HARD TO REVIEW THIS WITHOUT SOME DETAILS SO, THERE MIGHT BE SOME VERY MINOR SPOILERS HERE, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I have been a Godzilla fan since seeing my first Godzilla flick… Ghidorah, The Three Headed Monster… on TV in the late 60s. And one of the things I have always wanted to see was a big budget Godzilla with all the bells and whistles that come with it. After being horribly disappointed by shlockmeister Roland Emmerich’s awful attempt in 1998, I was really looking forward to this new reboot attempt by Monsters director Gareth Edwards. And while the film has its flaws, I did enjoy the new Godzilla, maybe not as much as I’d hoped but, I did really like a lot of it and at least it was a Godzilla movie.
The film opens with footage from 1954 of a massive creature sighted in the South Pacific and the use of the H-Bomb in an effort to destroy it. This incident was obviously covered up by all governments involved and the beast thought dead. We then cut to 1999 with the discovery of a giant skeleton in an underground cavern in the Philippines and two mysterious egg sacks that are in proximity. One sack vacated, the other appears dormant. Across the Pacific in Japan, seismic disturbances are being monitored at a nuclear power plant emanating from the Philippines and drawing closer. Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) fears the worst and his fears come true as the plant suffers a mysterious reactor breach and he barely escapes with his life, though his wife (Juliette Binoche) tragically does not. The area is then permanently quarantined. Now in 2014, Joe is still obsessed with finding the answers to what actually happened, and it gets him in trouble bringing his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to Japan to bail him out. But Joe is persistent, and they soon find themselves back in the quarantined zone and incarcerated at the supposed dead reactor. Upon meeting a Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), they finally learn the horrifying truth. Something primordial and quite deadly… designated a M.U.T.O.-Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism… sleeps cocooned around the reactor feeding on it. And when the M.U.T.O. awakens and escapes before their eyes, Godzilla, the massive creature long thought destroyed in 1954, rises again from the Pacific Ocean to hunt down the monstrous abomination and its even larger mate which has been lying dormant and hidden by the U.S. government in the Nevada desert… with the world hanging in the balance as the three are destined to collide.
I’ll get the negatives out of the way first…The thing that really holds Godzilla back from being the monster masterpiece I have always dreamed of, is the same problem that left me a little cold to Edwards’ first flick… his human characters and drama is weak. It is the same here. I was never bored, and I really liked the way Max Borenstein’s script cleverly updated the mythos… though I was not really sold on Serizawa’s insistence that the M.U.T.O.’s awakening would draw Godzilla up from the depths to destroy them, how did he know this?… but Edwards really doesn’t give the scenes of human drama the strength it needed to rivet us till Godzilla and Mr. and Mrs. M.U.T.O. have their triple threat match in San Francisco. The characters were fine but, weren’t really endearing. Maybe they were a little too down to earth and low key. Except for Cranston’s Joe Brody, no one else seems all that shocked or emotionally distressed that there are now three massive creatures stalking the earth and two are ready to repopulate the planet. Edwards handles much of the film well and has a great visual style but, he needs to get more life out of his cast and add more impact and intensity to the proceedings, Other minor gripes include the relative confidence that the military has that Godzilla is an ally or at least not a immediate threat. Having never faced a creature like this, they seem to be fairly unconcerned with his appearance and it does neuter his badass persona a bit till we get to see him in action. And once Godzilla makes his big entrance, which Edwards does make us wait till the second act for, his first encounter with the male M.U.T.O. is relayed mostly from news footage after the battle is over. We could have used an opening bout to get the audience warmed up for the main event. And finally the hands down weakest part of the film is Alexandre Desplat’s completely generic score. It really is underwhelming and a far stronger score could have helped pick up some of the weaker moments and add even more strength to the stuff that really worked.
Now to the good stuff. First off, unlike the 1998 joke, this is a Godzilla movie. And as with Edward’s Monsters, Godzilla really comes to life when the creatures are on screen. The film is visually spectacular and while I understand Edwards using a slow burn to build the anticipation, he could have given us a few more minutes on some of the earlier monster action scenes because, they really rock and needed more time to resonate. I wish his humans had the personality of his beasties. The thing that really won me over with this flick is the monster stuff and the massive throw-down that takes up the last act of the film. Here we get what we came for and in the last act, I was glued to my kaiju loving chair as San Francisco is laid to utter waste as Godzilla does what the does best in all his atomic fire breathing glory. The battle is massive and the SPFX are top notch as three colossal animals fight tooth and nail between, over and through the buildings of one of America’s most beautiful cities. It was as epic as I’d hoped for and made up a lot for the first 90 minutes not having the impact to make this a real crowd pleaser. Godzilla is excellently rendered and has a lot of personality despite not a lot of screen time… though I just watched the original Gojira and he really isn’t onscreen much in that either and it also takes him an hour to show up in the 1991 Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah so, it’s not the first time he’s made us wait. The M.U.T.O.’s are dangerous and threatening and ooze malice and it adds to their creepiness and effectiveness when they coordinate their attack on the Big G and act as a vicious unit. And the throw-down does get vicious. Their design evokes some classic kaiju but, are still unique enough to be fresh. And the last act battle with Godzilla was worth the price of admission alone.
As for the cast, obviously they all could have used a little life from Edwards. Cranston is the only one that knows what to do and gives his character some passion and fire. He plays a man obsessed but, not crazy, very well. Taylor-Johnson is OK. I didn’t mind him as much as some early word indicated but, he could have simply emoted more like he really was concerned that this wife and child were at the center of a monster mosh pit. He was much livelier in Kick-Ass and hopefully Joss Whedon gets some more out of him in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Same can be said for Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, Elle. I have seen her give strong performances especially in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here she plays the long suffering wife and isn’t required to really do much but, look upset and scared. An underuse of a talented actress. Ken Watanabe is fine but, again, could have used a little passion in his performance. His Serizawa has a lot of exposition, and he sometimes seems a bit distant, when his scientist should be more excited/frightened about what is transpiring. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as a navy admiral who is another character that is way too calm and confident despite that giant monsters actually exist and are wrecking some of our most famous landmarks while ignoring military firepower. Again, Edwards needing to inspire his actors to perform with more urgency to get the audience to feel more excited/frightened about what is occuring. It is the emotions of the characters that provoke the audience into sharing in their feelings and the audience I was with was pretty quiet throughout… though seemed to generally like it, once it was over.
So, overall Godzilla is dramatically weak early on, though I did like the story, but more than makes up for a lot of that with a truly spectacular monster battle last act that is as visually stunning as it is exciting. I only wish the human drama came close, then this would have been an Avengers level entertainment. I did really enjoy Godzilla. It had enough interesting ideas, a larger scale then any other Godzilla production and a unique approach to a monster flick. And when it finally delivered, it delivered big. I’d like to see Gareth Edwards tackle a sequel but, this time don’t hold back on the monsters and give your drama a bit more juice and inspire your cast to emote stronger. I still recommend it highly but just turn down the expectations a few notches and you should enjoy it. A fun summer flick though I was hoping for more.
Rated generous 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) Godzillas because I got to see the monster throw-down I always wanted to and Godzilla himself was epic.