By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor
As soon as I learned I’d be attending a press screening of the new “Godzilla,” I knew there was one person I needed to join me.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of cool Saturday mornings, my brother, Peter, and I curled up in our pajamas and bedsheets, enraptured by TV broadcasts of the old Toho Studios “Godzilla” movies.
The films were kooky. You could see the strings pulling those toy tanks. The guy in that rubber suit stumbled around like a drunken sailor.
But it was all so very serious.
I’ll admit that after the 1998 iteration of the legendary monster left many of us fans disillusioned, I fully expected the latest American “Godzilla,” which opens nationwide on Friday, to be equally skunky.
Those notions were quickly stomped to bits.
From the opening credits, smartly designed with “sensitive” government text being blocked out faster than it can be read, it’s clear that director Gareth Edwards has done his homework.
Ishiro Honda’s original “Gojira” from 1954 is as much a cautionary tale of a world of technology run amok as it is a monster movie. The 2014 take is fully aware of that, and throws it into our faces from the outset.
The first Godzilla was a mutant of radioactive fallout, a by-product of U.S. atomic bomb testing in the Pacific after World War II. The modern incarnation stays true to that premise, but ups the ante a bit, with monsters thriving on the nuclear stuff.
The story begins with American nuclear power engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who is forced to order a sealing of the reactor – thereby sacrificing his technician wife – during what appears to be an earthquake and ensuing meltdown. While the town is fictitious, the parallels to Tohoku and Fukushima are obvious.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Brody’s son, Ford (all-American hunk Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has become a bomb dismantling expert for – you guessed it – the U.S. military.
While the story moves along at a respectable pace, we are introduced to Brody’s loving yet forsaken wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son, who only want Daddy to come home for good. When hubby has to report to Japan to investigate, she reasons, “It’s not the end of the world.”
Um … maybe.
Of course, all this takes some time, and meanwhile, a pair of particularly nasty monsters seem to be making a holy mess in the Pacific. Called “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” or MUTOs, they’ve been rousted from their primordial slumber and have quite the appetite for anything that is radioactive.
Where Raymond Burr was cast in the U.S. edit of the original “Gojira,” – ostensibly to give it an American angle – Ken Watanabe is here as Japanese scientist Ishiro Serizawa. Reprising the role of the eye-patched expert on monsters in the classic first film, Watanabe is more or less relegated to those expected yet essential “Oh! Gojira!” reaction shots, and foreboding statements like, “He is here to restore balance.”
So where is the star of this show, anyway? Well, it takes nearly an hour for our main monster to show up, but when he does, it’s a stunning, cathartic moment that’s a joy to behold.
Apparently, Godzilla is no fan of the MUTOs and he (she?) isn’t in the mood for their shenanigans.
One of the film’s signature visuals, enhanced to a good degree by the effortless 3-D, is an overhead view of a submerged Godzilla crossing underneath a sailing aircraft carrier. It’s a spectacular shot, not accidentally paying homage to the same sort of view in “Jaws,” whose lead character also happened to be named Brody. Indeed, they’re going to need a bigger boat.
Several online comments have derided Godzilla 2014 for being a bit “chubby,” looking somewhat heftier in the midsection than the iconic monster we’re used to seeing. Once our reptile begins to do battle with the MUTOs, however, all of that chatter fades from relevance.
And when the fighting begins, it is with a great deal of restraint – enough to be thrilling and adventurous, but not a hammer-over-the-head slugfest, either. The battles are choreographed smartly, with I suppose as much realism as one could expect from seeing major cities getting leveled by 30-story monsters.
It makes sense, which might be a weird thing to say, but in this film, everything seems to work as it should – a real tribute to a group of filmmakers who obviously spent a great deal of time familiarizing themselves not only with the legend, but with why the legend works.
Pity about Honolulu, though … and Las Vegas … and San Francisco. They all happen to be in the path of the MUTOs, with Godzilla hot on their trail.
The Bay Area gets the worst of it, after being decimated in last year’s “Pacific Rim,” but the comparisons end there. Smart, brisk and full of spectacular visuals, 2014’s “Godzilla” is a worthy addition to the cinema legend and the kind of work more monster movies should be.
One slight disappointment: Akira Takarada, who played sailor Hideto Ogata in the original movie, shot a sequence for the latest version, only to have his scene left on the cutting room floor. Edwards said omitting the scene was heart-wrenching, insisting, “There was a lot of pressure to get on with the adventure and get to the monsters as soon as possible. I hung onto that scene till the last second and it was still deemed that we had to get it shorter so that scene ended up having to go, which is my biggest regret.”
Edwards reportedly wrote and apologized profusely to Takarada, who was gracious and understanding of how that is part of the movie-making process.
“Godzilla,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, opens Friday nationwide in the U.S. and in Japan. Running time is 123 minutes, rated PG-13.