Three stars (out of four)
Cinema’s largest superstar roars back to life with Gareth Edwards’ stirring Godzilla reboot, no small feat considering how badly the big guy had been stomped.
Roland’s Emmerich’s bilious 1998 remake of Godzilla killed all hopes the creature could lumber intact into the 21st century.
Sold with the ad line “Size Does Matter,” the biggest thing about the ’98 film was how dumb it was and also how unfaithful it was to decades of monster movie lore.
Critics panned and audiences yawned at this radioactive bomb.
No haz-mat suit is necessary when approaching Edwards’ Godzilla. For the most part, the British director maintains fidelity with 60 years of pop-cult tradition regarding this glorious brute — the grey skin, back spikes and atomic breath are back!
At the same time, Edwards is careful not to let bigness get in the way of the story, even though his city-shaking mutant dino is fatter and stands a third taller than Emmerich’s, while also being twice the size of the Toho Studios original.
We don’t even get our first good look at Godzilla until near the one-hour mark, but the tease builds anticipation.
Edwards wants to do more than make our eyes bulge and our popcorn crunch.
It’s a philosophy he previously pursued for his acclaimed 2010 indie debut Monsters, which envisioned a future no-man’s-land across the U.S.-Mexico border where giant alien creatures roam free. Monsters was more about the human drama, in part because Edwards didn’t have much of a budget to spend on computer-generated critters.
For his studio-backed Godzilla, he’s still more interested in the people running away from a behemoth than he is in the beast itself, despite having a considerably bigger budget to throw at the screen.
So we get a lot of preamble before the thrilla from ’zilla, by way of tense family drama involving Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
They play crusading nuclear scientist Joe Brody and his heroic soldier son Ford, who almost single-handedly must alert the planet about impending doom, even though most people, natch, don’t believe it at first.
The skeptics include Ford, who grumbles about his dad’s “crackpot, cuckoo theories” until giant feet and teeth start rearranging landmarks, from Bikini Atoll to Las Vegas and from Honolulu to San Francisco.
Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen play the concerned wives of Joe and Ford, and the film also features Ken Watanabe, David Straithairn and Sally Hawkins as scientific and military types whose job it is stand, stare and shout when needed.
The casting is almost too good, since the story credited to Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham (The Expendables) doesn’t always serve the talent.
Watanabe’s scientist character is reduced to a cipher, one who for the most part simply gapes in astonishment.
Let’s hope that he and other underutilized actors will have larger roles in the sequels, which now seem inevitable and even welcome.
The film also assumes, perhaps vainly, that most viewers already know about Godzilla’s mythic origins and the bruiser’s somewhat ambivalent attitude toward humanity, which makes it both villain and hero depending on circumstances.
True to the Godzilla’s Japanese roots, there’s also a back story about how mankind’s carelessness with the environment has unleashed this hell.
The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and subsequent radiation breach at the Fukushima nuclear plant is recalled in a terrifying and all-too-realistic dramatization of the folly of messing with Mother Nature.
For most of the first half of the film, we get mainly tantalizing glimpses of Godzilla and its new sparring partner, a giant insect parasite called MUTO — short for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — that eats radiation for breakfast and which also has a yen for snacking on public transit vehicles, submarines and other moving objects.
The MUTO seems to be related to the fast-evolving creatures of the Alien and Prometheus franchises, especially their lethal desire to reproduce.
The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) follows a peep-show esthetic, putting viewers in the position of watching through a window or down a street as the monster mash unfurls.
This strategy works particularly well in a scene where a school bus full of students waits in horrified anticipation for approaching terror.
But when the time comes to stop the fan dance, Edwards makes sure Godzilla is ready for its close-up, letting out a mighty roar directly to camera.
The theatre literally seems to shake.
You could accuse this dino diva of chewing the scenery in multiple ways, especially when it finally decides to show the MUTO why it’s known as “the King of the Monsters.”
But then Godzilla is a genuine legend, one well served by Gareth Edwards, and it deserves to play the ham. How many fire-breathing giants do you know who have their own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame?
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.