Thursday, May 22, 2014

Culture Shock 05.22.14: 'Godzilla' takes its time but is worth the wait

In the first half of Gareth Edwards' re-imagined "Godzilla," we only glimpse the title character.

Dorsal spikes cut through the water like a shark's fin as Godzilla crosses the Pacific trailed by a U.S. Navy carrier battle group. In one memorable shot, the partially submerged Godzilla dwarfs an aircraft carrier sailing beside him. You half expect someone to say, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Just in case that doesn't remind you of "Jaws," most of the main characters are named Brody.

The 2014 model "Godzilla" is the second attempt by an American studio to adapt Japan's most recognizable cinema icon. The widely reviled 1998 "Godzilla" pitted a giant iguana against "Ferris Buller's Day Off" star Matthew Broderick, with a script that was "Jurassic Park" meets Dino De Laurentiis' campy 1976 "King Kong." Whatever it was, it wasn't a Godzilla movie.

This one takes some inspiration from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," but at its heart, this "Godzilla" is surprisingly faithful to the Japanese version, especially as depicted in the "Heisei series" films Toho produced from 1984 to 1995.

As a bonus, instead of Ferris Buller, we get Heisenberg.

Fifteen years ago, an accident destroyed a Japanese nuclear power plant where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad") was an engineer. The accident also killed Joe's wife (Juliette Binoche in a glorified cameo) and rendered the surrounding city a no man's land.

In the present day, Joe is still in Japan, searching for answers to a disaster he doesn't believe was caused by an earthquake or other natural occurrence. Just so you know he's obsessed, he wallpapers his apartment with newspaper clippings, because that's what borderline psychos in movies do.

Half a world away in San Francisco, Joe's son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of "Kick-Ass") is a bomb disposal expert returning home to his wife and son (Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) from a 14-month tour of duty. He's barely unpacked when a call comes from Japan: His dad tried to break into the quarantine zone and needs Ford to come bail him out. This is a movie with giant monsters but no Western Union, but it gets the Brody boys together for when the action starts.

Of course, Joe is right. The nuclear plant was destroyed by a prehistoric monster that's still cocooned at ground zero, feeding on the radiation. And a secret organization led by Ken Watanabe's Dr. Ichiro Serizawa has been studying such creatures since the first one reawakened in 1954. (One guess which monster that is.) But before Joe and Serizawa can compare notes, the cocooned monster — designated MUTO for "massive unidentified terrestrial organism" — wakes up, lays waste to everything and flies east toward California, where Ford's wife and son live. Bummer, right?

By this point, you may be wondering where Godzilla comes in. Serizawa has been talking about him from the start, and his presence looms over everything, but it takes Godzilla an hour to show up.

Fortunately, when he does, he doesn't disappoint. This is no oversized iguana.

Be very, very quiet. Godzilla is hunting MUTOs.

Cranston can chew scenery with the best of them, and Watanabe's Serizawa ably fills the traditional role of the one person who is sympathetic to Godzilla. But otherwise it's hard to care about any of the human characters, and the Navy's plan to nuke the monsters is so stupid you wonder if humanity even deserves to survive. Fortunately, the slow buildup pays off when the monsters fight, and at least the monsters' motivations, driven by the most Darwinian of instincts, make sense.

Also, you can't deny that Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("The Avengers") have shot one of the best-looking Godzilla movies ever.

If there is a message here — and Godzilla movies usually have a message — it's that nature is chaotic but self-correcting. The MUTO awakes, but so does Godzilla, "the alpha predator." If humans don't upset the balance, order will return — after two or three cities have been flattened, give or take.

It's the Tao of Godzilla. When Serizawa says, "Let them fight," he's speaking for the movie as well as for the audience.

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