Godzilla, along with King Kong, are cinema's two most iconic giant monsters. Given how 1998's Roland Emmerich Godzilla adaptation underwhelmed, we shouldn't blame ourselves for being wary of this one, especially since it's director, Gareth Edwards, had never led a major studio film before. But 2014's Godzilla is impressive and fun, both a fitting tribute and stand-alone blockbuster marking sixty years since the kaiju first appeared on screen in the 1954 Toho classic. It respects decades-old mythology while also taking advantage of modern technology and some decent acting, smoothly splicing an hour of scary/campy anticipation with an hour of gleefully obnoxious city-smashing monster mayhem.
The legendary monster himself is still radioactive, still able to demolish skyscrapers without breaking a sweat, and still on a mission to bring "balance" to nature in response to mankind's "arrogance". But he has gotten considerably bigger. And his iconic roar, made sixty years ago by scraping pine tarred leather across a double bass string (according to NPR), is now the product of a recipe that is a trade secret. But it's breathtakingly loud. Godzilla is the star of the show, of course; despite honest efforts to engage us with the lives and times of human characters, the drama between Godzilla and two other giant prehistoric creatures gets top billing. This is as it should be, though it's unfortunate that an actress as talented as Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), playing a young mother and E.R. nurse named Elle Brody, is given so little to do. The film's biggest human role belongs to Aaron Taylor Johnson (Ford Brody, a navy lieutenant and Elle's husband), who was Vronsky in 2012's Anna Karenina. His is a serviceable performance in which he is called upon to do several things one might expect: save a child, defuse a bomb, rebel against his father, and make tearful phone calls to his lovely wife, all while bravely putting his life on the line. Ken Wantanbe (Inception's Saito) pulls off the Japanese lead and gets to utter the most melodramatic line in the script: "We call him...[humorously long, tense pause]...Godzilla!" Bryan Cranston and Sally Hawkins round out the cast.
The dramatic restraint shown during the first act (we don't actually see Godzilla until we're past the sixty minute mark) is admirable and effective, and may make that portion accessible even to those who struggle to appreciate the allure of a monster movie's inevitable death and destruction. But once the death and destruction begin, it is with no holds barred. Mr. Edwards manages the story well, knowing when to dial things back and when to throttle them all the way up. The scale of the damage to the city centers of Honolulu, San Francisco, Las Vegas and even Nevada's Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is so extreme as to prompt chuckles among the theater crowd. As with many former entries into the genre, this response strangely endears the film instead of undermining it.