Godzilla falls victim to many of the cardinal sins of the giant monster movie, squandering the potential for excitement and awe into two hours of bad dialogue and tedium. I’m always confused whenever a studio decides to make a big-ticket action movie involving fantastical creatures and spend most of the film’s runtime watching normal people slowly realizing there’s some kind of massive robot-on-whatever battle going on just over that hill yet are unable to take part. Or even watch. Time and again, Godzilla sets up massive action set pieces for the titular King of the Monsters to stomp and smash his way through, and time and again the movie finds reason to cut away from the action in favor of showing the 50th clip of Elizabeth Olsen looking terrified or Aaron Taylor-Johnson staring soullessly at something, his mouth open just so. When you don’t give your action time to shine and the people on the ground you’re following aren’t even remotely interesting, the results are disastrous. At least Pacific Rim had enough robot fights to wash the taste of poorly-drawn characters out of my mouth. All Godzilla has going for it is twenty minutes of Bryan Cranston (getting only slightly more screen time than the big green fella) and my favorite Godzilla design on film to date. Here’s hoping someone else can make a better movie out of it.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Release Date: May 16th, 2014
Following a mysterious nuclear accident that claimed the life of his mother (Juliette Binoche), Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has lived his whole life with a crackpot dad (Bryan Cranston) who is convinced that the Japanese government is covering something up about the accident. Something big. It turns out it’s giant monsters from the earliest days of the planet. Who knew, right? As strange creatures emerge from the earth dead set on toppling our buildings and drinking in our radiation like candy, another creature, an alpha predator according to Ken Watanabe as the Japanese Exposition Dispensary, known as Gojira. Who a nearby American admiral (David Strathairn) instantly screws up into Godzilla. Which Japanese Exposition Dispensary then starts calling the creature until I guess he remembered he already named the damn thing Gojira and starts using that again hoping no one will notice. Also, Ford’s got a pretty wife (Elizabeth Olsen) back in San Francisco that separates herself from her son in the middle of a massive disaster because she wants to wait for her husband. Monsters wreck some human stuff, monsters wreck each other, and Godzilla roars a whole bunch when he’s finally on screen.
Absolutely none of the human drama on display here is either compellingly written or deftly performed. The sole exception is Bryan Cranston as the nearly-crazy, emotionally-shattered father who’s spent fifteen years trying to get answers for the death of his wife. He explodes with exasperated rage, tempered only by the love he has for his family, the intensity he’s become famous for serving as what little the film has to offer for compelling emotional turmoil. The people surrounding him aren’t even laughably bad. They’re just boring. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, so enjoyable and charismatic in Kick-Ass, has nothing to do but look dour and stare off into space, all the while insinuating himself into top-secret government projects because he happens to be in the neighborhood. That, or he’s literally the only person with explosives expertise in the entirety of the armed services reacting to all the giant monsters crushing stuff. This is the meatiest role in the film, Cranston’s excepted, and yet I couldn’t tell you more details about Ford Brody other than “bomb disposal guy,” “has a family,” and “nice to children.” Talented actors and actresses are abound in this movie, including the previously mentioned Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen, but they might as well be cardboard cut-outs with dialogue ADR’ed in after the fact.
Much of the film’s limited approach to actually showing the monsters fight, or showing them at all, is similar to Gareth Edwards’ previous film, the low-budget sci-fi film Monsters. That film’s emotional core revolves around the relationship with the two leads, with the giant, horrifying monsters roaming the lands as nothing more than a fact of background life. They are barely glimpsed sources of pure terror amidst the real threat of human violence. The approach was admirable, but the suspense this approach intended to create wound up just destroying the pace of the film. The same can be said for Godzilla. There’s a particularly chilling shot of Godzilla fighting one monster as the large, heavy doors of a bomb shelter slowly blot the action out. If the moment was given time to breathe, maybe focusing on the human reaction in the dark to the insane sounds of battle outside, but things move too quickly to allow for any real suspense to build once the first monster begins stomping people around. The final effect is less that the film is withholding the action to build suspense and mystery and more that an editor chose his cuts very, very poorly.
While the two other giant monsters in the film, called only Mutos, are semi-memorable, looking like the Cloverfield monster with slitted red eyes, Godzilla is an absolute triumph, in terms of creature design and CGI weight in motion. This new Godzilla design is surprisingly close to the original Godzilla, to the point where even his roar is a slightly-modified version of the classic Godzilla screech, and that works perfectly fine. Godzilla’s always had a very classic design, and it’s very well modernized here. What I really appreciated, though, was the scale they gave these monsters. While we don’t get enough time with any of them, what little there is involves destruction on a catastrophic scale. These creatures tower over buildings so much so that even Godzilla’s errant tail decimates the landscape. When one Muto manages to pick Godzilla by the neck and toss him around, it feels like an appropriately massive force. That’s something not well done with many large wholly CGI creatures that works to perfection here.
Godzilla is yet another soulless remake/reboot dotting the Hollywood landscape for years to come. Sold on the promise of Bryan Cranston in a leading role and giant monster sock-fests, what we get is tepid people serving up tepid drama where occasionally a big monster gets to shoot nuclear fire from its mouth.