Since 1954, when Japan introduced the world to Godzilla, he has played the antagonist, the protagonist, destroyed megacities, fought armies, monsters, aliens; and, with the aid of pocket-size, singing, Japanese twins, he’s defeated two giant moths; he’s made us examine our neglect of the environment, as he fought a pollution-ingesting smog monster (Godzilla vs. Hedorah, 1971), and he’s made us question our use of atomic weapons (Godzilla, 1954). Edwards’s subtle homage to the film history of Godzilla is a pleasure for the knowing Godzilla fan. He gives audiences the traditional half-crazy scientist; the scientist’s reluctant child, who holds some of their father’s knowledge about the monster (see Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, 1974); two modern-day radiation-consuming, winged insects (versions of Mothra, 1964); and a Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe) in dramatic close-up, with grave seriousness, as he tells the military the giant lizard-monster’s name is Godzilla. (insert audience cheers).
Despite the young and attractive Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a large portion of the cast is surprisingly older: Bryan Cranston (wearing a Barry Manilow-like wig), David Strathairn (forgettable military-commander Everyman); Ken Watanabe (whose every close-up says, “I’m more concerned about my chronic constipation than these radiation-ingesting monsters”), Sally Hawkins (was she in it?), Juliette Binoche (also wearing Cranstone’s Barry Manilow wig—or a short-haired wig that seems to say, “Women scientists can’t have long, flowing, girlie hair; they have to have short, practical hair”; but I think they allocated the film’s hair- and makeup budget to CGI, or a trainer to build Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s massive, Godzilla-like neck). Although these very accomplished actors’ talents are grossly ignored and comic-bookized, they seem to serve the purpose of connecting the large audience of baby boomers, who grew up with the Godzilla movies during Monster Week on their local TV stations, to this 2014 version.
Like Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which used Godzilla’s antagonist—a smog monster—as a metaphor for man’s abuse of the environment (an early example of today’s trend in environmental sci-fi flicks), environmental worry has supplanted the original Godzilla metaphor for nuclear anxieties. This time it’s mistreated nature’s wrath that we have to fear in the form of MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Environmental anxieties are ever-present today with some real monsters causing mass destruction, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Japan’s earthquake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; and countless Midwest tornadoes, just to name a very few. It’s satisfying to symbolically destroy that which is destroying us. We may not be able to take revenge on Hurricane Sandy or predict the next mega-quake, but we can take cathartic satisfaction in watching Godzilla pummel radiation-ravenous, pterodactyl-Mothra-bat-glowworm-like things (a result of man’s abuse of nature).
—John David West