Godzilla rises to restore balance on Earth after some malevolent creatures threaten our existence.

 

3.5
More of the same from The King of the Monsters.

The stylish opening credit sequence sets the scene: sepia sketches of mythic Japanese monsters give way to grainy 8mm film of nuclear explosions, along with old newspaper clippings and heavily redacted military documents, with the slightest tease of a towering lizard rising out of the sea. The message is clear: this film knows its 60-year Godzilla history (which includes 30-odd films, many in the Japanese Kaiju tradition). But if you’re a newcomer, all you need to know is here: you’re going to discover a beast that is seriously old and frighteningly huge, impervious to humanity’s arsenal of weapons. 

The story begins in the modern day Philippines as scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) visit a collapsed mine and look at some radiation-leaking mammoth skeletons that seem to have recently harboured a living creature. We flashback to 1990s Japan, where an American engineer (Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Juliette Binoche) work at a nuclear plant and encounter disaster after investigating strange seismic activity. Flash forward 15 years and their now-grown son, Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is still scarred. He’s an expert US military bomb diffuser, living in San Francisco with a loving wife (Elizabeth Olsen) who wants to see more of him and a five-year-old son he adores. He’s called back to Japan to get his crazy dad out of jail. Seems the old man still believes there’s something out there and insists on visiting evacuated territory. Of course, he’s vindicated when a giant black winged creature, flat-headed like a cockroach, with a body like a skinny Satan sprouting extra limbs, bursts forth and wreaks havoc. Named MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) it feeds on radiation, and it’s travelling fast to the US to meet its mate, who is emerging from a nuclear waste dump. They’re going to breed and Earth’s cities – from Honolulu to Vegas to San Fran are quickly being reduced to dust. Will the military resort to suicidal nuclear bombs to destroy them, or will an even more powerful foe – Godzilla – save the day?

The human drama here is simplistic and sentimental; so many shots of children separated from parents, then magically reunited from the rubble; so many scenes of military men valiantly (but stupidly – why do they persist?) firing puny guns at impervious dinosaurs.  But should we expect more from a Hollywood disaster movie? We’re here to see the monsters and marvel at the spectacle of cities being destroyed and monuments crushed. The sheer size of the creatures is part of their pleasure, and 3D CGI technology seems born to tell these kinds of stories; it has finally caught up with our dreams.

After a drawn-out striptease, Godzilla, when he appears properly in the film’s third act, is both familiar in shape and power to the versions of old, and yet freshly rendered as a realistically gargantuan and lumbering 300-foot lizard, who can casually swipe out an office tower or rip up the Golden Gate bridge. After the nasty angularity of the MUTOs, his solid curves and simple fighting tactics are oddly wholesome and lovable. The film’s most stunning success is its depiction of this single creature, and the mixture of nostalgic affection, sympathy and awe we feel when he appears. His fire breathing triumphs are cheer-worthy.

Director Gareth Edwards impressed critics and audiences in 2010 with his low budget sci-fi hit Monsters, which emphasised character and story over special effects, creating a world where encounters between huge alien creatures and humans were poignant as well as scary. There are moments in this Godzilla where you see the traces of that subtlety and talent, assisted by skilled cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers). These highlights include point of view shots taken through aviation goggles; a slow pan from the foot of the lizard up to his head, high about the city; a poetic sequence where parachuters drop silently through the night sky, leaking light like falling stars, into a wrecked city centre.

But mostly, this is your standard, unsurprising Hollywood action blockbuster. Admittedly, it’s lots of fun and it’s done better than most (don’t even start to compare it with the execrable Pacific Rim), but giving the popcorn-munchers exactly what they want.  Which is actually harder than it looks.