Could Gareth Edwards's picture possibly live up to its trailers? The great thing about them is that they sold the second American version of Toho Studio's famous daikaiju as a horror movie: ominous, mysterious, apocalyptic. The trailers let your imagination rampage. Those paratroopers whose red tracers of descent, streaming like the stripes of the American flag, particularly intrigued me. Were they actually thinking of landing on Godzilla? A crazy thought, but the trailer that could inspire it was something special. The film is a far more ordinary experience, inevitably, but the parachute descent is still a great moment, especially when we get the falling-worm's eye view of a city-wrecking giant-monster battle in progress. The problem is that Edwards wants us to care about what these paratroopers do once they touch the street, while the monster battle continues. In normal Godzilla pictures the humans step back and let the monsters do their thing. The new American picture pays lip service to that idea, but the filmmakers seem to assume that someone will be bored if there aren't people in the middle of the melee doing something we deem important. This inspires some nice camera movements as we pan down from the monster fight to the army guys scurrying through the streets with their dangerous burden, but the implicit equality of Godzilla's struggle with this film's evil monsters and the principal hero's (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) race to rid San Francisco of a doomsday device doesn't quite compute. I'm not as hostile to the human characters as some critics have been, but I must agree that Ford Brody isn't a very compelling personality. He makes the film about "family" and "fathers and sons," but not as offensively as one might fear. We're supposed to care about Ford because his father (Bryan Cranston) was killed in an evil-monster attack. Ford the elder is a generic obsessed crank; we're supposed to care about him because his wife (first lady of global cinema Juliette Binoche) died in a nuclear meltdown ultimately blamed on the evil monsters. Evil is perhaps too judgmental a word for these radiation-hungry survivors of a far-earlier epoch; they're just hungry and horny and we're in the way. But if Godzilla is a force for good, or at least for nature's balance, as this film's Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) insists, then whoever he fights are the bad guys.
In his original cycle of films, Godzilla was the prototype for the badass menace who becomes a hero because audiences thought him cool. The Edwards film, presumably envisioned as the first in an American cycle, skips ahead to make him the hero immediately -- he even departs to the cheers of an appreciative city -- and something feels unearned about that. Making him the hero also betrays the implication of the trailers that all the destruction shown were his handiwork. The film invites us to think of Godzilla almost as a god, but generically speaking it makes him a superhero. It becomes less about our anxiety over a threatening future, though that remains a necessary context, than about our desire for a hero with the power and will to set things right. This Godzilla is a characteristic product of Legendary Pictures and could, like last year's Man of Steel, be accused of purveying "destruction porn," except that Godzilla's been doing that since before most people involved in this production were born. Oddly, it also offers Godzilla, like Superman, as a sort of symbol of hope -- here it's the hope that nature will set things right -- while the rush to get the bomb out of the city echoes 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. What some see as destruction porn is an acknowledgment that casualties -- or collateral damage, if you will -- are inevitable, that America isn't immune anymore. Menacing clouds of dust and smoke are shadows of September 2001, while a monster-generated tsunami in Hawaii reflects our recent understanding of just what such calamities look like. The porn is in the details these days, but it strikes me that Godzilla isn't being criticized for this the way Man of Steel was -- most likely just because we expect this from a monster movie while many expect "better" from superheroes. Perhaps paradoxically, while Man of Steel disturbed many, Godzilla is almost reassuring, or aspires to be. We wouldn't want to think of a man as a god, but a monster, maybe!
The new Godzilla is less than the sum of its parts, but the best parts suffice as pure spectacle. There's a crass reliance on endangered individual children in some scenes -- again, the filmmakers seem to want us to care in a way we don't really need to -- but the climactic monster fight is just about everything you'd hope for, including a creative and very satisfying kill move for Godzilla. The effects make it great to watch, and fans of effects movies in particular are used to sitting through dull stretches to get to the cool stuff. They shouldn't feel disappointed by this latest American version, but they may wonder where Legendary will go from here -- presumably without Edwards, who's jumped to Disney's Star Wars franchise. "A different monster!" works for a B-movie series, but may not justify the expense of tentpole films. There have been three distinct series of Godzilla movies in Japan; I doubt whether the Americans will match the longevity of any of them, but it'll be interesting to see them try at least once more.