As a life-long fan of everybody’s favourite city-wrecking, people-stomping, all round bad-ass giant irradiated lizard, I went into Godzilla with pretty big feelings of anticipation. The marketing for this movie seemed to hint at something truly special: a modern re-imagining of the 1954 classic which stays true to the spirit of the original. But as I popped the hated 3-D glasses over my eyes, little did I know I would leave two hours later wishing I had watched Roland Emmerich’s deeply flawed 1998 version instead. My review of Godzilla after the jump.
In 1999, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) discovers traces of an enormous, unstoppable force of nature in the Philippines. This triggers a catastrophe at a nuclear facility in Japan where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an engineer. 15 years later, all signs point to the re-emergence of this colossal threat, prompting Joe to search for the truth with his estranged son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who is now an explosives disposal expert in the US Navy. But as it turns out, there is an even bigger alpha predator on the loose, determined to once again restore balance to the natural world.
Around the 30-40 minute mark, I began to realize that Godzilla was losing its way. Which is a shame because the film was off to a great start, thanks to an effective, surprisingly poignant opening courtesy of the ever-reliable Bryan Cranston. Inexplicably, the film jettisons Cranston for the far less charismatic Aaron Taylor-Johnson who portrays his son, Ford. Although Cranston’s performance did descend into scenery-chewing after the prologue, his character was pretty much the only one allowed to be a real human being instead of a generic cipher. You can almost imagine a cynical screenwriter with a clipboard making sure they include every disaster movie stereotype possible: “Bland male lead: check! Token, ever-fretful wife: check! Wise scientist who speaks solely in exposition: check! Stern, yet sensitive military leader forced to make some Big Decisions: check and check!”
Director Gareth Edwards chose to fill the first two-thirds of his film with a heavy emphasis on plot and character, deciding to slowly tease the reveal of the title character before letting loose with a third act in which Godzilla is revealed in all his glory. This is absolutely the right approach to use when rebooting the franchise, the only problem is that this is so ineptly done you wonder why they bothered. Aside from the deficiencies in character building mentioned earlier, the story quickly becomes bogged down with scenes that go nowhere and rapidly sap audience attention.
Unforgivably, Godzilla himself feels like he was shoe-horned into his own movie because so much of the running time is spent on the MUTOs which look like a cross between the title character in Alien and the monster from Cloverfield. It’s an intriguing design and there’s a tense scene where Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody tries to conceal himself from a MUTO on a bridge but they take up too much of the screen-time for too little return. By the third act when Godzilla has been properly introduced, his epic rumble with the MUTOs is let down by some extremely poor choices in the editing room. Every time the fight begins to get interesting, they cut away to a human character we care nothing about. Suspense and build-up are essential for this sort of movie but at a certain point, the action beats need to be properly played out. Edwards made the same mistake during his lauded début Monsters which also failed to reward the audience with any real kind of payoff for their trouble.
But it’s not all bad. Aside from one or two minor design flaws (his face looks oddly squashed and was it really necessary to make him look that chunky?), Godzilla is quite a well-designed creature who manages to inspire the necessary awe and dread that he needs to. Some of the shots were rather well staged, such as the HALO jump in which Ford and a team parachute into a partially destroyed city. The sequence’s eerie use of György Ligeti’s “Requiem” playing against an apocalyptic backdrop complete with a devastated skyline and swirling black clouds pierced by the tiny figures falling out of the sky is breathtaking. If this sense of apocalyptic dread had been maintained throughout the film, Godzilla could have been something to behold.
Instead, Godzilla proves that the most well thought out plans to balance character, story and action can be stymied by poor execution at the script and editing phases. Skip this one and rewatch Pacific Rim, a flawed movie that nonetheless had better characterisation and giant monster smack-downs then this did.
By Johnson Hii
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer(s): Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story)
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins
Runtime: 123 minutes
Release date(s): Australia and New Zealand: May 15 2014; USA: May 16 2014