Godzilla Review

Godzilla is back... but was the 16 year wait worth it?

rating: 3

After Gareth Edwards showcased the skill at which he could juggle both intimate human drama and huge, CGI-rendered monsters with his debut feature, Monsters (which he directed, wrote, and provided the special effects for almost single-handily), the British director seemed like a natural fit for a Hollywood reboot of the Godzilla franchise. And after the giant debacle that was 1998's version, which only succeeded in marking the legacy of Japan's most famous pop cultural icon as something of a joke, fans have been awaiting a new adaptation with baited breath. But whereas that version was too excessive in almost every regard, Edwards' latest version falls on the opposite end of the spectrum: quite simply, it isn't enough. Imagine, then, a Godzilla movie that looks fantastic, features an all-star cast of immensely talented individuals including the likes of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and Juliet Binoche, coupled with the kind of budget and crew that promises the greatest movie in the canon thus far, but ultimately fails to satisfy in almost every department, and you've got this.
Our story begins in 1999 with Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), an American scientist working at a power plant in Japan with his wife, Sandy, (Juliette Binoche), who begins to suspect something terrible is going to happen based on a series of strange seismic readings he's been picking up from deep underground. Cue a devastating tragedy that literally rocks Joe's world and renders him as one of those oh so frequently employed conspiracy theorist/crackpot scientists who turns out to be right, and the stage is set for a monster battle between the iconic creature of the movie's title and the terrified people of planet Earth - but not quite in the way you'd probably expect. Here in the present, the story hones in on Joe's son, Ford Brody (and the winner for "Most Heroically Heroic Hero Name" goes to...), a soldier who works as an explosive ordnance disposal technician, who finds himself tasked with returning to Japan (where he grew up) when his father winds up in jail for entering a quarantine zone. An explosive incident that reveals the true villain of the movie brings the pair together, but not for long - and suddenly we're cutting to different locations all over the globe, World War Z style, as Ford helicopters about looking for answers. What's immediately apparent about Edwards' version of Godzilla is that it intends to set up a new mythos for the eponymous lizard king whilst intertwining it with bits and pieces we know from a variety of the old flicks. The big issue, however, is that the movie becomes so focused on explaining why and how Godzilla exists or what might happen if he arrives, that it forgets to be any fun; the first two acts are quite literally centered around exposition, to such a point that you're left wondering whether or not the filmmakers really intend to show Godzilla in the movie at all. They eventually do, of course, and it's important to mention that Godzilla - the creature - is rendered here beautifully; realistic, but with a nice comic book edge to his design, he's a spectacle with a surprising degree of emotion lurking beneath all those teeth and scales, marking him out him out as more than just great CGI. It's interesting to see how Edwards and his screenwriter, Max Borenstein, have opted to tackle the storyline here, however; much of the movie asks us to wonder whether or not Godzilla is truly something to be feared, or a higher power to be embraced and respected. Alas, they mostly fail to create anything interesting with the debate.
Edwards has clearly taken his visual cues from Steven Spielberg, and there's a real Jurassic Park vibe to the movie (especially in the early scenes) that showcases a brisk, confident style that works great. The best thing about the whole film, in fact, might be found in in its visuals, which are - as with Edwards' Monsters - crafted gracefully. Some of the shots that the director has conjured up are genuinely beautiful and breathtaking in their scope; everywhere we visit - from Tokyo to San Francisco - has been made to look spectacular... even in 3-D, which is bearable here. As far as leading men go, Aaron Taylor-Johnson gets the job done, but he's also another in a long line of bland, uninteresting blockbuster heroes - there's no real charisma working here, and it's hard to care all that much about him when all we know is that he's a soldier and that he has a wife and a son. It's almost as if the screenwriter included those aspects as a means of trying to make Ford appealing without doing much work, and it falls flat; instead, we're left with a huge movie lacking a protagonist who we can root for. He's just "a bit sombre," and that's it. Annoyingly, none of the other human characters are utilised for anything more than delivering exposition, and it makes for a jarring experience. We learn absolutely nothing about the scientists who are tasked with trying to prevent the world from being stomped upon - and whilst Ken Watanabe's scientist's delivery of "We call him Godzilla" is a meme-worthy delight, he's so forgettable that you don't even bother to learn his name. Same goes for fellow scientist Sally Hawkins (usually wonderful), who serves as an exposition machine of the highest order from start to finish, and a vastly underused Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Ford's "loving wife."
Tonally, Godzilla is all over the place; at times, it play things so seriously that it's hard to feel like you're having fun with it (it's a fairly humourless movie). At random points, however, the movie shifts into Pacific Rim mode, and everything suddenly seems a little more light-hearted... but only for a second, before we're suddenly back inside government control rooms, looking at maps and screens as military personale um and ah as to whether or not it's a good idea to nuke Godzilla or let him run wild instead. This contrast is perfectly summarised in the way that Cranston's performance (hammy and over the top) and Taylor-Johnson's (dull and serious) clash. The main pitfall to be found here, then, is in the movie's inability to create anything memorable from the sum of its parts; the action scenes are competent, visually appealing, and fun, but there are just too few of them. The themes are mangled, and the plot is a mess. It's admirable that Edwards chooses to spend so much time with the human characters as they try to face up to what's happening to the world, but he forgets one important aspect: to make them interesting people. They're flat, cardboard creations; it's hard to care. Worst of, perhaps, Godzilla fails to live up to the promise of its gargantuan title: "10 Minutes Of Godzilla" feels a lot more apt. Godzilla Imax PosterLike this article? Agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments section below.
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Sam Hill is an ardent cinephile and has been writing about film professionally since 2008. He harbours a particular fondness for western and sci-fi movies.