Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 3 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 7 ; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star ratings (1-5): 3.5
Their roaring is like a lion,
like young lions they roar;
they growl and seize their prey,
they carry it off, and no one can rescue.
They will roar over it on that day,
like the roaring of the sea.
And if one look to the land—
only darkness and distress;
and the light grows dark with clouds.
The prophet Isaiah is, of course, describing the brutal Assyrian juggernaut of an army that destroyed city after city as it swept across the little nations of Palestine in the middle of the 8th century BCE. The same kind of dread and terror is evoked by the giant creatures in today’s box office champion. Director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla comes out 60 years after Japanese filmmaker Ishirô Honda’s original version. If my counting is right, this is the 29th film featuring the huge monster There is no doubt that the awesome graphic effects of the new film far surpasses the original in which a man in a rubberized suit portrayed the monster (actually two men because the suit was so hot that one or the other fainted after being encased more than 3 or 4 minutes).
However 2014 is not 1954, the latter year being just 9 years after the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a few months after a mishap during the American testing at Bikini Atoll of the H-Bomb. Japanese fisherman aboard the ironically named Lucky Dragon 5 sailed too close to the testing sight and were covered with radioactive fallout. They became sick when they reached homeport, and the radio operator died from his radiation poisoning. No wonder that in 1954 Godzilla was the highest grossing film in Japan—the people recognized all of the references to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the fishing boat victims, behind which stood the ominously regarded United States.
The new American restarting of the monster franchise can be seen as a cautionary tale critical of the nuclear industry and of our ravaging the environment, but few American viewers will react as viscerally to its many scenes of urban carnage as did those in Japan 60 years earlier. Indeed, some film critics have dismissed the film, such as the one for TIME Magazine who declared it “a dud.” This seems far too harsh to me. Certainly no Citizen Kane, or even The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version), the film is nonetheless very entertaining, of an escapist variety. The special effects truly are awesome, with the director holding back on showing us all of Godzilla for quite a while. Actually, the first monster we do see is not Godzilla, but a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), a huge mutated insect that feeds upon nuclear fuel. The nuclear submarine is its first dinner.
The new film begins with series of vintage newsreel clips and photos of the atomic and H-bombs playing behind the opening credits. In the Philippines scientists led by Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) at a vast mining pit uncover deep underground discover the remains of a huge dead monster. Hanging from the ceiling is a cocoon and one from which something has emerged. Following a path of displaced earth, they see a trail of destruction of the forest leading to the sea.
Meanwhile in Japan at a nuclear facility scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are coping with mysterious seismic tremors. The tremors cause the warning lights to go off, and Sandra is dispatched to the check on things in a subterranean chamber. When the plant is about to meltdown, Joe has to close the gate of the tunnel to prevent the exploding gasses from destroying the whole facility. He is traumatized by the sight of his dying wife and coworkers frantically pleading through the giant door’s small window as they are enveloped by the deadly radioactive gas. In a school close to the nuclear facility their young son Ford, knowing his parents work there, sees the nuclear funnel towers collapse.
Jump ahead 15 years, and Joe’s estranged son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), now married and living with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) in San Francisco, receives a call to come to Japan where his father has been arrested for trespassing on the quarantined property of the nuclear facility where his wife had died. He has been obsessed through the years by the conviction that the Japanese government is covering up what happened originally. He had recorded a series of seismic vibrations of earthquake proportions that required some other explanation than a natural cause. When reunited with his father, Ford eventually discovers the old man had been right—that the new seismic tremors match the old ones, and when they visit the quarantined old nuclear site, it is crawling with government technicians and soldiers. There is no longer any radioactivity because some thing has consumed it before leaving the area. How all this leads the son back across the Pacific to San Francisco where Godzilla pursues a pair of MUTOs bent on wholesale destruction of the city I will leave to you to discover.
It is true that the new version lacks the deep human dimension of Shirô Honda’s version, which had a love triangle story in addition to that of one of the characters, a Japanese scientist, who heroically gives his life to destroy the monster. There is in the new film Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), a flustered scientist who accompanies the American naval commander Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), but his role is more of an observer and commentator than active participant. Indeed, at the end of the film (spoiler coming—you might want to stop right here!), he is glad that Godzilla survives. In this film the monster takes on a heroic role, fighting against the clearly evil MUTOs as if he were a force of nature seeking to restore the balance to nature, so badly disrupted by human mining and nuclear activities. It is almost as if Nature itself is reacting to humanity’s rape of the earth. Or so, the message of this new version might be. People of faith, who look to the old Tower of Babel story as a warning against humanity’s hubris, might enjoy watching and talking about the issues raised by the film—and maybe if they publicize their efforts, a few of the legions of Godzilla fans might be drawn in, or at least, discover that a faith group has something to contribute to a discussion of environmental concerns.
Note: There is a wonderfully produced Informational YouTube analysis of the original Godzilla by David Rose that includes extensive clips from the film, archival newsreel footage and clips from films influenced by the Japanese film. Well worth the hour and a half that it takes to view it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IVCEO4vX1o
The full review with discussion questions will be in the June issue of Visual Parables. To subscribe go to the Visual Parables Store.