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Review: Beautiful and badass, ‘Godzilla’ puts the awe back in awesome

I can't imagine sitting in a theater in 1954 in Japan and watching “Gojira” play for the first time. Ten years earlier, your country faces a nuclear nightmare, and for the first time in human history, the atom was used to wipe a city full of people off the planet in an instant. War reached its most horrifying manifestation, and it completely changed the world. But for Japan, it was not an abstract. It was a redefining moment, part of their identity from that moment, an actual scar they were going to have to live with. Looking at “Gojira” now, it feels like an attempt to come to terms with the hopelessness of that event in a way that people could watch together, a fantasy catharsis that the country needed.

The stark black-and-white images of a giant monster smashing and burning Tokyo must have felt terrifying. Godzilla is barely a character in that first film. He's a rampaging force of nature, and the solution they find to finally stop him is pretty much an equal horror, a worst-case-scenario sort of ending. They know that if they use it, they're turning Tokyo Bay into an aquatic graveyard. To kill Godzilla, they're going to have to kill everything, and that seems like an acceptable trade.

That original film is also fairly thick with melodrama, setting a tone that the enduring franchise that has often followed, and while the films have been in almost constant production for the past 60 years, it's become almost completely accepted that the dramatic stuff in these movies is going to be less interesting than the monsters. The moment they made the decision to bring Godzilla back for more movies, they began figuring new roles for the monster. He went from threat to protector, and more monsters were invented to give Godzilla someone to fight.

It's fair to say that they've never made a more effective use of Godzilla as a metaphor than they did in the original film, and after a certain point, they didn't really try. It became more like watching WWE matches with elaborate costumes than movies that had something specific to say about the world. When Roland Emmerich decided to make a new American Godzilla movie, he had absolutely nothing to say, and it became just another disaster movie from a guy whose success has been predicated almost entirely on his ability to blow shit up.

As I've recently discussed, we've reached a point where audiences have seen certain things so many times that I ca't imagine it's enough simply to watch a monster smash things. Scripted by Max Borenstein, working from a story by Dave Callaham, this new film is the first time since arguably “Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster” that they've tried to actually deal with something on a subtextual level in addition to also creating a large-scale monster mayhem movie, and while I don't think the film is completely successful, there is so much that's interesting and exciting about it that it feels like a brand new day for Toho's greatest icon.

The film opens in the past, as Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) head in for a day at work at the nuclear power plant in Japan where they are part of the team that maintains safety. Joe's concerned about a recurrent electrical pulse that seems to be building to some sort of event, and on this particular morning, things finally reach a crisis point. Instead of validating Joe, though, the events destroy him and his family, and the plant goes into meltdown.

Picking up in the present day, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a military bomb disarming specialist, and Joe is still grappling to make sense out of what happened in that Japanese plant, sure that it was not his fault, and sure that it's going to happen again. When Joe is arrested trying to get back to their family's house inside what has been a quarantined zone since the incident, Ford flies to Japan to bail him out. He's embarrassed by his father, still angry over everything that happened, and he's convinced that Joe is crazy, broken by the grief over his own role in things.

The way the film is structured, and the way Gareth Edwards chooses to shoot things, it's all about giving us an eye-level view of these events. There are big things happening, and the Brodys intersect those events in a way that makes them suitable entry points for us as an audience. There is a larger event unfolding, and it takes some time before things start to make sense. The film is structured like a mystery up until a certain point, and even then, don't expect to see Godzilla for a while.

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