In 1954 the US detonated a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. The dangerous result was an explosive yield of 15 megatons instead of the expected 6 megatons. For three hours, the blast’s radioactive fallout rained down on Lucky Dragon 5, a Japanese fishing boat that was outside the declared danger zone at the time. All the boat’s 23 crew members became sick. Its radio operator later died.
That real-life accident, which occurred just nine years after atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, caused Japan to restrain the media from discussing the dangers of hydrogen bombs and the damage that Tokyo and other cities would suffer in the event of a nuclear attack. Those twin concerns, however, became important themes in a low-budget but highly popular science fiction/horror movie released in Japan that same year: Gojira, better known outside Japan as Godzilla.
After Godzilla made his first appearance on-screen and after I recovered from the sheer implausibility of having a 30-story-high radioactive monster stomping around (Godzilla has grown a lot since 1954), I found the movie a lot of fun, although with some wince-inducing moments for physicists.
We begin in 1999, in the Philippines, where mining operations have unearthed what is either a fossilised rib cage the size of an aircraft hangar or a stage set that Ridley Scott ordered for “Prometheus” and then forgot to use. Its principal function is to allow a visiting scientist (Sally Hawkins) to utter the phrase “Oh my God, is it possible?,” indicating that the next two hours are unlikely to stray from a well-trampled path. The screenplay is by Max Borenstein, and the story by David Callahan, but no doubt other hands were involved. The computerised imagery in “Godzilla” is so prodigious, and therefore so greedy for the filmmakers’ attention, that it seems to have sucked the life out of the writing.
From the Philippines, we spring to Japan, where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), both work at a nuclear facility, which has the misfortune to be treated as an all-you-can-eat buffet by predators unknown. Next, we advance fifteen years, by which time Brody—strangely un-aged, with the same bad hair, as if a dose of plutonium keeps you young—is still hung up on what happened. By contrast, his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has brushed the past aside and become a valiant, buff, and indomitably boring naval officer, with a devoted wife (Elizabeth Olsen), a home in San Francisco, and a job in bomb disposal. He has one of those tricky talks with his father about moving on, making a change, and so forth; they then wake up the next morning and have the same conversation all over again. We get an exciting scene on a bridge, for instance, which is then compounded by a slightly less exciting scene on a different bridge—the Golden Gate, indeed, which not long ago had an army of indignant chimps clambering all over it, in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” When was the last time that anyone actually succeeded in driving across without interruption? Then there are the two gigantic MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) who are again trying to destroy the city in a desperate attempt to mate. It is here that Godzilla arrives as a protector and saves the city from the immense destruction by the MUTO’s (Like he doesn’t destroy anything ??).
Among the movie’s scientific weaknesses are floppy disks that can magically survive an electromagnetic pulse, air acting as a catalyst to increase radiation levels, and creatures that can absorb all the ambient radiation. Even if you did see a radioactive reading of zero, would you really take your protective suit off in a contaminated zone?
The special effects were indeed impressive, both visually and aurally. I’m not sure that many theatre goers will realise how complicated some of the effects are (particularly the computer-generated fog and flames around Godzilla). Despite the impressive human cast, though, the script is probably the weakest link. Godzilla overshadows the actors and their words every time it’s on screen.
I am going with two-and-a-half out of five stars for Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla. It has been remade so many times over its career spanning 60 years that we more or less get an idea about his life. No more remakes, please.