“We call him … Gojira.”
Thus does the newest, American-made “Godzilla” acknowledge the origins of the King of Monsters, putting those words into the mouth of a Japanese scientist (played by Ken Watanabe) who knows a thing or two about the nuclearized origins of the great scaly beast. His father was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped.
Not long afterward, awakened, irradiated and mad as hell, the prehistoric gargantua arose from the ocean depths, a fire-breathing symbol of Japan’s well-founded atomic phobia.
So the monster returns in “Godzilla,” bigger than ever, 355 feet of reptilian menace (he was 164 feet tall in the 1954 Japanese origin movie), and badder … well, hmmm.
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Definitions of terms like “good” and “bad” get a little slippery when discussing the big guy. Early on, he was truly bad, shredding Japan and its armed forces repeatedly. But in later movies, as he became a pop-culture icon, he fought monsters even badder than himself and evolved into a kind of ally of humans. Though, in those battles he still shredded Japan and its armed forces repeatedly. With friends like that …
There’s plenty of city shredding in this newest “Godzilla.” Honolulu, aloha ‘oe. Sorry about that, San Francisco. Oh no! Not the Golden Gate Bridge again!
Godzilla is in what passes for his “good” mode here because there are a couple of other creatures on the scene even meaner than him, and they get way more screen time than the big guy. So much, in fact, that Godzilla is practically a supporting character in his own movie.
Apparently, director Gareth Edwards decided to do a “Jaws” with Godzilla, hiding him from view for much of the picture. He teases the audience with a close-up of a big lizard foot here — Stomp! — and multiple peeks at spiky dorsal fins sliding through the sea to pique our curiosity about the beast’s appearance.
Godzilla’s adversaries look like the hellish spawn of Rodan and the Alien with their slime-oozing, fang-packed mouths and big leathery wings. They maraud across the planet searching for their favorite food: radioactive materials. They gobble nuclear warheads like M&Ms.
Ineffectually opposing their rampage is the U.S. military. As the Japanese learned long ago, neither tanks nor jets nor missiles do anything other than annoy Godzilla and his ilk.
Watanabe’s character knows what must be done: “Let them fight.” And then finally we see Godzilla in all his state-of-the-art CG glory, going claw-to-claw with the nuke-eaters, blasting them with his radioactive fire breath and deafening them with his trademark bellow.
Edwards hits the anti-nuclear angle hard. He works diligently early on to humanize the issue by concentrating on the efforts of a traumatized engineer (Bryan Cranston) to expose a government cover-up of the monster menace and its atomic origins.
But although the actors — including Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the Cranston character’s Navy officer son — are better at their craft than their counterparts in the Japanese movies, the dialogue they’re obliged to deliver is still quite hackneyed.
The Japanese “Godzillas,” with their awful acting and cheesy special effects, have a campy quality that makes them oddly endearing. Edwards’ “Godzilla,” far more technically impressive and more realistic-seeming, isn’t quite as much fun. As cities are reduced to dusty ruins and fleeing survivors jam highways, echoes of Sept. 11 resonate unmistakably, and that significantly dilutes the fun factor.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org