The new “Godzilla” is the best Godzilla since the first “Godzilla.” There’s a large degree of faint praise in that assessment. The film is technically remarkable, and takes its title character seriously. He’s come a long way from those 1960s Toho Studios cheapies starring a guy in a rubber beanbag suit doing pro wrestling elbow drops on dragon-monsters.
The best movies in the 60-year-old series made the monster an archetype for each age. In Ishiro Honda’s melancholy 1954 film, Godzilla was a radiation-breathing symbol for post-Hiroshima atomic angst. Director Gareth Edwards’ epic reboot is a climate-change disaster allegory, with the spiky city-stomper a stand-in for ecocatastrophes unleashed by heedless humanity.
While the film doesn’t achieve the level of Christopher Nolan gravitas and Spielbergian spectacle it aspires to, its ambition, scope and scale are commendable. The opening credits are smart, sharp and telegraphic, a swirl of old, grainy military footage and redacted government documents that pack a kiloton of exposition into a tidy package. Some of that cleverness carries through in the film proper. Wisely, it waits an apprehensive eternity before gradually revealing Godzilla’s scaly gigantitude.
And its battle scenes are well-paced. Unlike “Transformers”-style endurance tests, they’re abrupt, cataclysmic and over before your fingernails have quite ripped through the armrests.
However — and this is a 30-story “however” — even blockbusters with world-class technology need emotional magic. Its stirring moments succeed despite thinly drawn characters. It roars, yes, but too often mumbles and repeats itself. Its attention to the human details is wobbly at best.
The screenplay reportedly was worked over by a battalion of uncredited writers, including Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”), and it feels quite patchwork. The story’s humans remain uninteresting stock types — stoic military commander, steely serviceman, protective mother, absent-minded scientist.
The quick way to get us emotionally invested in cardboard characters is to give them a child to protect. This is a strategy the film repeats with slight variations a half-dozen times. I haven’t seen this many waifs since the orphanage scenes in “Annie.”
With a prologue set in 1999, we meet the first among these threatened families, the Brodys. Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are scientists advising the operators of a Fukushima-like nuclear power plant near Tokyo. The Happy Birthday banner crayoned for dad by their 10-year-old son, Ford, goes unnoticed as the couple race off to work. Following a seismic event that breaches the nuclear core that very day, the boy’s family life is forever ruptured. Ford grows up to be a square-jawed U.S. Navy weapons expert (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) deeply invested in his own marriage (to Elizabeth Olsen) and son.
He’s gone years without seeing Joe, who remains in Japan looking for clues to what he insists is a coverup of the earthquake’s real cause. When the present-day scientific team of Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins finds signs of life in the ancient egg of a huge spider-pterodactyl-whatzit, Joe’s suspicions begin to look plausible. It’s just a matter of time before iconic city skylines from Honolulu to Las Vegas are torn asunder.
The plain old human beings come off as afterthoughts to smashathons. Cranston’s Perform-O-Meter starts at 11. He wants us to know that what’s happening is tragic! Tragic! Watanabe ably performs The Spielberg Stare™, upward-tilted face agog with wonder. Taylor-Johnson sleepwalks through the kind of blandly attractive guy role that would have gone to the pre-“Green Lantern” Ryan Reynolds.
Will you have fun watching this movie on opening weekend with friends? No doubt. Will you remember it in a year? Dubious. Irony of ironies, this “Godzilla” leaves a shallow footprint.