“Size does matter,” bragged the ads for Godzilla, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt to convert the most famous of Japanese monsters into a Hollywood heavyweight. But the slogan, and the awful movie it was selling, miscalculated: Size matters, yes, but not nearly as much as proportion. For something to look truly, profoundly huge, it must be convincingly placed next to something tiny. That’s a lesson that the makers of this new and improved Godzilla have clearly taken to heart. Gargantuan creatures duke it out against smoldering skylines, but almost always from the perspective of human witnesses—the little people gazing in terror from street level or out of the windows of a school bus. The audience, as a result, feels like it’s standing right there next to them at ground zero, a bystander to the city-leveling bouts. We’re a long, long way from guys in rubber suits trampling on model buildings.
Both conceptually and dramatically, Godzilla preserves a human dimension, though it may prove better at placing viewers alongside its civilian cast than making them care for the characters that aren’t as tall as skyscrapers. To achieve intimacy within the framework of a bank-breaking spectacle, the studio tapped director Gareth Edwards, whose only qualification for the gig was a low-budget creature feature called Monsters. Not that the lack of experience shows: Edwards makes the leap to the majors with confidence, adapting his grounded approach to sci-fi to a much larger scale. In many respects, his true source of inspiration is not Toho’s vast library of kaiju flicks, but the elemental event movies of Steven Spielberg. Godzilla borrows the delayed gratification of Jaws, the towering menace of War Of The Worlds, and a commingling of fear and awe familiar to any Jurassic Park fan. It is, if nothing else, a better and less slavish imitation of the master’s moves than Super 8.
For a while, Edwards even seems to be recycling the broken-home pathology of Spielberg’s most soulful works. The film begins in 1999, with scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) losing his wife (Juliette Binoche) in a nuclear power-plant mishap. Flash forward 15 years and the boy of the family, Ford, is now a Navy man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), estranged from his increasingly obsessive father. Cranston pours himself into his stock role, bellowing accusations with scary conviction and mournfully sifting through the wreckage of his abandoned home, à la Walter White. One could imagine a whole movie built around this compelling, broken character; soon, however, scenery-chewing duties pass to literal scenery chewers, as the Japanese authorities accidentally release an ancient behemoth onto the world. As more humongous beings (including the title one) rise from the depths of the Earth, and the military starts strategizing, Ford makes his way home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young child in San Francisco. Guess where the monsters end up convening?
In some respects, this new Godzilla is as much a Roland Emmerich movie as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. Edwards crosscuts among cities and supporting players, staging panoramas of mass destruction as a typically trigger-happy commander (David Strathairn) argues with a reluctant researcher (Ken Watanabe, whose character shares a name with one of the protagonists of the original Godzilla). Yet while Emmerich possesses a clear apocalypse fetish, turning mass collateral damage into weightless CGI spectacle, Edwards takes a more empathetic approach: His eye-level set pieces keep the focus on the human lives being threatened by the monsters, resulting in fewer numbing depictions of cities going boom. The director also proves himself a superb purveyor of eye candy, staging several instantly memorable scenes: a nighttime attack on Honolulu, a siege at the Golden Gate Bridge, and a scene of paratroopers plummeting into an ashen, fire-red war zone, godlike combatants looming in their periphery. He excels at the small details, too, using rolling pens the same way Spielberg used a cup of water—to tease the arrival of his main attraction.
Speaking of which, Godzilla himself is a marvel of state-of-the-art craftsmanship, looking bigger and bulkier than he ever has before and shaking the whole theater with his timeless, metallic bellow. Despite a few fleeting references to Fukushima, the monster is not much of a nuclear allegory this time out; Edwards sees him more as a mythological wonder—what Watanabe’s gravely philosophical scientist describes as an “alpha predator.” As a result, this Godzilla doesn’t tap into deeper cultural anxieties the way its 60-year-old ancestor did. Nor does it engender much dramatic investment in its hero: Conveying little in the way of terror or awe, Taylor-Johnson is much less expressive than his towering co-stars. (The human-sized approach means less when the human in question is so mechanically driven.) Yet as pure popcorn entertainment, Godzilla delivers plenty of goosebumps; the rest of the summer’s prospective tent poles will have to work hard to dwarf its pleasures. Size may not be the only thing that matters, but it counts for something in a mega-budget blockbuster.