The lyrics of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway staple, “I’m Still Here,” marches the song’s aging singer through various stages of a lifetime in show business, stages that include playing somebody’s mother and being regarded as a camp object. Well, after beginning life in 1954 as a terrifying metaphor for nuclear hubris, Godzilla fairly quickly made the leap to camp status among adults, even as he became a heroic figure for children raised on a steady diet of sequels revolving around the word “versus,” for whom the King of The Monsters was part babysitter and part avatar of playground justice. As for the mom stuff, he got a chance to be somewhat female/capable-of-asexual-reproduction in Roland Emmerich’s rotten 1998 version. So, yeah, Godzilla has careered from career to career and guess what? Still here.
The movies are lucky to have him. The entirety of worthwhile cinema is at least 2% Godzilla-related (I made up that number but it seems right to me) and in a landscape littered with hundreds of infinitely less lovable, less gigantic and less fire-breath-having movie stars, any Godzilla is better than no Godzilla. Okay, almost any (see Emmerich above). Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) knows this. And he knows how to create excitement around his star. But just being better than the last English-language stab at telling the Gojira story wasn’t going to be enough and he knew that, too. So this chapter in the heroic monster’s saga allows him to move in ways that don’t attempt to force the audience into rooting against him. Smart. We haven’t been frightened of the guy since the early 1960s and there’s really no going back.
What does Godzilla mean now? Whatever we want him to mean? Nothing at all? How about climate change? Or Fukushima? Sure, why not. Let’s say that this version’s analog to the real life destruction of corporate polluters is an evil that lurks inside the earth in the form of two enormous, winged, mantis-like creatures. They eat nuclear everything and they’re out to mate and destroy all humans. In a world without a defense-minded monster to thwart this plan, the film would be a fine earth-idiots-deserve-what-they-get narrative. But this is a Godzilla movie and we do have our mountain-sized friend to “restore balance,” in the words of his spiritual brother, scientist Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, who solemnly delivers all the best lines). Serizawa is a true believer. “He can defeat them,” he says. THAT’S RIGHT. LET'S SEE THAT HAPPEN.
Oops, sorry, we have to wait a bit. More than a bit. If there’s a complaint to be made about this grandly scaled battle epic, it’s that Edwards Jawses us to the point of impatience, teasing out the spectacle with a suggestion of monster here, a broken bit of fight-momentum there. The director, his digital artists and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey present us with lovingly detailed and gorgeous glimpses of the creatures through fog and smoke and fire; it's the opposite of most summer multiplex onslaughts and that's a very good thing. But it also forces the audience to fake-pay-attention to the conspiracy ranting of researcher Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and to the fate of his military explosives expert son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Ford's nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their child (Carson Bolde).
And we don’t really care about any of them; we’re waiting to see a monster eat a train. A monster needs to get busy eating a train. Of course, that waiting is the result of a reverence to the Godzilla template. No old-fashioned kaiju film was complete without a lot of stupid humans sitting around military control rooms worrying aloud how to stem the tide of death brought about by [fill in the blank: King Ghidorah, Hedorah, Mechagodzilla]. This time is no different.
So when 2014 Godzilla finally fully emerges from the deep like a gloriously meaty centerfold straight out of Bulk Reptile magazine -- a creation that’s part performance capture, part computer stuff, thankfully looking nothing like a CG cartoon -- we cheer. He's back to save everybody's ass. And more people are going to die while he does it. “Let them fight,” whispers Watanabe. YES. LET THEM FIGHT. DAMMIT.
And they fight. And it’s beautiful and loud and brutal and violent and harmful to buildings and people who can’t run fast enough and better than everything else in the world. And we cheer.