The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and in this case we’re talking about the Godzilla reboot, not the king of monsters himself. Despite a strong marketing campaign, a solid cast and promising director (Gareth Edwards), Godzilla sadly disappoints. From empty human characters that take up most of the screen time to poorly paced monster battles, Godzilla is frankly, underwhelming.
Godzilla begins with a spy-esque opening credit sequence where words are redacted next to names to build up the mystery surrounding the government’s involvement with the beasty. It’s a well orchestrated sequence that I would like to revisit to see exactly what is being crossed out. We arrive in the Philippines in 1999, where Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hakwins) have a very Jurassic Park like discovery of a land lost in time. There’s even a helicopter – with their company logo, Monarch, slapped on the side. Researchers at a dig-site happened on a sink hole, leading to an underground tunnel to the bones of a long-forgotten titan. And it looks like some offspring have been awoken from the accident.
Enter Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), nuclear engineer and family man who works at a power plant in a fictional town of Janjira, Japan. He’s got a wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and a son named Ford. Joe has been monitoring bizarre seismic activity, which he fears could bring down the whole plant. And of course, he’s right. The whole thing crumbles to pieces, and Joe loses his wife in the process – and on his birthday too. Shucks.
Jump ahead 15 years later, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) – a bomb disposal expert for the Navy – is all grown up. He’s coming home on military leave to see his wife Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) and son, Sam (Carson Bolde). Unfortunately he is not able to stay home long as he is called upon to post bail for his father in Japan because he trespassed in the radiation zone of Janjira trying to recover research. After retrieving his father, Ford becomes entangled in his whirlwind of conspiracies that he attributes to his wife’s death. Joe doesn’t know exactly what caused it, but he believes it wasn’t a natural disaster or a malfunction in the plant. And he’s about to find his answer
by becoming the king of the meth drug trade.
As you can tell from the plot breakdown, there is a lot of build up from the human perspective – at least an hour is devoted to this – before we even see our first monster. But oddly enough, nothing about the human characters is relatable or worthwhile. They actually do away with one of the most interesting characters early on, and from that point the energy completely dissolves.
We spend way too much time with the utterly emotionless, no good humans. In fact, story writer David Callaham (Doom; The Expendables) and screenwriter Max Borenstein (Swordswallowers and Thing Men) seem to have forgotten to establish a main character. You could say Taylor-Johnson has the upper-hand due to his more focused story, but there’s also Watanabe who is seen off and on as well, who doesn’t really have a complementing story arc. The motivation or desire to root for either of them is zilch. Which leaves Olsen and Hawkins little to do to help accent these characters or flesh them out.
There are moments at the beginning that would suggest a theme of family duty, but as the chaos ensues the film decides to focus more on the militaristic mission than anything else. Most of what the humans say is nonsensical and presents little to take away in their meaning. Watanabe has one line about interfering with the course of nature, which ultimately becomes the major theme, but nothing truly strengthens his argument to find his theory enriching.
As far as the monsters themselves are concerned, the visual effects are incredible, and the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers; We Need to Talk About Kevin; Atonement) is beautiful, providing incredible scale to Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). The first time the camera pans up to convey the sheer size of Godzilla is a magical, terrifying moment. Godzilla’s design is well detailed, but he’s a little chubby and sluggish around the edges, making the fight scenes slow with how little of them there were. Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel; The King’s Speech, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is able to successfully capture a haunting score that builds the grand scope of Godzilla at least.
Teasing monsters and providing hints of their existence pays off well in Edwards’ first feature Monsters, but he is not able to pull off the same trick twice. Once you see the massive creatures in Godzilla fighting each other for the first time, it’s hard to ignore their existence in this kind of big budget blockbuster as the movie tries to consistently hide them. And whenever you see the beast king fighting against the MUTOs they cut away too quickly. To the film’s advantage, the fights do not look goofy as if two people in suits are grappling each other on a set of miniatures.
I wouldn’t say they don’t show enough of Godzilla in the end, they just don’t give him enough continual screen time to enjoy his presence. Ten seconds of a fight here, another five seconds of the creature fifteen minutes later, it’s off-putting. With that said, the monster fights feel very weak because we don’t get to see them fully engage one another. This dramatically drains the spectacle of it all.
In defense of the sophomore director, Monsters is a lovely, intimate creature feature that plays up mystery in lieu of ginormous action set pieces, proving big things can come in small packages. While Monsters’ slow burn suspense aims provide depth to the human characters while the monsters reside in the background, it doesn’t work the same in Godzilla because he is too massive of a focal point to ignore. Failing to give Godzilla his moment in the spotlight when you introduce him as a major visual element is unforgiving and foolish. After all, this movie is called Godzilla, not “Blank-Faced Human Characters Standing Mouths Agape.”
This is by far and away very different from Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla – a good thing – with Matthew Broderick and Leslie Mann. And it is also less wacky and cartoonish than Pacific Rim. Ironically, this film could have benefited with a Puff Daddy theme song to amp up the energy. If a quaint, reintroduction to Godzilla with dumb characters, zero energy, and a drawn out climax with little reward is what you seek, this is the perfect summer movie for you.
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Godzilla is in theaters Friday, May 16. It was directed by Gareth Edwards with a run time of 123 minutes. This film has been rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.