Godzilla (2014)

In a world of slithery sharktopuses (sharktopi?), penis-chomping piranha and dam-obliterating zombeavers, Godzilla looks like a grumpy old fart. Following his less-than-impressive outing almost twenty years ago, the big guy was relegated to the bargain bin, and stripped of his title in his home country – the 1998 incarnation is referred to only as Zilla in Japan, and was destroyed by the real Godzilla in Godzilla Final Wars. Nowadays, it’s difficult to see the appeal, but five seconds in the awesome presence of the 2014 beast will convince even the most cynical fan, as Godzilla returns bigger and better than ever before.

Director Gareth Edwards, whose impressively low-budget debut Monsters marked him as one to watch, reckons there’s life in the old lizard yet. The most surprising thing about his Godzilla is that he makes a damn good case for him, in spite of the fact that he’s clearly getting on a bit – net nerds are already referring to him as Fatzilla – and at one point even needs a nap.

The premise is suitably simple: Bryan Cranston, and a disgraceful wig, stars as a tortured father, haunted by the loss of his wife and convinced that something more sinister than an accident at a nuclear power plant killed her. When he and his son (a buff yet vacant Aaron Taylor-Johnson) discover he was right all along, it’s a race against time to save the world from the threat of not just one scaly, prehistoric creature, but three.

Godzilla could’ve easily been an overly earnest, military-porn-stuffed bore, but even though it takes itself very seriously indeed, the film zips along at a decent pace for most of its two-hour-plus running time. Although Taylor-Johnson is completely unbelievable as a leading man, let alone a bomb disposal expert, he takes a beating well and his desperate journey to rescue his family (including a criminally underused Elizabeth Olsen) is filled with pathos and well-established tension.

Of course, he isn’t the star here, the titular creature is, and what’s immediately striking about Godzilla is the care and attention that has gone into crafting it. From Alexandre Desplat’s wonderfully evocative score, which plays over a nifty title sequence and alludes to classic ‘zilla flicks throughout, to the detail Edwards has put into his much-loved creation, it’s obvious this is a passion project, not a money-spinner.

Edwards sought to create a creature feature in the spirit of classics such as Jurassic Park and Jaws – both of which are referenced – which teased their money shots throughout, but this is entirely its own beast. Godzilla himself isn’t glimpsed until about an hour in, with just a flick of the tail here, or a shot of his impressively spiky back gliding through the water there, until he finally makes his roaring, stomping, jaw-dropping debut. Funnily enough, he’s most spectacular when emerging from clouds of smoke, in awe-inspiring sequences that must be seen to be believed.

The realisation of the creature, and indeed his two, winged foes, is some of the finest CGI committed to celluloid. This Godzilla feels three-dimensional, even in 2D (the film is much too dark for 3D, and is best viewed in stunning IMAX) with every scale, every tooth and every movement beautifully represented. He looks like a real, prehistoric animal. His almighty presence is felt throughout, without the need to have him stomping on cars, like the cartoon-y 1998 incarnation, and when he is shown, it’s truly awesome.

Considering the film is driven by both character drama and monster madness, it’s disappointing that Godzilla’s female stars are relegated to one-dimensional roles. Sally Hawkins’ overly-British scientist warns the military that blowing Godzilla up isn’t an option, but it’s only when her male associate (a terrific Ken Watanabe, who gets the best line with the simple “let them fight”) points out the same that anybody listens. Creature features are generally a bit of a boys club, but it’s sad to see viable female characters dismissed as little more than background noise.

Thankfully, this is the only real issue with a thrilling, at times worryingly realistic, and bravely dark, modern outing for everyone’s favourite, storeys-tall scaly monster. Though it sags slightly in the middle, and it may not appease the multiplex crowd as, unlike fellow kaiju-themed blockbuster Pacific Rim, it opts for a more emotive, much smarter narrative; Godzilla should satisfy purists and newbies alike.

A remarkable sophomore effort from Edwards in which every cent of his massive budget is obvious onscreen, with enough classic nods to make fanatics cheer, and a meaty, well-paced narrative, Godzilla makes an impressive case for smart, modern creature features, where mankind’s foolish belief that nature can be controlled backfires to spectacular effect. He may be getting a bit too old for this shit, but Godzilla still packs a punch like no other.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

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