By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Godzilla — the mere utterance of his name evokes the image of a giant, fire-breathing lizard rampaging through Tokyo, destroying everything in its pathway.
Prompted by the commercial success of the theatrical re-release of “King Kong” two years before, the original Japanese version of “Gojiro” debuted in 1954. As written and directed by Ishiro Honda, the film addressed fears about the advent of atomic weaponry.
Redubbed as, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” with additional scenes featuring Raymond Burr (later television’s “Perry Mason,” “Ironsides”) patched in, the film became an international success. This spawned a cottage industry of 27 sequels. In them, Godzilla was pitted against a litany of such monsters as Mothra, Rodan, Hedorah, and even the venerable King Kong himself.
In 1998, Roland Emmerich wrote and helmed the first U.S. film, which featured the Godzilla character. Although the Sony film bore the name of the behemoth creature, it was largely repudiative of any of the antecedent versions. A megahit at the box office, it was reviled by critics and Godzilla fans alike. It earned the dubious, albeit well-deserved, distinction of winning multiple Golden Raspberry awards, including one for worst sequel of the year.
On the 60th anniversary of its screen debut, the current “Godzilla” reboot marks yet another take on the iconic screen personage. Although the theme of radioactivity again figures prominently in this reboot, there are plenty of other elements that appear for the first time.
This “Godzilla” kicks off with pre-credit montage of documentary and faux documentary footage. It cobbles together an amalgam of black and white footage, including Medieval illustrations of sea monsters, the cover of Darwin’s groundbreaking treatise, “The Origin of the Species,” the Bikini Atoll explosion, and various other reminders of the Cold War era paranoia. Unfortunately, this early tease represents the high point of the entire film.
The film has a protracted set up. First, we have two scientists, Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his sidekick, Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins). They are investigating the newly-discovered fossils of some huge prehistoric beast found at a dig in the Phillipines. Then, the film shifts to a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan under the supervision of engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). It is destroyed by mysterious seismic activity, in which Joe’s wife and colleague (Juliette Binoche) is killed. The first half hour fails to explicate the basic premise of the film and forms a poor bridge to its residuum.
The film then fast forwards 15 years. The government continues to claim that the plant meltdown resulted from an earthquake and has quarantined the facility. Haunted by a sense of guilt over his wife’s death, Joe becomes a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist. He persistently accuses the government of a massive cover-up. Even his own son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), dismisses these impassioned diatribes as the rants of a madman.
As nemeses to the reawakened Godzilla, the film introduces a male and female M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). They look like a cross between a giant Praying Mantis and a cockroach on stilts. The male of the species also has moth-like wings. Wait until you see the M.U.T.O.’s courtship ritual. It involves the male appropriating a nuclear megaton bomb and presenting it to the female as a dowry. In a convenient plot twist, Ford is a bomb disposal technician, who just happens to have retrofitted the purloined ordinance.
Belatedly, expository dialogue by Dr. Graham introduces the dubious conceptual underpinnings of the film. Supposedly, dinosaurs thrived on radioactive energy. During the end of the Jurassic era, the level of radioactivity on the earth’s surface began to subside. The dinosaurs retreated to subterranean lairs, where the radioactivity was higher. I was unable to divine how these prehistoric creatures realized that the radioactivity was decreasing. Did they have Geiger counters or did they read about the phenomenon in “Scientific American”? Sally Hawkins deserves Academy Award consideration, just for keeping a straight face, while spouting this pseudo-scientific gobbledegook.
The latest “Godzilla” does boast a few visually eye-popping vignettes and a stirring score by Alexandre Desplat. However, it is subverted by a screenplay, which is farcical even by the relaxed standards of a monster film.
**1/2 PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence) 123 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.