All the basic ingredients are there for a slam-bang summer monster movie. We have people in helmets and hazmat suits running to try to get away from something scary. We have a scientist pleading with a military officer to trust him and the guy in camo responding that he can’t take that chance. We have a guy everyone thinks is crazy who turns out to be right. We have mumbo-jumbo about radiation and bio-acoustics. We have a tentacle(?) tease 40 minutes in. We have a corporate/government cover-up. People say things like, “There’s been a breach,” and “I can prove to you and the world that this was not a natural disaster.” Oh, and “I’m going to find the truth and end this, whatever it takes.” And “It’s going to send us back to the stone age.”
Buildings will be destroyed and a bridge will collapse. People will be told to stay home and then traffic will be at a standstill as they all ignore directions. We have a lot of globe-hopping so that international forces can be involved and iconic skylines can be trashed. And, most important, we have a very, very big monster to do the trashing. Enormous ships will be tossed around like a rubber duckie in a bathtub.
What we don’t have is a very good story. And for a movie with a lot of destruction, not enough of a sense of real investment in the outcome. The good news about CGI is that you can make anything happen on screen. The bad thing is that everyone knows you can make anything happen, so at a fundamental level, it does not feel real.
“Godzilla” begins promisingly, with a terrific opening credit sequence over “archival” footage and glimpses of redacted government reports. And ash, lots of ash, detritus from atomic fallout, pretty cool in 3D. Then there’s a little backstory. In 1999 we see the discovery of a skeleton in a Philippine mine. The rib cage is the size of an apartment building. And there’s goop! If there’s one thing we’ve learned from monster movies over years, it has to be DON’T TOUCH THE GOOP.
Meanwhile, still in 1999, we get our introduction to the adorable family — there always has to be an adorable family — living near a nuclear energy plant in Japan who will provide the emotional core of the film. There’s loving American father (Bryan Cranston) Joe Brody, distracted by some inexplicable but rhythmic tremors. There’s loving French wife (Juliette Binoche), who also works at the plant. And there’s a son, cute tyke Ford. “Earthquakes are random, jagged,” Joe explains. What he is hearing is “consistent and increasing.” We know he will have a hard time persuading his bosses, but we know he is right. And soon tragedy strikes and the cooling towers collapse. The entire community is contaminated and shut down.
Fifteen years later, Ford (Aaron Tayl0r-Johnson of “Kick-Ass”) is coming back from a military deployment where his job is “stopping bombs.” After he has an adorable reunion with his own adorable wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, he gets a call. Joe has been arrested in Japan, where he is still obsessed with finding the truth about what happened. He has a crazy room with walls covered in clippings connected by string to show the various conspiracies. Ford thinks his dad is nuts. He’s about to find out that he is right.
I don’t want to give away any monster spoilers here, so I’ll just say that there are some surprises for anyone not thoroughly immersed in “Godzilla” lore. I liked seeing the creature pop nuclear warheads into his mouth like Popeye knocks back spinach. And it steps things up nicely when the monster’s power charge shorts out the grids. The special effects are excellent, though only a high-altitude/low opening parachute jump makes full use of the 3D. But the story is weak and the characters are cardboard. The original 1954 “Godzilla” resonated because it personified (monstronified?) our then-new fears about the atomic age. With so many contemporary scares about environmental damage, they should have been able to find something equally potent.
Parents should know that this is a sci-fi movie in the tradition of all monster movies, with extensive mayhem,scary surprises, some disturbing images, and many characters injured and killed. There is some strong language.
Family discussion: What made the scientist and the military come to different conclusions — information or training? What was the significance of the pocket watch?
If you like this, try: the original Japanese “Godzilla” movies