One of the great pleasures of my trip to the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival this year was the chance to see director Gareth Edwards interviewed before a screening of Gojira, the original cut of the classic monster film, which introduced the world to Godzilla. The Japanese version of the movie, which is darker and has a more overt anti-nuclear message, has been re-released on DVD & Blu-ray, and screened in some cities across the US. This is the film (featuring additional scenes with Raymond Burr, shot for the US version) that we know as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Edwards, who directed the 2014 version of Godzilla, talked about Gojira, and its inspiration for him as a film-maker. Of course, there have been many sequels over the years; baby boomers have fond memories of watching TV showings of these films as the Big G and other giant creatures like Mothra & Rodan faced off against foes such as the dragon-like Ghidorah. In 1998, an American remake, starring Matthew Broderick and written, produced & directed by Roland Emmerich & Dean Devlin (the creators of Independence Day) was released. Godzilla was portrayed as a raptor-like creature (in the wake of Jurassic Park’s success) and there were unappealing characters & lame humor. Further attempts to fashion a new film stalled over the years. But now Edwards (who also directed the well regarded 2010 film Monsters) gives the tale a modern spin, taking the legend of Godzilla in a new direction, but paying tribute to his roots.
The film opens in 1999, as two initially unrelated events occur: a group of scientists led by Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) make an amazing discovery in the Philippines, and a nuclear plant in Japan suffers a catastrophic accident, due to strange seismic activity. Fifteen years later, Joe Brody, a survivor of the plant explosion, still refuses to believe it was an accident, and keeps trying to find the real cause of the event. When Joe is arrested for returning to the now quarantined accident site, his son Ford goes to help him. But a series of strange occurrences reveals the existence of a large, insect-like creature. Ford, who’s a Navy bomb disposal tech, gets embroiled in the military’s battle with the giant monster. Soon, it becomes apparent that there is more than one of these things, and that there may be a mythical creature called Godzilla on the way to battle these winged giants. Dr. Serizawa knows more about the origins of these monsters than he has let on, and it may be tied to the nuclear accident that Ford's father was investigating. As the creatures weave a path of destruction across the country, the military tries to come up with a plan to stop them. Then, Godzilla arrives on the scene to complicate matters. Who will win the battle, and will mankind survive? Is Godzilla our protector, or our enemy?
I’ve purposely tried not to give too many details away, so you can enjoy the story on its own terms. Edwards does a good job with the pace of the film, building up our expectations and keeping the full reveal of Godzilla from us until about an hour into the movie. This Jaws style approach has bothered some viewers, but I think it works in the film’s favor. When he does shows Godzilla to us earlier in the film, he’s often glimpsed on a view screen, TV monitor, or from a crowd’s perspective. But when it’s time for all out creature action, Edwards doesn’t skimp on the visuals. This is a monster melee that will please fans of the classic Godzilla films of the 60s & early 70s. And this Godzilla (though updated a bit) looks like Godzilla, not a Jurassic Park wannabe. The way Max Borensetin’s screenplay (from a story by David Callaham) weaves the anti-nuclear theme into the story, but takes Godzilla’s origin in a new direction, is very clever.
Some have found the character aspects of the film weak, but I thought the performances were fine, given the material. It’s a giant monster movie, folks, not Shakespeare. Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Watanabe are all fine in their roles. The visual look of the film, courtesy of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey & the monster designs (by a group of talented effects technicians, including motion capture performance guidance from Andy “Gollum” Serkis) are quite impressive. There are several visual nods for fans of the classic Toho film series, and the door is certainly left open for a sequel. All in all, Godzilla is definitely worth seeing for fans of the big guy, and it should wipe away memories of that 1998 debacle for most viewers. Godzilla is now in theaters in 2D & 3D formats. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIu85WQTPRc&feature=kp.