There are about thirty Godzilla films. Not all of them are great. In fact, it could be argued that very few of them should be considered "good movies" to anyone not already smitten with the giant monster subgenre. And even among this ilk, debates rage over which Godzilla films succeed and which are best ignored.
Good or bad, this is a character with enough movies behind him for the development of real tradition. He's also one of those characters everyone knows, yet few mainstream viewers actually know well. This means the idea of an American Godzilla has two choices: It can present the monster with the same level of detail possessed by those in the audience (Godzilla is a big lizard we have to stop), streamline the conflict into the most basic man vs. monster situation possible, knock over some buildings, and hope that's enough to warrant the use of Godzilla's well-known name. Or it can be a for real goddamn Godzilla movie.
The former was the choice made for the 1998 Godzilla, a characterless film pretty much no one enjoys. The best thing I can say about Gareth Edwards' new Godzilla is that it knows this monster well and gleefully participates in the established Godzilla tradition. For all its technical singularity compared to the rest of the series, it manages to feel like the opening film of a new Godzilla era rather than a completely separate entity. It was not made with arrogance. There are shots in this movie (usually involving people in the foreground being dwarfed by these monsters as they rise or pass behind them) that almost feel brave, like their very conception dares audience members to point at the screen and yell "That looks fake!" But those people are idiots because it is sooooooo the fun kind of fake.
I watch these films for their scope and the awe they provide whenever that scope is accurately communicated. With most of them, you have to be willing to meet the technical limitations halfway to really let yourself be wowed by Godzilla's size and the extent of damage he leaves in his wake. Backed by Hollywood money and a strong sense of perspective, this new Godzilla supplies that awe on multiple occasions. In fact, that - far more than destroying things - is this new Godzilla's ultimate goal. After all the buildings we've seen get knocked over, after all the gigantic robots and oversized monsters we've grown accustomed to, some of the shots in this film still have the power to make seeing a huge beast wander through a city seem like a brand new sight. It's so much fun.
But you do have to wait for it. We spend a lot of the film's running time dealing with human concerns that threaten to bore viewers expecting tons of Godzilla action. Some of these characters fare better than others. Bryan Cranston shows up long enough to prove once and for all that his forte is not playing villains but manic heroes. Ken Watanabe plays the guy who says everything the audience wants to hear, but he also spends most of the movie wandering around in some kind of affected, shell-shocked daze that gets annoying after a while. Quicksilver offers a solid if bland heroic figure while Scarlett Witch cries a lot.
They are not awesome characters. But the conflict works enough that you don't really care, aided by the fact that none of them are driven by plot so much that they appear nefarious or stupid. David Strathairn's gruff military figure, for instance, has every opportunity to be the explosion-happy jerk we expect from a guy like this. Instead, he's attentive to facts and open to suggestion. That kind of thing is really refreshing and helps soften the extended amount of time we spend dealing with talking scenes.
It takes guts to hold back on the Godzilla action this much. But Edwards isn't selfish with his visuals, and people who say there are no thrills until the end have misled you. We see lots of the film's two villainous monsters, and they do all kinds of awesome things. It's just that they are the focus rather than Godzilla. We don't get a massively awesome full-body Godzilla shot until about halfway through the film, and Edwards immediately makes sure it remains a tease rather than an opening to all-out Godzilla madness. Much of Godzilla it is hinted at rather than shown full-on in an effort to make the big finale that much more meaningful and exciting. It's a gamble, but here it works. It's not like the rest of the film is boring, but when you finally get to the big fight at the end, you're so hungry for it you want to cheer at every blow.
Speaking of the fights, holy shit they look awesome. I don't totally understand how this was achieved, but the monster violence in Godzilla manages to look both state of the art and traditional at the same time. This is especially true any time Godzilla wrestles with the smaller flying monster. It's a bit awkward and weird and stilted and amazing. This Godzilla uses fighting moves I've seen in other Godzilla movies but never expected to encounter in this supposedly more serious iteration. I couldn't believe my eyes and I can't wait to rewatch this stuff over and over in the future. Despite all the Hollywood actors and Hollywood money, this is a film that LOVES being a Godzilla movie.
There's so much more to say, but my review already sounds either too hyperbolic or too much like Devin's (and by the way, I agree that the shot of Godzilla swimming peacefully through the ocean while surrounded by military aircraft carriers is about the best thing I've ever seen in one of these movies). More than anything, I want to stress what a for real Godzilla film this is. Even the so-so people stuff is in line with, if not better than much of the series. It gives us the best visual representation of the monster's awesome power we've ever seen, yet also utilizes it in ways clever and inventive enough to fully exploit the possibilities modern technology allows. Even more than Pacific Rim, Godzilla really provides the all-out giant monster spectacle I've been waiting for since I first saw Godzilla stomp Bambi.