Watching a lot of movies in a wide range of sizes and genres is the most effective way for filmgoers to be able to detect the difference between ones that are skating by on uninspired functionality and those crafted on a stimulatingly higher level. From the very beginning, Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" roots itself firmly in the latter camp and proceeds to masterfully up the ante for the next two rapturous hours. It is a summer blockbuster of a special, rarer breed, one with veritable chills, terrifyingly majestic sights, breathlessly constructed action sequences, tautly eloquent storytelling, and an overall sense of wonder and imagination too often missing from big-budget, inevitably prefabricated studio moviemaking. Edwards, who made a name for himself by innovatively creating out of his own home the virtually seamless special effects for his debut feature, 2010's micro-budgeted sci-fi thriller/romance "Monsters
," has now been given a $160-million sandbox in which to play. Besides savvily ensuring the finished film looks even more expensive than that lofty price tag, he keys right into the soul and spirit of the original 1954 Japanese classic and its successive installments while paving a fresh, separate, newly modern trail. Helmed by a quixotic director who is undeniably and irrefutably the real deal, "Godzilla" has what it takes to stand the test of time in the same way much of Steven Spielberg's most popular entertainments (e.g., 1975's "Jaws," 1982's "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial," 1993's "Jurassic Park") have.
In 1999, scientists Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are called to a mine collapse in the Philippines where mysterious radiation pockets have been detected. What they discover beneath the earth's surface is a giant, perfectly preserved fossil of unidentified origin. Soon after in Janjira, Japan, a cataclysmic reactor breach at the nuclear power plant where parents Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra (Juliette Binoche) work alters young Ford Brody's (CJ Adams) life in an instant. Fifteen years later, a now-grown Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bomb disarmament expert for the U.S. Navy who doesn't get to see his own familynurse wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and 4-year-old son Sam (Carson Bolde)nearly enough. When his dad is arrested, Ford begrudgingly returns to Japan to take him home to San Francisco. The authorities view Joe as a crackpot, an obsessive conspiracy theorist who has never been able to accept the loss of his wife, but his adamant belief that a government cover-up is in motion is confirmed when a return to the long-abandoned quarantine zone reveals there is no lingering radiation at all. Whatever is really going on, he fears, will send the planet back to the stone age, and that time is coming faster than anyone can imagine.
Memories of 1998's big, dumb, Roland Emmerich-directed "Godzilla" vanish roughly three minutes into this new, much-improved revitalization, severing schlocky humor in exchange for mature tonality. Working from Max Borenstein's sturdily paced script, Gareth Edwards methodically raises tension levels and the harried odds of its characters (some whom are definitely not safe from harm) without a second wasted. In providing a bird's-eye historical snapshot of events proceeding the alleged 1950s nuclear testing in the South Pacific, he avoids Irwin Allen-style camp to tell a fuller, more expansive story where the melodrama of the people involved is kept to a minimum. Pointed but fitting jabs at the government's diversionary tactics with civilians and the frequent inaccuracy of the news media act as thematic undercurrents mirroring the current-day climate. If the science in the film is not exactly sound, Edwards treats the proceedings with an enthralling, sobering authenticity (think 2011's "Contagion
" with giant mutated creatures). His full-hearted commitment is infectious; because he believes what is happening, so, too, does the viewer.
The catastrophic reckoning all will be waiting for gets going early on, but the initial grand entrance of the title lizard, lying in wait in the depths of the sea, doesn't arrive until almost the one-hour mark. The developments leading up to this moment and many of the highlights thereafter were thankfully hidden from the theatrical trailers and promotional materials, invaluably allowing for something in short supply these days: legitimate surprise. The bravura set-pieces outdo themselves, with Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (2011's "We Need to Talk About Kevin
") choreographing each shot with lush, heart-stopping lucidity. From the nuclear disaster in Japan, to a Honolulu-set attack involving a tidal wave and a subway car, to a showdown along a bridge in the California mountains, to a jolting climax in San Francisco, "Godzilla" inspires awe again and again. If there is the sporadic minor lapses in continuity, as when one character dangling from a precarious height is seen in the next moment out of danger without any explanation as to how he was saved, these are comparatively tiny issues that do not do any lasting harm to everything that is being pulled off like gangbusters. Tremulous imagery never stops being downright show-stoppingthe scene where the Air Force skydive into the forbidding cloud- and debris-swept epicenter of the danger area scored to Gyorgy Ligeti's "Requiem" from 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey" overwhelms with portent and dreadwhile the first full shot of Godzilla is as frightening yet darkly magical as the reveal of the T-Rex in "Jurassic Park."
In a superb cast of well-respected thespians not normally seen in the realm of action-oriented popcorn fare, Aaron Taylor-Johnson (2013's "Kick-Ass 2
") has the most to prove as the youngest of the leads and the one with the greatest screen time. He does not impress, conveying a curious detachment that makes him appear ungrateful for being given such a high-profile role. Plenty of twenty-something actors could have dug much deeper and more charismatically into Ford, and his is the one weak link among the ensemble. As Elle, Elizabeth Olsen (2013's "Oldboy
") picks up Taylor-Johnson's slack with an emotional commitment that always convinces. She is so good, in fact, that one cannot help but wish she had been better incorporated into the third act and given more to do. Ken Watanabe (2010's "Inception
") and Sally Hawkins (2013's "Blue Jasmine
") excel within their businesslike parts as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham, scientists working for secret organization Monarch as they track two hatched parasitic MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). Juliette Binoche's (2011's "Certified Copy
") time is fleeting as Ford's mother, Sandra, but the grippingly poignant impression she makes lingers after she is gone. And, as the grieving, determined Joe, Bryan Cranston (2012's "Argo
") brings a goosebump-evoking urgency to a man whose world was destroyed in an instant. A decade and a half later, he is still struggling to find vindication from the very people who already know more than they're letting on. Cranston's emotionally riveting performance is the standout of the piece.
There is quite a difference between being a mere spectator to a bunch of dime-a-dozen onscreen explosions and destruction and actually being rattled to the edge of one's seat in terror and astonishment. "Godzilla," which is everything that 2013's "Pacific Rim
" should have been, never lags in momentum, but spends just enough time breathing and taking in the bigger picture. Whereas Guillermo Del Toro's CG robots and Kaijus
were photographed what looked like an inch away from their ginormous forms, the battles becoming a flurry of incomprehensible clashing metal and body parts, Edwards pulls back the camera in similar scenes to cohesively depict the vastness of his apocalyptic vision. His giddy inventiveness rivals the stark grandiosity of 2008's "Cloverfield
" while offering up exceptionally photorealistic creature designs that nonetheless manage to pay loving homage to the Japanese features of generations' past. As a character, Godzilla is treated as an imposing but not intentionally malevolent unknown, an enigmatic savior in disguise pitted against biological byproducts of a planet about to pay for its arrogance. Supplemented by the complexly layered, spine-tingingly unorthodox orchestrations from composer Alexandre Desplat (2014's "The Grand Budapest Hotel
"), the film's exhilarating pleasures meet at a cathartic intersection where the cerebral marries the purely fun. At the risk of sounding trite, it has to be said: "Godzilla" is awesome.