Few movie monsters have endured such indignities as the mighty Gojira, so the respect with which Gareth Edwards treats the Japanese icon comes as a blessed relief.
15 years ago, a terrible force destroyed the Japanese nuclear power plant where Joe (Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston) worked, tearing his family apart. Now, he is trying to get to the truth of what happened, and when he’s arrested breaking into the quarantine zone, his son Ford (Kick-Ass‘ Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is forced to break off his army leave with his family in San Francisco to bail dad out.
But Joe’s not as crazy as he sounds. Something horrifying has been unleashed, and only one thing can stop it: Gojira.
Edwards has a fine line to walk. His approach has been to treat the character’s legacy and spirit with respect and give fans of the franchise something to get excited about. However, the film also needs to be a blockbuster; the kind of guaranteed money-maker that will avoid the infuriating (read: American) box-office failure of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. In this respect, it’s similar to Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Edwards finds a way to deliver fan service and spectacle.
Things get off to a cracking start with the much-trailered meltdown sequence. Cranston sinks his teeth into the role of the tortured physicist, and Juliette Binoche pops up for long enough to share a powerful scene with him. Similarly good is Ken Watanabe’s awe-filled Gojira expert, whose time spent concealing the existence of these monsters has come to an abrupt end.
There’s a strong sense of foreboding, and with the events of Fukushima still being felt, it’s tough not to feel a chill as Joe and Ford explore the ruins of the (fictional) city destroyed by the plant. This never feels exploitative – rather an acknowledgment of the sombre spirit of the 1954 original.
We’re waiting for the big guy, but it’s the Mutos that appear first; giant insectoid creatures that resemble the bugs from Starship Troopers. These radiation-devouring menaces are the film’s real threat, and balance must be restored.
Edwards holds off on unleashing the main attraction for what feels like forever, but when we finally see the titular titan, it’s worth the wait. The scale is truly awesome, and the detail and personality that the filmmakers have brought to the monster is simply stunning.
It’s a shame, then, that the same love and attention isn’t paid to the film’s characters.
Taylor-Johnson’s hero is dropped from action sequence to action sequence, following the monsters on their path of destruction, while Elizabeth Olsen is given little to do apart from look terrified. However, Edwards has filled the film with actors strong enough to make something from nothing (take a bow Sally Hawkins).
Those Hollywood blockbuster concessions are similarly distracting, with necessarily idiotic military strategies and dogs and small children in peril. By the half-way point it starts getting a bit silly, and you may find yourself wondering if those high hopes were misguided.
Then the final third kicks in, and those concerns are shunted to one side by a superb climax. Edwards’ strategy of teasing and suspense building pays off handsomely, and the stage is set for a magnificent sustained action sequence. His love of the character and the series means that he knows what fans want to see, and he delivers.
While it does occasionally stumble, this is a superior summer blockbuster that pays tribute to its heritage while delivering stunning action sequences. It might tread a little too cautiously, but by God, Godzilla has a mighty roar.