About 45 minutes into Godzilla, we cut to a giant monster eating a nuclear submarine stuck in a tree somewhere in O'ahu. It's funny because it's a visual pun (submarine sandwich, get it?). It's awesome because this monster looks big, overwhelming, and real. It's a Godzilla movie because about 15 minutes later this thing is getting its ass handed to it by the King of Monsters.
We don't see that showdown, though. In fact pretty much all the monster shots leading up to the third act are just teases for that inevitable final battle between two bad guy monsters, and our hero, Godzilla. It's a risky move that pays off for director Gareth Edwards, who brings a much-needed reverence and sincerity to his take on the world's most famous giant monster.
Not that some fans won't feel cheated by the strategy, especially after the multiple pummelings they got to witness in last year's Pacific Rim. On my way out of the theater I did hear at least a couple people comment that they expected more monster fights. But the strategy works so well, with such an effective ratcheting up of tensions and expectations, that I'm 100 percent onboard with the way Edwards teases fans for the big final battle.
The humans? They matter insofar as they serve to populate the monsters' stomping grounds, and to set the stage for their big fight. Bryan Cranston plays the part of Jeff Goldblum from Independence Day, with a dash of grief thrown in. He's the canary in the coal mine, screaming and emoting like crazy that, "there is something out there!" Aaron Taylor-Johnson, looking grown up and ripped, is his son, and now a doting army dad and husband to a doe-eyed Elizabeth Olsen. But we don't care about any of them as much as we do the movie's real star. You can almost hear Ken Watanabe's slack-jawed giant monster scientist say, "It's Godzilla's world. We're just living in it." Most of his dialogue isn't any less cornball. From, "We call him... Gojira!" to explaining that MUTO stands for "Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism," Watanabe admirably delivers the most ridiculous pieces of exposition with a straight face.
But at least the humans make the world feel like it matters. It's not just some extended battle royale like Toho's Godzilla: Final Wars, or (more relevantly) Man of Steel, where the human toll is ignored completely. It's an actual world with actual people and a real San Francisco that suffers the wrath of Godzilla and friends. And Edwards pulls off a respectable trick in tying Godzilla's pathos (haha! but seriously) to the fate of those humans.
Let's pull back though. As much as I feel like fawning over this movie for "getting it right" (that giant Toho lizard was a staple of my childhood), you can't ignore some of this movie's plotting problems. There are bits and pieces that feel like they only exist to get us from point X to point Y to point Z. It's the tell-tale sign of index-card screenwriting that can suck the soul out of big blockbusters. I counted at least three major pieces of plot that made me say, "that doesn't make any sense!" under my breath. But I'm reluctant to recount them specifically because 1. Spoilers; and 2. Godzilla doesn't make any sense.
The most helpful comparison to make here is actually Man of Steel because Godzilla gets right some of the things Man of Steel got wrong. Battles aren't repeated and extended to the point of numbing audience reaction. Bits and pieces are left to the imagination, or shown through a television onscreen. The grim tone is occasionally lightened with a knowing in-joke or a news network's ridiculous infographic. And when it's time to cheer, you really do cheer!
If Godzilla opens strong, we can almost assuredly expect a sequel or two. At a time when so many franchises feel so predictable, I feel like with Edwards at the helm maybe Godzilla still holds a few mysteries for me after all — not in the actual plot, but in the way the story is told.