If ever there's been a silver screen star deserving of a reboot, it's Godzilla. Though never leaving Japanese cinemas for very long, Western audiences have had to live with the woeful memory of the 1998 Matthew Broderick-starring flick for too long. Thankfully, the 2014 Godzilla reboot is a glorious, heart-felt rebirth for the King of the Monsters that will please monster movie fans both new and old -- and there's not a Godzooky in sight.
An origins story of sorts that harks back to the 1954 original, Godzilla presents the titular monster as an ancient beast -- one that the world's governments have long been aware of. All those nuclear tests far out to sea during World War II? In Godzilla's alternate-history universe, they were attempts to fell the mighty lizard. When humanity's continued abuse of nuclear power gives birth to a potentially world-ending threat, Godzilla is drawn from his sea-bound slumber onto land -- with devastating results.
Director Gareth Edwards showed his considerable skill at avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of B-Movie monster genre flicks with his indie hit Monsters, and even with a budget more than ten times the size of his first movie manages his super-sized star with restraint. Edwards has a real eye for a beautiful shot (the "halo jump" scene from the trailer alone will attest to that), and while "Spielbergean" comparisons will likely be made, Edwards is quickly establishing a style all of his own. It's a tense and atmospheric film, which at moments reminded me surprisingly of Alien, particularly during the first-half slow build with its lingering sense of impending doom.
Edwards also manages the sense of scale superbly -- from the skyscraper-sized monster smack downs to the worm's-eye viewpoint of the woefully under prepared humans fleeing in his wake, Godzilla's never looked bigger or meaner. Clever, slightly-obscured shots (in which lead Aaron Taylor-Johnson watches the chaos around him unfold through a steamed-up gas mask, or another with children viewing Godzilla tear through a bridge from cracked school bus windows) give the film a sense of reportage authenticity that grounds action that could otherwise very easily veer towards the ridiculous.
Where the monstrous action succeeds, however, the human cast is a more hit-and-miss affair. Bryan Cranston as a conspiracy-theory obsessed former nuclear scientist is as superb as ever, giving his all as the movie's tragic herald of doom, ignored by the authorities until it's all too late. He's criminally underused, as is his onscreen wife Juliette Binoche, with the pair sharing a heart-breaking early scene that establishes the main human interest story for the film.
The rest of the cast have their moments (Ken Watanabe obviously relishes his role as the Godzilla expert), but both Watanabe and Sally Hawkins suffer from a script that requires they be walking exposition machines. Elizabeth Olsen isn't given much to do despite her considerable acting talent, and even the reliable Taylor-Johnson fails to find the spark. He's had to beef up considerably to convincingly play a US Army bomb disposal expert here, but just doesn't look comfortable carrying the extra weight. Being the sort of genre flick that it is, any cast is always going to be up against an audience's desire to just see a colossal lizard smash a city up, but there was potential for a little more to have been eked out of Godzilla's human co-stars.
For long-time fans of the veteran monster series there are many nods back to the roots of the franchise and (if you've managed to avoid web spoilers) some great surprises too. The film perfectly balances Godzilla's traditional role of destructor-come-hero, and his roar is the coolest sound effect you'll hear all year. I was lucky enough to see a Dolby Atmos screening of the movie, and the film certainly benefits from being seen in as big and as loud a cinema screen as you can find.
I left the cinema wishing I was 10 years old again to justify my desire to roar at the top of my lungs, stamping on a tiny imaginary city beneath my feet. Justified or otherwise (and much to the embarrassment of my girlfriend) I spent ten minutes on the way home doing that anyway. I can't think of any higher praise for a Godzilla film than that.
Godzilla hits cinema nationwide from May 15th.