It wouldn't be quite accurate to say I went into this film with low expectations. I had very high expectations that it would suck. Last time Hollywood got its hands on G, it sucked. At the time I recall I was the one who would always defend Hollywood against my friends who would dismiss standard Hollywood fare as overmoneyed and underthought. I saw myself as an intellectual populist standing up against elite hipsters. But Roland Emmerich's Godzilla sucked, and it sucked in all the ways that my friends always said Hollywood sucked. I felt betrayed. My eyes were opened.
The new one, I figured, would suck just as bad, but in an up-to-date way. I was wrong. It's brilliant. It does right everything that the '98 version does wrong. In fact it's an argument for why one might want Hollywood to get its hands on something like this in the first place.
It's a smart movie. It's full of ideas and it can't wait to share them with you. This starts in the opening credits, which show you tantalizing bits of information about the post-WWII nuclear program, then redact it before you can really read it. Note that the '98 version used the credit sequence to set up its version of the monster, too, and that's where the sucking began, because the '98 version's big steaming pile was that it Blamed It On The French, right? This one places the blame squarely where the Godzilla mythos says it belongs: on the Americans. And that starts with the opening credits.
Let's reiterate: Godzilla was the Americans' fault. That's the whole point of the original movie. Every later incarnation in Japan was built on that, even when G became a hero. This is why the original and its first-series sequels are such primally important documents in Japanese popular culture: they capture the country's ambivalence about America's nukes, about having them dropped on Japan (first and only), and then becoming America's ally, about responsibility and looking-forward and all that stuff that was clumsily suppressed when the first movie was shown in the U.S. The '98 film saw itself as a complete reboot (G was arising for the first time in that story), and therefore it needed recently-headlined scary nuclear testing to blame, and that was the French. But that presented viewers with a moral calculus that said America's decades of nuclear testing, and that whole Cold War thing, weren't enough to wake the monster - weren't in fact monstrous - but that French testing was. Talk about missing the point.
The new movie gets all that right. The awakening of G was the Americans' fault, way back in the '50s, and when the current monster surfaces in response to a nuclear power plant crisis in Japan, an American is on the scene, fucking things up. In fact, this movie is extraordinarily focused on nuclear power as the bogeyman: Yucca Mountain, transport of missiles, nuclear subs, it's all there. It's a movie that not only understands the Godzilla myth, but that truly understands why disaster and monster movies of the classic era worked in the first place.
It's a movie that gives Godzilla credit for the potential to actually scare audiences in 2014. And so, for the first time (despite many years of seeing and teaching and thinking about Godzilla), I really got a visceral, real-time, in-the-moment sense of how it worked. When they go into Yucca Mountain and throw open that nuclear-waste vault and see, not tidily contained waste matter, but wide open outdoor spaces: that's a little scary. That Should Not Be. That can't help but make you start to think about maybe nuclear power is dangerous. And so when the monsters are slugging it out in the heart of San Francisco and people are dying by the score around them, you never forget that this is an allegory of how we can't control nuclear power. What would it look like if there was a nuclear accident in SF? This is what it would look like. But worse.
And that's one reason why one might want a Hollywood version of Godzilla in the first place. If one is not Japanese in the '50s but American in the '10s, one can understand the first G intellectually, but not viscerally: seeing him stomp on a Tokyo that one only knows from photos and old movies (this is true even for contemporary Japanese, of course - only a couple of the city's landmarks from that movie remain, and the skyline that surrounds them is utterly changed) is cool. But seeing him stomp on things much closer to you in space as well as time is different. It brings it home. Nuclear power threatens us, too.
And it's not Japan's fault.