Who says a big Hollywood monster movie has to be dumb? Godzilla is a terrific piece of entertainment that doesn’t insult its audience and gives us more than our money’s worth. Fans can rest assured that this easily eclipses the last American remake, from 1998, and builds on the established mythology of the fabled post-atomic monster who debuted in 1954. He is even referred to by his original Japanese name, Gojira. Screenwriter Max Borenstein and director Gareth Edwards generate a compelling premise, with credible characters, and build suspense every step of the way toward the movie’s spectacular conclusion.

That doesn’t mean they’ve tried to reinvent the wheel: the new Godzilla functions comfortably within the traditional playbook for films of this genre. Bryan Cranston plays an American scientist who’s obsessed with uncovering the truth behind a nuclear accident that occurred on his watch in Japan, fifteen years ago. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are researchers who may have some of the answers he seeks, although they work in secret. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Cranston’s son, who remembers the disaster that shook his world when he was just a boy, and thinks his father is crazy. Elizabeth Olsen is his loving wife. And David Strathairn is the military commander who seeks the most expedient way of dispatching the monstrous threat to civilization that has arisen.

While some of these characters are genre archetypes, I’m happy to say that the writing and acting never sinks to the level of cliché. In the same vein, director Edwards (a former visual effects whiz whose previous film, Monster, was made on a much smaller scale) knows how to stage and edit a scary scene where characters are in peril. He never loses the human touch, even in spectacular scenes of destruction, and as the unfolding drama reaches its climax, the character of Godzilla even manages to generate empathy. What’s more, because the film is rated PG-13 and aims to reach the broadest possible audience, the violent action stops short of graphic gore, which suits me fine.

The visual effects are staggering, especially in IMAX, although I didn’t feel that 3-D added much to the experience. Alexandre Desplat’s supportive score is a much more tangible asset.

Godzilla contemporizes a traditional brand of pop movie, and does it well. It deserves to be a monster hit.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024