Waiting for Godzilla

The legendary monster is made a supporting character in his very own reboot.
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Warner Bros.

Out of sight he has been slumbering, this mythical giant, this living embodiment of nuclear anxiety. But now the beast has once again awakened, in payment for our sins …

I refer not to Godzilla the monster, but to Godzilla the franchise, which last laid waste to these shores 16 years ago. If anything, it’s a bit of a surprise that it’s taken this long for a reboot to rear its spiky head. After all, the big guy has near-universal name recognition, he’s tailor-made for the Age of CGI, and—let’s face it—we all still need to wash the taste of Roland Emmerich’s version out of our mouths. To this day, his 1998 Godzilla stands tall among the most unfathomably ill-conceived blockbusters of all time. Matthew Broderick? I love the actor, but the only Godzilla he has any business starring in is a Broadway musical. Maria Pitillo? Best I can tell, she went directly from her Razzie-winning performance into the witness protection program. And the monster itself? A whippy, sour-faced iguana that turned the entire project into an exercise in identity theft.

The bar, in other words, was set low for director Gareth Edwards’s reintroduction of Toho Studio’s Finest. And for a time, the movie clears it easily. We begin, in 1999, with Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), an American engineer in charge of a fictional nuclear plant in the shadow of Mount Fuji. There’s been an earthquake in the Philippines, and tremors are now being felt in Japan. Or are they tremors? They seem too regular, almost as if they were caused by …? It’s a thought that goes unfinished, as the plant begins to shudder apart. The core is breached and the facility evacuated, but not before terrible losses of life have been sustained.

Fifteen years later, Joe still can’t get past that day. Something else happened, he’s sure of it, something that’s being covered up. So he studies seismographs. He reads books on animal echolocation. And he trespasses, repeatedly, in the quarantine zone surrounding the demolished nuclear plant. On one of these occasions he’s caught by Japanese authorities, who summon his grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to come bail him out. Ford, a Navy lieutenant and ordnance disposal technician, has only just returned home from a tour of duty to his family in San Francisco, but he hops a plane for Japan nonetheless. There his dad enlists him in the family obsession. Tremors just like those that preceded the terrible accident at the plant have begun again, and father and son are intent on getting to the bottom of them.

It’s an excellent start to the film, heavy with foreboding and punctuated by genuine loss. And sure enough, when Joe and Ford infiltrate the quarantine zone together, they find at its center a secret facility performing experiments on a giant, larval monster that feeds on nuclear radiation. Yes—it’s Godzilla!

Actually, no, it’s not Godzilla. And it is here that the movie begins its long downhill slide. This is another giant radioactive monster—dubbed the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO—and it was responsible for the 1999 tragedy at the plant. Nor is it alone: a second variation of the ickily insectoid species soon makes an appearance as well. From here the plot proceeds in an utterly straight line—or, to be more precise, three intersecting lines—of giant-monster rampage. The MUTOs want to meet and mate, and Godzilla wants in on the party for reasons of his own. The paths of the three gargantuas are set to converge—who’d have guessed?—in San Francisco, right on top of Ford’s wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son.

Ford and his colleagues in the Armed Forces attempt to prevent the MUTO rendezvous by deploying a nuclear weapon—this despite the fact that they know the MUTOs literally eat radioactive material for breakfast. Then they bring in another nuke (also eaten) and another (ditto). I honestly lost track of how many times the military tried to get a missile into position only to watch it get munched by a MUTO. It was like watching an atomic-pizza-delivery service for giant arachnids.

Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot. The cast is quite strong: In addition to Cranston and Olsen, there are also roles for Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, and David Strathairn. But none of them—none—is given anything meaningful to do. As for Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Ford, the movie’s central human protagonist, it was so dutifully generic that I forgot it even as I was watching it. I have no lasting impression of him whatsoever.

Godzilla is, of course, a monster movie, and thus should rise or fall on the strength of its monsters. And thankfully, director Edwards (Monsters) is wise enough to give us a recognizable, if somewhat updated, Godzilla. But rather than harken back to the aesthetic of Godzilla’s traditional adversaries—Rodan, Mothra, etc.—the MUTOs are exactly the kind of oddly-jointed grotesqueries that have been in such vogue more recently, from Starship Troopers to Cloverfield to Pacific Rim. Moreover, while the requisite Final Battle with Godzilla is a fair amount of fun, it makes up a tiny portion of the film, which is mostly concerned with the MUTOs stomping their way across the globe (Honolulu, Las Vegas) toward the City by the Bay.

Indeed, until the closing act, Godzilla himself is strangely peripheral to the proceedings. Edwards introduces the monster gradually—a glimpse here, a glimpse there—as Ishiro Honda did with the original Godzilla 60 years ago. But this bid for mystery and suspense is largely undone by the fact that we see a lot of the MUTOs.

The idea, I suppose, was to mimic not merely Honda’s searching, somber film but also its many, campier sequels, in which Godzilla periodically reappeared to save Japan from one or another new super-sized threat—Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, the Smog Monster, etc. But the relentlessly humorless tone of Edwards’s film is not much in keeping with that monster-of-the-week ethos. And in any case, this is not a sequel but a reboot. It really ought to focus on Godzilla, no?

Thus the central irony of Edwards’s film. Godzilla can handle everything the military hurls at him: ships, guns, planes, rockets, even a squadron of HALO paratroopers. The only thing that can cut him down to size is being relegated to a supporting role in his very own movie.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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