Film Review: Godzilla (2014)

Hollywood's latest attempt to claim the Japanese movie icon as its own understands the scale of Godzilla, but not necessarily the entertainment value.

Having long since shed his Atomic Age skin as a metaphor for the perils of nuclear weapons, Gojira a.k.a. Godzilla largely exists today as a brand name to be revived, rebooted and reimagined as frequently as your average comic-book superhero. This latest iteration, for example, is Hollywood's second run at launching an all-American franchise on the spiny back of Japan's biggest international movie star, who first rose from the ocean's briny depths 60 years ago in 1954.

The good news is that the makers of the new Godzilla would have to have worked exceptionally hard to come up with a worse creature feature than Roland Emmerich's dire 1998 affair, which unwisely and unsuccessfully tried to marry the campiness of ’60s and ’70s Japanese kaiju fare with vintage ’90s American blockbuster bloat. Unlike Emmerich, incoming director Gareth Edwards clearly understands the series' somber roots (at the time and still today, the original Godzilla is quite stark in its depiction of Godzilla's Tokyo-destroying rampage—in contrast to latter-day disaster movies, the destruction is horrifying rather than fun) and has a respect for the fearful majesty of the title character. Edwards landed this gig on the strength of his debut feature, Monsters, which displayed many of the same qualities in its depiction of plus-sized critters—in that case hailing from outer space—despite being made for a fraction of Godzilla's music budget. (The director's resourcefulness and striking use of homemade CGI effects helped distract from the fact that Monsters' human characters were all deeply irritating.) His Godzilla is subsequently serious-minded almost to a fault, especially as it also seeks to offer the guilt-free eye candy endemic to the summer movie season.

Since atomic energy is an essential part of the character's DNA, Edwards opens the film with a 1999-set prologue that unleashes a nuclear meltdown upon a power plant located in a mid-sized Japanese town. Among the many casualties is regulations consultant Sandra Boyd (Juliette Binoche), who leaves behind a husband, Joe (Bryan Cranston), and a son, Ford. Fifteen years later, the latter (played as a grown-up by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a bomb-disposal expert with the U.S. military while the latter is a nuclear "truther," career paths that, needless to say, mean they don't talk much anymore. Following Joe's latest arrest, Ford journeys across the Pacific to Japan—temporarily leaving his own wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son behind in San Francisco—with the intention of bringing his old man home once and for all. Instead, he discovers that Pops may not be so crazy after all, as the supposedly abandoned plant is buzzing with a team of scientists overseen by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who is monitoring what resembles a gigantic cocoon. And wouldn't you know it? Not long after their arrival, the cocoon hatches, revealing…well, you know.

Actually, you might not know, because the filmmakers have done a nice job keeping certain plot details under wraps and it would be a shame to give the game away here. Suffice to say, Godzilla isn't the creature that emerges from the ruins of that nuclear plant (this particular monster has wings), but he does arrive on the scene soon after because, as Dr. Serizawa helpfully exposits, he's essentially a giant environmental defense mechanism that's activated whenever the natural order of things is disturbed by the stupid tinkering of mankind. The fact that he's still an enormous monster capable of toppling entire cities means, of course, that the military still feels obligated to target him in addition to the other creatures. Ford reluctantly participates in some of these missions, which take him from Honolulu back to his home turf in the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Monsters was the way that Edwards used his low budget to his advantage, depicting the damage wrought by the aliens, while keeping glimpses of the E.T.s themselves few and far between. He brings the same approach to Godzilla for much of the movie's runtime, eschewing full body shots of the various monsters crashing about the frame in favor of ground-level perspectives that zero in on specific body parts—a leg, a tail, an occasional glimpse of a face— and God's-eye-view images of the carnage they leave in their wake. And in a nice touch, many of the earthbound point-of-view shots are often framed through windows, windshields and other human eye-level objects as a way to further emphasize humanity's role as a spectator in the primal clash of these larger-than-life beings. (Edwards also makes strong use of the new Dolby Atmos technology in choreographing his symphony of destruction; the creatures’ roars frequently become part of the geography of a given action sequence.) Where Emmerich went for cheap thrills, Edwards strives to inspire a sense of majesty and awe, and the bold visual choices he makes demonstrate an intelligence and forethought that can seem all too rare in the realm of blockbuster filmmaking.

At the same time, though, he's still hampered by some of the things that torpedo so many blockbusters, not to mention some of the older Godzilla movies: flat writing, poor characterizations, and the absence of any compelling human drama amidst the carnage. At least in the Japanese films, the humans were rarely intended to carry the story, ceding center stage to Godzilla and his ever-expanding cast of friends and enemies. By deliberately limiting the audience's view of the star attraction for so much of the film, Edwards creates a vacuum that the flesh-and-blood actors are required to fill and the results are mixed at best. While reliable character actors like Cranston and David Strathairn (who plays a high-ranking military officer) endeavor to make the most of their underwritten roles, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen struggle to register as heroes whose fates the audience is meant to be invested in. It says something that, when the final battle rolls around, viewers will be far more interested in Godzilla's survival than whether Ford makes it through unscathed.

That climactic sequence also speaks to something else the film, for all its creative ambition, sometimes lacks: a sense of showmanship. As cheesy as so many of the Godzilla sequels are, the filmmakers understood the simple appeal of watching two (or more) giant monsters slug it out early and often. Edwards, on the other hand, holds back on unleashing the full might of his titans until the very end, and while the finale is appropriately rousing, it makes the preceding set-pieces play more like teasers than complete scenes. (In that sense, a showy spectacle like Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is almost a more classic Godzilla movie than Godzilla, as it never stints on the monster action, starting big and routinely upping the ante from there.) Though it understands the size of the character's big-screen legacy, Godzilla errs by not taking full advantage of his might.

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