There’s little doubt in anyone’s mind that over the past 60 years, the world’s most famous kaiju, Godzilla, has earned his title as king of the monsters. He may have had some embarrassing moments, sure, but his name remains a metaphor for any unstoppable force in the larger cultural imagination. Big G, however, didn’t manage to quite get his footing during his first American-made screen outing. Godzilla 1998 is, to put it plainly, a terrible film, with a bizarre and ugly monster design, nonsensical plot, and unappealing characters. It was such a bad movie that the creature that appears in it is not even legally known as Godzilla anymore, thanks to a Toho copyright suit that was probably brought up as revenge more than anything. Yes, the Toho Film Studio’s lawyers would prefer you to call the first American Godzilla just “Zilla” – as that monster is pointedly not godlike.
This is why anyone who had low expectations going into the latest, self-titled Godzillla film, which premiered on US screens to a fandom fanfare on Friday, May 16, could be entirely forgiven. American filmmakers just can’t find the soul of Godzilla, the reasoning went – from first principles the doubters derived the idea that no non-Japanese Zillafilm could possibly be worth watching.
That’s why it’s such a relief – little short of a miracle – that Legendary Pictures fixed the majority of the issues that plagued the 1998 production, resulting in one hell of a return for the Alpha Kaiju.
We begin the movie following Bryan Cranston’s character of Joe Brody, an American nuclear scientist who works at a Japanese atomic power plant. And would that we ended it that way. After discovering a catastrophic, unexplainable anomaly in the reactor apparently originating with seismic waves, Brody goes to investigate alongside his wife, who perishes in the resulting accident. Ridden with guilt and paranoia, Brody retreats into isolation and devotes his life to researching the cause of the accident, which he (correctly) believes is being covered up. This alienates him from his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is to be our real protagonist, a blandly heroic Navy officer and family man whose entire character arc can be summed up as going “disbelieving his dad” to “believing his dad.”
In due course, Ford gets dragged into Joe’s investigation and gets locked up alongside him for trespassing at the disaster site, which allows the two of them to meet Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe, playing the same character as the heroic scientist from 1954’s Gojira), and along with Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), the investigators discover that the accident was caused by the reawakening of an ancient, cicada-like parasite kaiju dubbed M.U.T.O. Seeing as the beast seeks to eat any source of nuclear power it can find, it is very hungry, it can emit electromagnetic pulses that destroy power supplies, and it’s searching for its mate… this is very very bad.
It is only after all this buildup that we actually meet the redesigned Godzilla, a bulky 300-foot subaqueous menace who is far from the film’s antagonist as the trailers might suggest. Instead we get a Godzilla that walks the line between unknowable force of nature far outside of human scale and sympathetic defender of order. It’s hard not to feel a special thrill after hearing the Godzilla roar for the first time, or seeing him use his famous atomic beam to spectacular effect (it only comes out twice in the entire movie, but you get the feeling that those were the two perfect moments to see it, and the first time, where we see Godzilla’s back scutes glow blue and hum out of nowhere, gradually growing brighter and higher-pitched as he charges the beam, is nothing short of magical). Odd as it may be to say, Godzilla is the character who exhibits the greatest personal growth within the film. His blind rage becomes refined through his battles and encounters towards a kind of understanding with humanity – instead of destroying them because they’re in his way, he can crusade for the salvation of all the world’s ecosystems, including that of humans. Even the M.U.T.O.s wind up commanding our sympathy – they have a relationship with one another that it’s not hard to imagine as loving, and their courtship ritual is oddly touching, even if the consequences of it endanger the entire West Coast. And the female M.U.T.O.’s maddened grief is heartbreaking even as Godzilla saves us all by defeating her.
Everything about Godzilla the monster within the context of Godzilla film is an absolute delight. It’s a shame he’s not in it more – it takes more than half the run time for him to simply show up, and he’s not even fighting until the last quarter or so. The slow build of tension works well right up until the moment when you check your watch and think “Where is he, anyway?” I can understand the concern about not overusing your star player, and Godzilla is an excellent monster film – but it could have been even better if it had bothered to show more of its own monsters.
Of course, about as soon as a fandom film like this one premieres, there’s talk of sequels in the rumor mills, and all the background references in this movie point to one thing when and if there’s a second Legendary Pictures Godzilla: The pictures of lepidopterans and the literal word “Mothra” labeling an insect in a glass case in the foreground at one point indicate a reboot of the Mothra character as well.