed, the eye-level shots and constant danger means that there isn’t a lot of room for levity. It’s not a dark movie really, but it’s pretty serious all-around. In a way this is just reflective of how blockbusters are made now, but it isn’t nearly as brooding or dark as the original 1954 movie, which is just as well since it’s not nearly that thematically driven. It must also be said that while the acting is well done all around, not a lot is demanded of the actors. They mostly need to run away from things and spout ominous statements like “It’s going to send us back to the stone age!” Thankfully they never look like they’re ashamed of the movie they’re in, but there is a sort of utilitarian efficiency to the characters. A couple of major ones die when they stop being useful.
But we’re talking about Godzilla here. If you’re wondering why the characters aren’t better fleshed-out, then you probably meant to go see The Immigrant anyway. This is the kind of movie you see because you want to see a giant lizard smashing things. It’s clearly more interested in being an excellent Godzilla movie than in being anything for its actors. On that count, it succeeds admirably. It has a superb sense of pace and knows how to use all of the tools at its disposal to mine its 60-year-old concept for every thrill it can. If I had a time machine, I would travel back in time to 1991 and tell little Nate that if he loves Godzilla now, what’s coming up in 23 years will blow his mind.