The latest incarnation of “Godzilla” – it would be beyond precious to call this a “reboot” – is a surprisingly old-fashioned monster movie. Most charming to some audiences, and probably a bit annoying to others, is the movie’s resolute commitment to the idea that nobody sitting in the theater knows who Godzilla is, or what he looks like. There’s more teasing going on in this film than at a roadside strip club. The Big Guy flashes a little plump reptillian leg about halfway through, and then you don’t really see him again until the finale. The cut away from his first appearance to a little kid watching cable-news coverage of his first battle is a remarkably audacious move from director Gareth Edwards. He’s basically daring the audience to boo him.
You probably won’t boo him, though, especially if you have fond memories of the classic Godzilla films, or hard thoughts about the unloved Nineties movie, from whose long shadow of shame Godzilla is finally redeemed. It matters that Edwards treats the King of Monsters like something special and awesome. It’s infectious. The audience comes to think of him as special and awesome, too. The 90s film treated Godzilla like a pest to be exterminated; here he’s a force of nature, an almost Lovecraftian ancient presence who strides across the Earth with the authority of a million years behind every step. One character refers to him as a god, without irony. When he cuts loose in the third act, it’s worth the wait.
Other old-fashioned touches include some fine giant-monster rasslin’, a wise Japanese scientist who serves as a Pez dispenser of exposition to keep the plot humming along (played by Ken Watanabe, who apparently feels like he won the lottery when he landed this part, judging by his perpetual expression of astonishment), the way Godzilla himself is essentially the “good” monster, and some remarkably brave and competent military men. The human element is generally a bit undercooked dramatically, and the great Bryan Cranston is criminally under-used, but this new film avoids one of the biggest mistake of the 90s version, whose human characters were all hapless goofballs or annoying cartoons. Those who labor to protect the civilians from the new film’s monster rampage are professionals who leap into suicide missions without hesitation, including an absolutely thrilling parachute jump into the middle of a giant bug-vs-lizard smackdown. They take the situation seriously, and it’s all the more impressive that nothing they do seems to have much effect on the titanic combatants. Missile cruisers are like bathtub toys to Godzilla. He swims under aircraft carriers like the shark from “Jaws” prowling beneath a rubber raft. To quote a famous line from “Jaws,” you’re going to need a bigger boat… but there are no bigger boats.
It’s the human perspective that gives this movie its unique flavor. Like “Cloverfield,” it shifts to the ground-level perspective of the individual people caught up in the chaos whenever possible. You’re looking through someone’s facemask during much of that show-stopping parachute jump. It’s a great way to make the monsters look suitably awesome and terrifying. Kids watching the old-time man-in-suit Godzilla films might laugh at the sight of all those people running and screaming. You’ll have no problem imagining yourself running as fast as possible from this Godzilla and his adversaries.
There’s plenty of material left for the sequel, which the studio announced in a swoon over the weekend, while the box-office lit up like a pachinko machine. This one’s going to be a tough act to follow.