History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man. Gareth Edwards’s epic kaiju-CGI Godzilla reboot — the first truly joyous popcorn action movie of the season — arrives just a few months after the 60th anniversary of March 1, 1954, when the United States set off a hydrogen bomb near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, just to see what would happen. Thanks to human error back home at Los Alamos, a device (nicknamed “The Shrimp”) expected to yield between six and eight megatons of explosive energy instead produced 15, still the largest nuclear blast ever triggered by Americans. Then the wind shifted, blowing a radioactive plume over more than 7,000 square miles of ocean, including several islands the U.S. had failed to evacuate and the Japanese fishing trawler Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon Number 5. The crew suffered radiation sickness, and the ship’s radio operator eventually died. Meanwhile, on the island of Rongelap, 100 miles from Bikini, children played in drifts of fallout, believing it was snow.
Gojira, the very first Godzilla movie, was released in Japan by the Toho Company eight months later, in November of ’54. Cowritten and directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, it’s remembered not incorrectly as an attempt to allegorically process the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American atomic bombs in 1945, a monster movie that transmuted trauma into mythic kitsch. But it opens with a virtual reenactment of the Lucky Dragon incident — a mysterious flash of light, fishing boats adrift on a boiling sea. Honda’s film metaphorized the horrors of the recent past in big-rubber-lizard form, but it also addressed the horrors of the present. It’s unlike any other subsequent Godzilla movie — black-and-white, surprisingly somber, a little boring. The independent distributors who released it in America in 1956 as Godzilla: King of the Monsters cut it by 40 minutes, excising or garbling most of the references to the bomb and adding an American-point-of-view character in the form of a reporter played by Raymond Burr, who interacted with the original cast through the magic of dubbing and body doubles.
Dozens of sequels followed, with every aspect of the franchise fluctuating wildly from film to film — tone, budget, suit crappiness, degree of fealty to previously established backstory, intentionality of comedy, Godzilla’s goodness or badness relative to other monsters, even his height. Godzilla met King Kong, Venusian princesses, the lightning-powered man-beetle Megalon, and the giant robot Jet Jaguar, a bootleg Ultraman; he was a rampaging atomic-age golem, then a hero to children, then a monster again. He acquired a Scrappy Doo–ish ward named Minilla, played by the Japanese little person and wrestler “Little Man” Machan, and learned to be a dad; he was dealt to an alien race with a King Ghidorah problem in exchange for the cure for cancer, which the aliens never supplied.
He even survived Roland Emmerich’s hatefully dumb Godzilla, from 1998, which reduced the King of All Monsters to a glorified T. rex in a misguided stab at realism, as if that were what was holding these movies back from taking their rightful place alongside Shakespeare in the pantheon. Among purist Tohoites, the Emmerich monster is derisively referred to as “Zilla”; in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, he reappears as part of a series-record-setting 13-monster invasion unleashed by an intergalactic tyrant, but lasts about a minute against the One True Godz, who hurls him into the Sydney Opera House before disintegrating him, a finishing move that doubled as an act of film criticism (and architecture criticism, I guess).
Like any great screen icon, he filtered out into the pop water supply, as a joke and a hipster shibboleth, a sample and a postmodern hero. You could find him stomping Bambi in one of the most famous 90-second films ever made, tangling with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Doctor Doom in his own Marvel comic, getting dunked on by Charles Barkley in a Nike ad and mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000. After Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon was reportedly working on a book about an insurance investigator surveying the wreckage of a Godz-stomped Tokyo, a plot that became a single scene in Vineland 17 years later. And Mark Jacobson’s hallucinatory 1991 novel Gojiro is told from the POV of the beast, now a scaly showbiz lifer kept alive against his will by the mental energy of his fans. “Wouldn’t be no big thing if I was a regular movie star,” he moans. “Any regulation, above-the-title player, they just blow into town, chisel their shallow aspect upon the Rushmore of culture, tip out before everyone gets tired of looking at them. The whole beautiful corpse configuration. But not me! Nooo, I got to live forever.”
Strictly speaking, Edwards’s movie ignores all that’s preceded it, as reboots are entitled to do. Like Cloverfield or Pacific Rim — both Godzilla movies that happened to not actually star Godzilla, both movies this one is obligated to one-up creatively if not commercially — it tries to logically extrapolate how our first contact with Big G might play out if it happened today. But it’s also, slyly, a meta–Godzilla movie, in which our own past experience with the character — the feeling that we’ve seen all this before — resurfaces subliminally, as a plotline about secret history. In the dizzying title sequence, images from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species give way to documents that redact themselves before our eyes, and real archival footage mingles with fiction, like JFK’s park-bench scene crossed with the opening of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen; just before Bikini Atoll is rather ingeniously woven into the canon, we get a split-second glimpse of some familiar spines.
