It seems like contemporary Hollywood offers audiences at least two or three opportunities per month to witness major urban centers being demolished by the Forces of Evil. My predecessor in the film-critic chair at Almanac Weekly, the peerless Syd M, even gave a name to what seems to have turned into a subgenre of action movies: “smashy-smashy,” a term originally coined by street protestors to refer to random vandalism as a tactic.
The Transformers series is probably the most egregious example of smashy-smashy: big, loud, over-the-top displays of nonstop destruction, with cardboard characters and little or no plot worth mentioning. Yet nowadays even directors who aspire to higher things, like iconic characterizations and witty dialogue, can’t seem to elude the siren song of skyscrapers crumbling – the last half-hour of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers being an obvious example.
Such movies do well enough at the box office that the major studios keep spending the megabucks necessary to make more of them. Still, the trope has become so ubiquitous and so repetitious that it no longer thrills us as it once did long ago. How many different ways can you make a building or aircraft fall down and squash lots of tiny, anonymous people?
For kids of the postwar generation who grew up on monster movies, the new downtown-destroyers – usually aliens, giant robots or supervillains of some sort – somehow don’t pack the same innocently creeped-out pleasure that we associate with the mostly reptilian kaiju of our youth. Happily, Gareth Edwards’ new remake of Godzilla goes a long way toward turning that trend around.
When we talk about the giant-monster genre, it has become customary to apply the Japanese term kaiju, because in retrospect we have come to associate it with a string of movies from Japanese studios, beginning with the original Godzilla (which the Japanese call Gojira)in 1954. Afterschool TV fare for kids in the ’50s and ’60s was loaded with Godzilla’s offspring, including the pterodactylish Rodan, the giant caterpillar Mothra, three-headed Ghidora and turtlelike Gamera. The trend reached a peak of sorts in 1968 with the 11-beastie free-for-all Destroy All Monsters. Ah, those were the days.
We also associate the genre with Japan because that was the only country in the world ever to experience nuclear attack, and the political and philosophical subtext of these otherwise-lightweight movies pretty much always involved the horrific unintended consequences of the development of atomic energy. It seems largely forgotten that the very first of the giant-reptile-spawned-by-fallout flicks – one year before Godzilla – was an American-made movie based on a Ray Bradbury story: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It Came from beneath the Sea, in which a giant radioactive octopus takes down the Golden Gate Bridge, was made in the US one year after Godzilla. And two other cheesy monster classics of the ’50s, The Giant Behemoth and Gorgo, hailed from the UK.
What these movies all had in common, besides wanton destruction and homilies about man tinkering overmuch with the processes of nature, were big, scaly, rubbery-looking creatures. They made a mess, but they weren’t always flat-out evil. In fact, in the later multi-monster kaiju films, Gojira, the granddaddy of them all, often comes off as the savior and restorer of balance when a more sinister force comes into play. That concept lies at the heart of the new Godzilla as well: While the titular monster gets to wipe out quite a lot of real estate by the end of the movie, he’s mostly there to prevent two slightly smaller, more insecty-looking critters identified only as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) from wrecking the entire planet.
To Edwards’ credit, we don’t see any monsters at all for most of the first half of the movie. There’s a long, slow build, beginning with the hatching of a giant egg in the depths of a quarry in the Philippines in 1999, investigated by two scientists played by Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe, the latter of whom lost his father in the Hiroshima blast and is on a sort of mission. The hatchling MUTO swims off unobserved to Tokyo, burrows under a nuclear plant and knocks it down, in the process killing the wife (Juliette Binoche) of the plant’s supervisor, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Now Brody is on a mission as well, convinced that the “earthquake” explanation for the disaster is a public relations hoax.
He’s right, of course, but it takes another 15 years before the truth emerges. At that point Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) takes over as our protagonist. He’s a Navy ordnance disposal expert whose talent for defusing bombs becomes important to the massive effort to stop the MUTOs (a second one having hatched at the Yucca Mountain radioactive material disposal site in Nevada, providing some comic relief by wrecking a few square blocks of casinos in Las Vegas).
The heart of the movie, such as it is, lies in separated family members trying to reunite amidst the widespread destruction. Taylor-Johnson, who delivered an embarrassing Vronsky in Anna Karenina but was reasonably funny as the nerdy superhero-wannabe in Kick-Ass and its sequel, manages to look sufficiently soulful when parting with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son and stoically game for action when monsters need stopping. David Strathairn brings a largely wasted gravitas to the stock character of the hardnosed military top brass who wants to nuke the beasties, even though everyone eventually figures out that nuclear energy is what the MUTOs feed on (literally – we see one pop a missile into its mouth like a Pez lozenge at one point). Watanabe’s character Dr. Serizawa, who holds the moral high ground here, has to convince Admiral Stenz that they have to let Godzilla, King of the Monsters, sort things out as usual.
Yeah, it’s silly, but it’s fun in the old-fashioned kaiju way, without pretensions of being anything more than it is, with new life breathed into it by modern CGI technology. The widescreen visuals are consistently stunning – worth seeing in 3-D. And Alexandre Desplat’s very enjoyable score, mixing Taiko drumming with electric violin, what sounds like Gregorian chant and a whole lot of general loudness, is every bit as bombastic as a monster movie soundtrack should be, with a bit of class and style thrown in. If you’re going to go sit in the dark and watch some cities get leveled this week, that handsome beast Godzilla is the destructor that you want to see.