by Glenn Lovell
Nobody much cared for the 1998 “Godzilla” reboot starring Matthew Broderick and, plastered over the Manhattan backdrops, wall-to-wall product-placement ads. It was widely agreed that it did the King of Monsters a gross disservice. So how does the latest incarnation of Toho’s legendary thunder-lizard fare? The good news: it restores the big guy’s tank-melting radioactive breath.
In the climactic smackdown between Godzilla and a pair of M.U.T.O.s ‒ eight-legged hybrids of snapping turtles and the “Alien” creature ‒ Godzilla emits a theater-shaking r-r-roar and gives the female M.U.T.O. mouth-to-mouth, barbecuing the ol’ girl from the inside out.
It’s a cathartic, crowd-pleasing moment, an obvious sop to fans of the 1954 original, wherein the reawakened dinosaur emerged from the sea to lay waste to a matchbox Tokyo.
Unfortunately, the new “Godzilla” provides far too few such moments. Indeed, filmed almost entirely at night or through an acrid-yellow haze to disguise bad CG, it’s even worse than that lamentable 1998 release. Director Gareth Edwards, who showed promise with the imaginative, ultra-low-budget “Monsters,” has stitched together one cataclysmic event after another. MIA are anything resembling logical plot progression and character development. This is one of those ludicrous affairs in which tens of thousands of fleeing civilians are trampled and flattened while the nominal headliners ‒ Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s bomb-disposal expert and Elizabeth Olsen’s nurse-wife, in this instance ‒ somehow manage to escape and reunite.
Under the best of circumstances, stand-ins for humankind ‒ think Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum in “Independence Day” ‒ come off as stick-figure caricatures. Here, as San Francisco and Oakland sub for ground zero and tactical command HQ, the, ahem, principals surpass your standard-issue cutouts to become laugh-out-loud idiotic. One of the few to crawl from the downtown rubble? Olsen, of course. The only survivor of an atomic train disaster? Taylor-Johnson, aka “the Hope of All Humanity.” The first bus to break through the gridlock on the Golden Gate Bridge? The one carrying the stars’ son.
Things get off to a semi-intriguing start as Edwards and tyro scenarist Max Borenstein fuse mythology from Toho’s “Rodan” and Friedkin’s “The Exorcist.” Bryan Cranston at his hammiest and Juliette Binoche at her most earnest play husband and wife engineers working at a Japanese power plant beset by seismic anomalies. Before you can say “Fukushima Dai-ichi!” there’s a nuclear-reactor meltdown. Fifteen years later ‒ coincidence of coincidences ‒ the couple’s son (Taylor-Johnson) races to avert the global disaster foretold by his conspiracy nut father. Monitoring things from the sidelines are Ken Watanabe’s glum Japanese scientist and David Strathairn’s all-neck admiral. No surprises here. Watanabe, as the film’s voice of reason, wants nature to take its course, i.e. have Godzilla wipe the floor with the M.U.T.O.s (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms). The ramrod straight Strathairn wants to nuke the warring mutants ‒ who, oops, feed on radiation.
Director Edwards obviously studied “Jurassic Park” before staging his CG/blue screen assaults. (And composer Alexandre Desplat obviously listened to Bernard Herrmann.) In places, this “Godzilla” plays like a parody of the Spielberg classic. How else to respond to moments in which the 300-foot goliaths creep up on obviously preoccupied humans? Fittingly, Edwards only decent shock owes a debt to low-tech Hitchcock ‒ disoriented seagulls slamming into a school-bus window.
Take a lesson, Hollywood. Light-years ahead of this $160-million boondoggle ‒ the jittery, handheld “Cloverfield.”
GODZILLA ✮1/2 With Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn. Directed by Gareth Edwards; scripted by Max Borenstein. 123 min. PG-13 (nonstop CG mayhem)