And that’s all we get, Godzilla-wise, for quite some time. In the meantime we meet a scientist played by Ken Watanabe, and then two more, nuclear engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, sporting a suspicious wig from the Greg Kinnear for Men collection) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), and eventually their grown son Ford, a military explosives-disposal expert (Aaron Taylor-Johnson from Kick-Ass, unrecognizably buff). As a general tasked with anti-Godzilla operations, David Strathairn gets a character introduction so drawn out and extravagant, it feels like the movie is about to turn into Godzilla vs. Strathairn, then basically disappears. The human beings are mostly there to give us a sense of how big the monsters are; thanks to the depth offered by 3-D images, Edwards’s Godzilla sets a new standard for the integration of tiny people and giant radioactive aberrations in the same shot, heretofore the jankiest-looking aspect of all Godzilla films. But the closest thing to a real emotional arc involves the Brody men, who haven’t gotten along since Joe became obsessed with the idea that his former employers were covering up the truth about the disaster that destroyed the plant he once worked at in Japan. And boy, are they ever. Spoilerphobes unaware of the basic plot mechanics of every giant-monster-fight movie ever made, now would be a good time to click away.
Turns out Watanabe and a team of scientists working for a government-ish agency called Monarch have been keeping a monster under wraps in the quarantine zone around the old nuke plant for years — something called a MUTO, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. Shortly after Joe and Ford show up at Monarch’s doorstep looking for answers, it hatches from its cocoon and brings the house down. So, fuck arcs. A flapping super-mantis with a can-opener head, the MUTO resembles one of the bugs from Starship Troopers grown colossal, and its introduction lets Edwards fire up the catastrophic-property-destruction portion of the film while keeping the guest of honor off-camera for a while longer. Of the many things this Godzilla gets right, the most important is also the simplest. The movie knows who its star is, believes in his magnetism, and trusts that we’ll wait for him to show up, provided we can still watch some landmarks get stepped on in the meantime. We live in fan-servicey times, so this is a nervy choice. But Edwards has clearly learned a thing or two from Steven Spielberg about when to show us the shark. (He also never misses an opportunity to amplify a moment of terror or wonder by cutting to the face of a wide-eyed child, which is classic Jurassic Park stuff.)
When we do finally get a look at Godzilla, he’s imposing, thick-necked, and slit-eyed ornery, as if rudely awakened. This is a Godzilla who’s been around the paleontological block a few times, who is maybe getting too old for this shit. He’s part Komodo dragon, part Robert Duvall. Godzilla as grumpy-badass antihero is a nice touch; it honors the memory of the fan-beloved, kid-friendly G films in which he acts as Earth’s benevolent roadhouse bouncer — You don’t have to go home, SpaceGodzilla, but you can’t stay here — without robbing him of his apex-predator menace the way those movies did. He’s anthropomorphized just enough, which is the fine line a film like this has to walk. At long last, all the players have suited up. “Let them fight,” Watanabe says, speaking on behalf of the audience, and so they do, Godzilla and the MUTO, taking down most of San Francisco’s financial district in the process. The moment is everything you want it to be, a bar brawl that happens to topple skyscrapers. I’m guessing it’ll feel like too little, too late for some people, but I admired Edwards’s restraint, a quality I’m not accustomed to admiring in $160 million summer action movies.
Edwards made only one other feature before this one, 2010’s Monsters, a mumblecore/sci-fi travelogue shot for around $500,000, mostly with a seven-person crew. Scoot McNairy plays a photojournalist who agrees to transport his boss’s daughter out of a Mexico overrun with tentacled extraterrestrial predators. Things go awry, and the notion that Mexico’s problems are America’s problems, no matter how many fences we erect, is conveyed cleverly if not subtly. Edwards has been spinning his Godzilla in interviews as a global-warming allegory, with Godzilla as an agent of the natural order, kicking insectoid ass in order to right an out-of-whack ecosystem. The movie supports that reading but doesn’t particularly encourage it. It’s probably too much to ask that a movie this purely enjoyable also deliver trenchant social commentary. But given the franchise’s history of accidental-on-purpose cathexis, I can dream — of a rematch with the Smog Monster, maybe.
This column has been updated to correct a typo in the year atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it was 1945, not 1946.