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Edelstein: By Holding Back, Godzilla Comes Off As a Little Stingy When It’s Time to Deliver

Note: This is a review that discusses several plot points of the movie Godzilla. If you are likely to complain about spoilers and want to keep yourself in a state of complete and virginal innocence, it might be best to return after viewing the movie.

America’s newest Godzilla is the feel-good movie of the year. True, until the last 20 minutes, it’s choppy and withholding (Can we see Godzilla for more than two seconds — pretty please????), but the climax: Cowabunga! Here’s the setup: An altruistic humongous monster battles two meanie humongous monsters while the hero attempts to keep a bunch of monster eggs from hatching and also disarm a nuclear warhead. Downtown San Francisco goes down, baby. The final, exultant deathblow is indescribably satisfying. (“Suck on this!” it could be captioned.) Go, you crazy monster, go!

The first section isn’t terrible. It features run-of-the-mill monster-movie foreplay, but it’s always fun to know (having seen the coming attractions) what the characters don’t. We’re in the Philippines, 1999. A foreman leads two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) into a titanic underground cavern (“I’ve been diggin’ holes for 30 years, I’ve never seen anythin’ like it!”) where there’s a pocket of radiation and what might be fossilized eggs. (“This one looks broken … like something came out of it!”) Then we’re in a Japanese nuclear power plant, where Bryan Cranston, under dark, luxuriant locks, confronts strange seismic activity and, as things go boom, tries to keep his scientist wife (Juliette Binoche) from perishing. “15 Years Later,” his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a U.S. Marines specialist (“My job isn’t dropping bombs — it’s stopping them!”) married to pretty Elizabeth Olsen. He has just arrived home (San Francisco) after a long absence when a call comes from Tokyo. His dad — now a fanatical troublemaker, convinced the government is hiding something big, bad, and radioactive — has been thrown in jail. When Ford gets to Japan, it’s clear there are unnatural forces at work: Cranston’s hair has become even thicker. Worse, the seismic patterns are similar to the ones observed 15 years ago. Something is talking, Cranston tells his son, and something else is answering back. The audience, by now, is primed for the best CG FX ever: Show us the money!

In 2010, director Gareth Edwards amazed the world with a micro-budget giant monster picture with the generic title Monsters. Presumably he had 100 times the bucks for Godzilla, but he holds to the strategy of less is more. On one level, that’s laudable. Monsters was better for what we didn’t see. So was Cloverfield, which got away with depicting a giant-monster attack on New York City entirely through the lens of a video camera carried by ordinary citizens — it was The Blair Godzilla Project. In Godzilla, Edwards goes heavy on refraction: a piece of a mammoth spidery leg landing in the foreground, a spiky tail sliding between skyscrapers, a reflection of a demonic head in the window of a moving train. He does the Spielberg thing of dollying in on people whose eyes are goggle-y from what they’re seeing. Children clutching adults’ hands are especially effective subjects, and so is Elizabeth Olsen, with her waifish peepers on that flat, wide face. Edwards puts her at the forefront of crowds where she really registers, like a round-eyed-kitten painting.

The problem is that he — unlike most modern sci-fi directors, who throw so much CGI at you that they make miracles cheap — seems peculiarly stingy when it’s time to deliver. The buildup to the first creature, a spiderlike thingie with flaming slits for eyes and the endearing acronym M.U.T.O. (for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism”), is like a Gypsy Rose Lee striptease. Godzilla shows up later, also one bit of (green, scaly) skin at a time. In an already-notorious bit of fightus interruptus, Godzilla and a M.U.T.O. begin to go at it — finally! — whereupon Edwards cuts away to soldiers locking and loading, military commander David Strathairn arguing strategy with Watanabe, and Ford trying to make himself useful by tagging along after the bomb in case anything goes wrong. Won’t someone remember the monsters?

Taylor-Johnson is noticeably not up to his big moments, and Watanabe and Hawkins are barely filled in. The only engaging character — played by Cranston — makes an early exit, a semi-relief given his cringeworthy coiffure. I was ready to write off Godzilla as the biggest dud since … well, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla, in which the lizard was boringly anatomically correct and, though male, capable of bearing little Godzillas. (Any creature that would travel halfway around the world to lay its eggs in the middle of Madison Square Garden does not seem equipped — Darwinianly speaking — to survive.) But then, at long last, Edwards decided to get unreal.

I loved the shot, included in the earliest teasers and trailers, that kicks off the last act: Ford and fellow soldiers leap out of a plane and down to the besieged city — a blackish inferno — to the eerie Ligeti music from 2001. The two M.U.T.O.’s make whoopee and then snatch up the nuclear warhead as if it’s a baby-shower gift. (They feed on radiation.) The sound designers give Godzilla the voice he deserves — a roar that is also a nuclear shriek.

I confess that, however much I enjoyed the boffo finale, I was taken aback by the upbeat slant. The 1954 Japanese Gojira (which I wrote about at length here) was made when the trauma of the A-bomb was fresh, the title creature an unholy fusion of reptile and radioactive automaton, the movie a vision of nuclear Armageddon that remains the most somber giant-monster picture ever made. The new Godzilla, by contrast, is sunny-side up. The slant isn’t entirely new: In later Japanese films, the big lizard joined forces with Mothra, Rodan, etc. to foil extraterrestrials. (You could say the Japanese finally learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.) But Edwards and Co.'s reassuring message is tone-deaf to our own time. The M.U.T.O. were created by destructive human technology, but Nature, they say, is self-correcting, a Higher Power that dispatches an agent from the depths to protect us from the consequences of our arrogance. It’s a sci-fi version of Psalm 68: Our Godzilla is a God of salvation.

*This article appears in the May 19, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Legendary Pictures Productions LLC & Warner Bros