In Jaws, Steven Spielberg famously delayed before letting movie audiences see the shark. It generated suspense, but the decision was more a pragmatic one since the mechanical fish broke down so often during shooting. Unreliability isn’t much of a problem in the world of CGI, however, with filmmakers able to conjure up almost anything short of a decent Katherine Heigl movie.
But even with an arsenal of special effects wizards, Godzilla takes its cue from the School of Less Is More, shrewdly holding off on showing the prehistoric big guy until they are good and ready. It’s indicative of the assured, classical filmmaking on display. The latest reboot of the creature first unleashed on the big screen by Japanese filmmaker Ishirô Honda in 1954, Godzilla is coy enough to tantalize its audience with some leg — albeit the scaly type. When director Gareth Edwards finally does unveil Godzilla and his nemesis, a radiation-sucking MUTO (short for massive unidentified terrestrial object), the monsters are almost always shown from the point of view of humans. The vantage point forces us to consider the ginormous creatures from the puny perspective of, well, people.
That doesn’t mean the film is as adept at capturing humanity, although it’s not for lack of trying. Screenwriter Max Borenstein kicks things off in Japan in 1999, when a mysterious seismic event destroys a nuclear reactor in the fictitious city of Janjira. Caught in the breach is the husband-and-wife engineering team of Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston, TV’s Breaking Bad, and Juliette Binoche, Words and Pictures). Sandra is engulfed in a radioactive cloud; Joe has the heart-wrenching task of watching her die.
Cut to 15 years later. The couple’s now-grown child, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass 2), is a Navy bomb technician living in San Francisco with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen, Kill Your Darlings) and 4-year-old son. The bland but likable Ford barely has time to settle down for leave before he must fly to Japan to bail his dad out of jail. Apparently, Joe has become a scenery-chewing conspiracist certain that the government is covering up what caused the reactor’s destruction.
One thing leads to another, and both father and son wind up in now-quarantined Janjira. They stumble upon a top-secret monster-monitoring project spearheaded by a pair of scientists played by Ken Watanabe (Inception), who wears an expression of perpetual constipation, and a barely used Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine).
If the characters are more archetypal than realistic and occasionally on the dumb-dumb side (e.g. military brass decide to nuke a monster that feeds on radiation), at least the picture wins props for a few unexpected and ambitious plot turns.
The production, meanwhile, is impeccable. For someone whose only other directorial credit was 2010’s low-budget (if inventive) Monsters, Edwards maintains a rhythm of sharp, fluid storytelling. Equally strong are the work of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Anna Karenina) and an army of special effects craftsmen. There are enough scenes of spectacle to satisfy the most disaster-addled viewer, as a gargantuan spiky dinosaur and oversized quasi-cockroaches lay waste to Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
Even monsters, it seems, have had it up to here with tourists.