Godzilla is a character that frankly needs no introduction. For over 50 years the big G has been THE definitive city destroying monster in the pop culture landscape. In Japan, he's an indisputable icon and a cultural fixture the same way King Kong or Superman would be in the United States. However, the last time he got a localized production on American shores in 1998 the reception was lackluster at best; so much so that Toho themselves declared the monster a completely different beast from the original Godzilla when asked about it. Now after sixteen years, Legendary Pictures have taken up the task of bringing a proper Godzilla experience to American shores. Is it the big return that all fans were hoping for? That honestly depends on what you were expecting.
The tone of the previous Godzilla films bounce all over the place, from the incredibly somber apocalypse of the original to the campy later films involving aliens and monsters-of-the-week. Even Godzilla's status as either good guy or bad guy varied depending on the movie you watch. What this movie manages to do is straddle the line between the two in such a way that people who've never seen a Godzilla film in their life can get a good idea what he's all about. There's the awesome monster vs. monster battle that decimates an entire city, but among that you also have that looming sense of dread that a walking natural disaster can bring. Every time you see Godzilla onscreen you're not just seeing an overgrown dinosaur, but a living force of nature that can easily cripple humanity if he wanted to. And when you don't, the entire populace rushing in a panic to get out of his way will tell you just how horrific dealing with a kaiju really is.
Now here is where I'm going to address the two biggest complaints about the film: "How come we don't see enough Godzilla in a Godzilla movie?!" and "Why are we focusing on the humans?! I'm here for Godzilla consarn it!" Both are valid complaints, but to this movie's credit I applaud the fact that they kept the big G from being fully revealed. Let's not forget that in the original Godzilla we didn't get to see the title character until the second half of the movie, and what sold that movie was the suspense of an incomprehensibly huge monster slowly but surely destroying our civilization. Had we seen the monster firsthand all suspense would be thrown out the window and the gravity of Godzilla's carnage would've meant nothing. Like it or not, we need the human connection to make us care about a giant monster movie.
However, it's HOW you execute the human and monster elements together that most people complain about, and on that note I will admit it could have been much better. There are shining stars like Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe who create intriguing characters that we want to follow, so to later learn that the relatively bland everyman played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson is supposed to be the audiences' human surrogate becomes fairly disappointing. Yes...our everyman is a military soldier with a family, but at the end of the day it's the scientists who understand the kaiju or have a vested interest in what they are capable of that would get us more interested in what's going on. This is a trap that much of Hollywood and gaming companies tend to fall into: using a bland everyman protagonist to appeal to everyone rather than a distinct protagonist that's more memorable. Perhaps if there was more of following the slightly paranoid Bryan Cranston as he uncovers more about the monster, the human segments wouldn't be as boring as they currently are.
As for the kaiju themselves there's a lot to like. We have two creatures in the movies known only as MUTOs that set themselves up as Godzilla's opponents, and for a pair of Cloverfield-esque monsters they're a fantastic contrast to the big G's "man in a suit" design. Godzilla fans everywhere will be pleased to know that the main monster has faithfully returned to his Japanese roots and while a bit on the heavy side, he still delivers the trademark carnage that many old school fans of the series will cheer for. There are moments within the film that the battles are cut short via newsfeed (most likely to save on budget), which is disappointing for the fans who came to see an all out monster melee. But when the final battle finally happens it delivers in spades. You can forget about 1998 now, THIS Godzilla will become the standard that any future Godzilla movies from here on out will be judged upon!
The scale of this movie is no doubt monstrous, but the overall experience is only a tiny step in the right direction. This iteration of Godzilla is definitely leagues better than the 1998 version and many of the lower tier movies from Japan, but the fairly dull bits of humanity that most of the movie focuses on hold it back from becoming a culturally defining film like the original. If anything, I think of it as a good litmus test to see whether or not a Western audience will be ready for more.
So now that the West has been properly reacquainted with the King of the Monsters, perhaps now Legendary Studios can unleash the kaiju craziness. Maybe even bring back some of Godzilla's friends and foes if they're feeling lucky. Rodan? Mothra? Ghidorah? Come on, you know you want it.