This is one pissed-off lizard.
It's been 60 years since Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla, his cinematic metaphor about the dangers of nuclear weapons. This year's Godzilla updates the lizard-like monster for the 21st century in ways that work beautifully. Hollywood's myopia prevents the movie from achieving masterpiece status, but not B-movie fabulousness.
Instead of nukes, global warming is the bugaboo behind the beast this time. Mother Nature is so oblivious to humans that she doesn't notice them as she destroys their coastal cities, power plants and vital infrastructure. That should scare viewers more than any made-up monster.
Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham's script sneaks up on its metaphors slyly. Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) works with a secret group that has been studying Godzilla since the 1950s. It turns out all those nuke "tests" in the Pacific were attempts to slay the creature. Now Serizawa is overseeing a project at a destroyed Japanese power plant where there's an enormous egg of sorts, the kind of curiosity people shouldn't poke with a stick. "Why don't they just kill it?" your brain may ask, but your eyes will yearn to get a closer look.
The less you know about what happens next, the better. My jaw dropped more than once, in between nerdy giggles of delight. Director Gareth Edwards, creator of the indie wonder Monsters, clearly loves Steven Spielberg. Without being slavishly imitative, he invokes both Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, tapping into a similar sense of wonder as these movies do. Unlike Spielberg, Edwards hides more than he reveals. The major monster action happens at night, shrouded in smoke and fog. Refreshingly, he lets viewers' imaginations do as much work as the CGI.
The main disappointment is the humans. Their roles are nearly as flat as cardboard, though the actors add a bit of appealing dimension. Unfortunately, it's business as usual with gender roles: Watanabe's monster researcher, Bryan Cranston's nuclear engineer turned conspiracy theorist and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's soldier go to battle while Juliette Binoche's nuclear expert, Elizabeth Olsen's nurse and Sally Hawkins' scientist support them thanklessly.
These complaints aside, there's plenty to enjoy in Godzilla. The special effects are cool, and the attitude underlying the film is a plus. I like how the military hardware on display might be repurposed for something that doesn't involve killing other people. Of course, it's being repurposed to restore balance to nature, which people threw off balance in the first place. On the whole, this film doesn't have a lot of sympathy for humankind, and when humankind finds sympathy for the monster, he doesn't seem to notice or care.