The last time we saw Godzilla, 16 years ago, he was a fleet, raptoresque creature arriving in New York for no real reason other than to re-enact “Jurassic Park” in Madison Square Garden. The movie was, in a word, gawdawful, a paint-by-numbers hack job that, if you get high enough on a rainy Sunday to actually watch, will remind you of all the patty cake silliness that used to go into action movies. Do not watch it, as it will force you to curse the entire 1990s in your heart.
Post-9/11 disaster movies shifted away from the cartoony, because there was no longer a question of obliterating a section of a major city looked like. It looks like the worst thing ever. And so when you got, ostensibly, a non-Godzilla movie that was really a Godzilla movie, i.e. “Cloverfield,” it was no longer enough to be merely exciting. It had to be terrifying, if it were going to attract sober adults.
The new “Godzilla,” delightfully, is everything its immediate predecessor wasn’t. Parts of it are twist-your-guts frightening. The big guy himself has never looked better, scaly and raw yet hydrodynamic. The humans are mostly disposable, alas, even if Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche team up for an impossibly fraught few moments early in the film.
But the monster has a reason for being here, sort of, other than as mutant fallout from nuclear tests in the Pacific. This “Godzilla” sets aside some of the environmental moralizing in favor of agnostic awesomeness. The monster’s here because nuclear tests woke up a couple of very old fellow kaiju (rough translation: nigh-invincible city-munching creatures). These big bugs feed on radiation, and are drawn to nuclear plants. They’re gonna make us all dead unless Godzilla can stop ‘em.
Any Godzilla movie that requires more than a 20-word synopsis is already overthinking itself. We’ve moved past the discussion, as a planet, of whether we need to continue lighting off nukes; only North Korea, the scamp, has tested any this century. So moving past the nuclear themes, we find that Godzilla has some loose connection here to climate change. It’s not worth trying to wrap your head around. We’re told by a Godzilla-fearing scientist (Ken Watanabe) that the monster is nature’s way of restoring balance amid turmoil, and if that’s the case, then we could take this fire-spewing behemoth as a sign that nature will always overpower us, and that we best not piss her off, happy Earth Day to you too.
Of course the corollary to casting Godzilla as Mother Nature’s avatar is that we want to root for the monster — for who wants to see nature get trounced? Director Gareth Edwards and writer Max Borenstein give us a version of Godzilla here that still stomps mudholes through Honolulu and San Francisco, with a bit of smashy-smash around Japan and Las Vegas just for funsies, without any of the letdown that even proper monster movies usually entail. This way, we get to root for the military (Aaron Taylor-Johnson is your perfectly serviceable serviceman lead) in tandem with the title character.
Anyway, Kaiju fights are far and away more entertaining than watching yet another salvo of missiles and bullets plonk harmlessly off the beast’s hide. Guns are not terribly fun to watch. Bombs neither. They kill people, real people, all the time, and ask almost nothing of your imagination or of your capacity to wonder. Oh, but, now! Hulking monstrosities loosely representing the forever-tension between man’s race to master the universe’s most destructive possibilities (radiation, played here by wicked kaiju) and nature’s power to seek equilibrium, even if attained through violent means (embodied in Godzilla) is a damn fine afternoon at the movies. It’ll really make you stop and think. Or, even better, it won’t.