Movie Reviews
2:42 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

Son Of? Bride Of? Cousin Of? How Many Godzillas Are There, Already?

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 8:18 pm

The world has already seen 28 Godzilla movies — 29, if you count Roland Emmerich's 1998 Hollywood remake (which most of us don't). So why is another one opening this week?

Well, the fiduciary logic is no doubt compelling if you're a studio executive — even that widely derided '90s version made $379 million — but for the rest of us, director Gareth Edwards needs to make a case. He starts in the opening credits, by letting you know that everything you think you know about this story is suspect. The background is black-and-white footage of atom bomb tests from the 1940s and '50s — the time Godzilla originally surfaced; the foreground, movie credits. But as soon as each credit comes up, it's redacted: words blacked out, censored as if to say the audience lacks security clearance. Something has been kept from us.

Flash forward to 1999, when earnest scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins come across a mysterious radioactive exoskeleton in the Philippines, at about the moment that trouble surfaces at a Japanese nuclear facility. A seismic disturbance — think of it as a bug in the system — destroys the reactor, giving the authorities an excuse to keep everyone away from it for the next 15 years, including a hysterically shock-haired Bryan Cranston, who lost his wife (Juliette Binoche) in the reactor meltdown and who's now convinced that the powers that be are hiding something.

I won't describe what they're hiding, except to say that it's not Godzilla. But it is big, and feeds on radiation, so if you come at it with nuclear weapons, it thinks you're just serving snacks. Oh, and it emits electromagnetic pulses that knock out all things technological. Nifty critter, about to escape. Fortunately for humanity, the navy's on hand to give it an acronym.

"M.U.T.O.," intones Admiral David Straithairn with more seriousness than you might expect. "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism," adding parenthetically that it has ceased being terrestrial and is airborne and headed across the Pacific.

So the navy follows, and on the way, it finds Godzilla — or rather Godzilla finds it, and swims along with the fleet like a whale among minnows all the way to that tough-luck town, San Francisco, which has only just shaken off the critters from Pacific Rim. At least you know the burg can bounce back from a good trampling.

Director Edwards got this job after making a creative little indie called Monsters, on which he had to be creative because his entire budget was less than half a million dollars. Here, his effects budget is more than 200 times that, so it's nice that he's still bothering to be inventive — offering nods to previous Godzilla movies here and there, reflecting real-life environmental concerns just often enough to erase any vestigial memories of Roland Emmerich's 1998 version, and doing a lot of clever visual storytelling through windshield wipers, or freshly gaping holes in trains, or on video screens with wildly understated headlines like "Crisis in Vegas." He also finds very pretty ways to put viewers in the middle of a parachute jump past snarling, 350-foot critters.

Does it matter that the onscreen folks doing the parachuting, including Kick-Ass's seriously buffed-up Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who's ready to defuse bombs at the drop of a skyscraper, aren't nearly as interesting as the tricks he's using to tell their story? Well, we haven't come to see them, really. We're here to see the film's leading lizard, who is pretty gorgeously realized by an army of digitizers, even if he seems just a bit-player in his own movie for the first hour or so.

Fans will very likely think that in the second hour he makes up for it, chewing the scenery with enough enthusiasm that it almost doesn't matter that it's digital, and hence, not very nourishing.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The world has already seen 28 "Godzilla" movies - 29, if you count the Hollywood remake with Matthew Broderick, which a lot of people don't. So, why is another one opening this week? We put that question to critic Bob Mondello, and he said because Godzilla.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The opening credits find a nifty way to tell you that everything you think you know about this story is suspect. The background is black and white footage is atom bomb tests from the 1940s and '50s, the time Godzilla originally surfaced; the foreground is movie credits. But as soon as they come up, they're redacted: words blacked out, censored, as if to say the audience lacks security clearance. Something has been kept from us. Flash forward to 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

KEN WATANABE: (as Dr. Daisuke Serizawa) Perhaps, we (unintelligible) down to be safe.

MONDELLO: Trouble at a Japanese nuclear facility, apparently from deep underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

WATANABE: (as Dr. Serizawa) Detectors are offline.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Joe Brody) (Unintelligible) we have to kill it now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Wind it down.

MONDELLO: A seismic disturbance - think of it as a bug in the system - destroys the reactor, and for 15 years nobody will be allowed near it, including the guy, played by Bryan Cranston, who gave that order to shut it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

CRANSTON: (as Joe Brody) You keep telling everybody that this place is a death zone but it's not. You're lying because what's really happening is that you're hiding something out there.

MONDELLO: I won't describe what they're hiding, except to say it's not Godzilla, but it is big and feeds on radiation, so if you come at it with nuclear weapons, it thinks you're just serving snacks. Oh, and it emits electromagnetic pulses that knock out all things technological. Nifty critter, about to escape. Fortunately for humanity, the navy is around and ready with an acronym.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

DAVID STRAITHAIRN: (as Admiral William Stenz) M.U.T.O., Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. It is, however, no longer terrestrial. It is airborne. Before we lost sight of it, it was headed east across the Pacific and had emitted enough...

MONDELLO: As they follow it, they'll find Godzilla - or rather Godzilla will find them, and swim along with the fleet like a whale among minnows all the way to that tough-luck town, San Francisco, which has only just shaken off the critters from "Pacific Rim." At least you know it'll bounce back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

MONDELLO: Director Edwards got this job after making a creative little indie called "Monsters," on which he had to be creative because his entire budget was less than half a million dollars. Here, his effects budget is more than 200 times that, so it's nice that he's still bothering to be inventive - offering nods to previous Godzilla movies, reflecting real-life environmental concerns and finding very pretty ways to put viewers in the middle of a parachute jump past a snarling, 350-foot critter. That the onscreen folks doing the parachuting aren't interesting - well, we haven't really come to see them. We're here to see the film's leading lizard, who seems just a bit-player in his own movie for the first hour, but in the second gets to chewing the scenery with enough enthusiasm that it almost doesn't matter that it's digital, and therefore, not very nourishing. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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