(123 minutes, Rated PG-13)
With everything released being a reboot or a remake, the Godzilla property was bound to get this treatment. After the debacle that was the 1998 Roland Emmerich film, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood attempted the Japanese creature again. The only thing that I am shocked about is that this did not happen sooner. Now, while Godzilla is a huge improvement over the original American remake, the movie suffers from an identity problem, which stems from weird tonal shifts, a disjointed story, and a failed human element.
With that said, lets get the most important thing out of the way; the design of Godzilla and the M.U.T.O. monsters are amazing. The attention to detail shows that all those involved truly cared for the intellectual property. For instance, the scutes on Godzilla’s back look extremely cool when it is swimming; this little detail effectively portrays the scale of the creature, but also, shrouds it in mystery vise vie Jaws. Furthermore, the M.U.T.O. monsters look scary and their ‘insect-like’ appearance help the audience automatically root for Godzilla. And the CGI perfectly portrays the scale of the three monsters during their fight scenes, but for today’s standards it left me wanting more. Yes, the destruction is epic and the building crumble with ease, however, in the post 9/11 world, this overused trope is seen in every major blockbuster. Godzilla does nothing to distinguish itself, besides the change of scenery from New York to San Francisco.
Now, that goes for the action in general; some aspects are certainly awe-inspiring and the CGI is the best since last year’s Man of Steel. And like Man of Steel the 9/11 imagery is blatant and unsettling; the part where firefighters save families trapped under rubble bear an uncanny resemblance to the media coverage of that fateful day. Several times throughout, this imagery ‘took me out of the fight;’ and I understand this is used to express the dire situation, but as previously mentioned, this trope has become a disease that has infected every major blockbuster. Perhaps, this is ‘destruction-porn’ fatigue, which is terrible to have at the beginning of the summer movie season: yet this gritty ‘Nolan-like’ take on the campy creature removes the fun out of the fight scenes. I love serious films, but Godzilla was never meant to be this brooding; even if they fully attempted to be serious, the weird tonal shifts in the second act reflect a campy style that did not fit in the universe that the first act established.
Of course, I do have to say that Gareth Edwards does an adequate job shooting the action. Somehow the director easily transitioned from his previous effort, which was a $500,000 picture called Monsters, to the $160 million Godzilla blockbuster. This huge move did not seem to faze the longtime visual effects supervisor. Instead, he effectively shot the action and allowed the audience to easily follow the fights. Shaky cam was thrown in sometimes, but for the most part, when it came to the huge action sequences, he left the monsters on full display. This may sound like a feature that should be the staple of all monster movies, but watch Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy: which uses shaky cam and fast cutting to create an undistinguishable mess. Finally, Gareth’s choices from the creature’s design to the near pitch perfect score from Alexandre Desplats, reflect a director with a distinct vision. It is just a shame that the action does not live up to the teased promise: if this movie came out ten years ago, the action would have been revolutionary. But in the day and age where every other movie topples buildings with ease, Godzilla did nothing to separate itself.
Furthermore, the epic final battle is hindered by the ‘Godzilla-less’ destruction sequences abundantly sprinkled throughout: which are only in the film as plot points and drain impact of the later action. Again, it is just like Man of Steel with its destruction; like the flawed superhero flick, the consistent chaos overwhelms the audience and as a result, the final battle loses its ‘mojo.’ For instance, I found Honolulu’s obliteration to be pointless; it was simply used as a plot device to get the main character Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to San Francisco. And though this action supposedly keeps the movie going, I would have preferred a slower build up to the explosive finale. Yes, the filmmakers do not show Godzilla till the end, but they still showed plenty of annihilation, which made me numb to the end’s alleged emotional gratification.
What makes matters worse is that Godzilla has one of the best openings for a big summer tent-pole film. The first forty minutes, which barely has action, is a perfectly orchestrated set up. Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody is easily the highlight of the film and once his character departs from the main storyline, the audience clamors for his return. Also, the opening meshes together several elements including creepy imagery, a terrifying score, and an opening montage that attempts to ground the creature in reality: which, for the first time, makes Godzilla scary. Unfortunately, this fear of the unknown is quickly lost as the picture progresses. And as the mystery is lost, it seems the script follows; the human element disappears as the contained ‘family’ story is widened to a global scale. The resulting disjointed plot causes the audience to question, who is the main character? Or more importantly, why should we care? These questions are terribly answered as the picture decides to jump from location to location on a consistent basis: something that causes several narrative problems.
For instance, during Honolulu’s devastation, the movie should have focused on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character; however, the director cuts to the horrible trope of witnessing random people’s perspective of the attack. It would have been more effective to watch Ford’s perspective; instead, the film cuts between the Navy warship, the Navy Seals, the M.U.T.O. monster, the random people, and finally Ford’s train sequence, which seems to play ‘second fiddle.’ And why show the random people, if there was not going to be a payoff? So again, the first act seemed to make Ford the main protagonist, but by the second and third act, I am questioning if the main focus is on the Navy’s commanders, Ken Watanabe’s over the top doctor, or even Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody? Furthermore, should I even care about these characters because it seems like the picture does not. Obviously, it is impossible to make a contained Godzilla story; but again, the first act did a good job establishing the universe without having the gigantic beast.
With that said, even with Godzilla’s lack of concentration, certain characters had some redeemable qualities. Elle Brody has a flawed storyline, but the wonderful Elizabeth Olsen elevates the poorly written role. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who will be a future A-list star, gives a reserve performance that lets me forgive the ‘one man saves everything’ cliché. And finally, David Strathairn’s Admiral, who could have been the clichéd egotistical authority that is seen in the destruction genre, is properly written as an Admiral who is in way over his head. His willingness to accept suggestions makes him a breath of fresh air in a movie filled with horrible tropes. Yet, Godzilla is filled with plenty of futile characters that are either meant to move the plot forward, like Sam Brody, or to die horrible deaths, like every other soldier besides Ford Brody. And do not get me started about Ken Watanabe’s ridiculous Doctor Serizawa; I cannot tell if he is intentionally being campy or just giving a bad performance.
In the end, the audience gets treated to a mixed bag with some fun elements. It may seem like I am overly critical, but my expectations were extremely high. Again, the first act exceeded my anticipations, but the movie slowly devolved from there, which makes this a squandered opportunity. Meanwhile, I was willing to forgive the many logical fallacies and random coincidences because this is ‘a summer blockbuster;’ but in the spectacle of the final battle my patience began to wane. Godzilla certainly ends with a bang: the way he dispatches his enemies are both fierce and awe-inspiring. Yet, the lack of a human connection hurts this grounded approach; the 123 minute runtime did not give the audience enough time with the abundance of characters, which means by the end the viewer did not care who lived or died. With that said, most people did not see Godzilla for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, or Elizabeth Olsen; the monster fights are epic and beautiful to look at, even if they lacked any impact.
Though I am being harsh, I still liked this latest interpretation of the Japanese creation more than the summer’s first blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. However, that is not saying much. When the credits role, the audience will be divided by those who enjoyed this for the popcorn fodder it is and those who hated the latest edition of ‘destruction-porn.’ Now, I lie directly in the middle; several key elements like the monster’s design, the epic scale, and even Bryan Cranston’s short performance prevent Godzilla from being a complete and utter failure. Perhaps next time, I will not go into a monster movie with such lofty expectations because very few in the genre seem to satisfy my requirements. Either way, Godzilla should be seen by fans, but could be skipped by everyone else.