Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche
Monster movies are a tricky formula of film nowadays, as modern technology makes the old adage of men in rubber suits an unnecessary and silly sounding piece of film history . Watch King Kong from 1977, and you will see talented make-up artist Rick Baker strive as he might to make the big furry ape believable from inside a monkey costume. However, as good as special effects technology is, there are still purists who insist that the creatures from their childhood, Godzilla included, were best portrayed in their youth. When looking at Roland Emmerich’s deservedly derived 1998 remake, they might have a point. With all of this in mind, the seeming thankless job of once again bringing a brand new version of the creature to the big screen fell into the hands of British director Gareth Edwards. I have said from the beginning that this hiring was a brilliant idea by the studio, as with a little film called Monsters (2010), Edwards proved his talent at handling human protagonists and making them the center of a film designed around global catastrophe. But, the question of whether he proves his worth with this, the first film to portray Godzilla since that disastrous 1998 effort, went through my mind the closer and closer we got to its opening. Did Edwards’ film live up to the even higher expectations that were laid upon it?
For the most part, yes. One thing I respected about Edwards’ approach to the film was a slow burn reveal of the creature itself. Like Jaws, the film’s namesake is kept hidden for what I would call 60% of the film. Sure, we see a scale here, a foot there. But in a film that is named after him, Godzilla himself becomes a supporting player. Nonetheless, it is done in a way that is very effective. Edwards does a marvelous job of building the momentum for when his creature does finally arrive on the scene, which is a cunning example of the fantastic direction Edwards shows here. However, what all this means is that the people around him have to have a story that makes Godzilla’s services mean something. And honestly, this is where the ball is dropped. Max Borenstein’s script just doesn’t have the strength to make the human characters likable, as he unnecessarily tries to wedge a heroic human story in between all the monster madness, and revolves it around the oldest storyline in the book: a man being in the right place at the wrong time.
The film starts us off in 1999, as Joe Brody (Cranston, in an authentically bad wig) becomes convinced that the tremors which killed his wife (Binoche, in a wasteful role) are signs of bigger things to come. Dismissed as a deranged conspiracy theorist, we turn our attention to his son Ford (Johnson), who fifteen years later is now a bomb disarmament specialist with the military. Olsen plays his wife, and together they live in San Francisco with a son of their own. He gets summoned to Japan with the intent of bailing his father out after being arrested, all while hell is breaking loose on the planet they stand upon. Think A Good Day to Die Hard, with monsters and a much better plot.
I am going to stop there, as spoilers would be a complete detriment to the film’s overall enjoyment. But needless to say, Godzilla’s groundwork is full of multiple monsters and multiple characters, most of which we could care less about. Olsen, who has been one of my favorite actresses since 2011’s Martha Marcey May Marlene, proves here there is something she can’t do, and that is make an astonished/threatened face. Watanabe is wasted in a wooden role, and Johnson (Kick Ass) isn’t given much of an opportunity to shine, as the film’s middle is completely disarranged in muddy slodge that’s predictably written.
That’s not to say I didn’t have a great time, however. Edwards and company cleverly name their main family Brody (after the family in Jaws), and there are some forced perspective shots of Godzilla & his sheer size that are nothing short of mind-blowing. There is also a very well-directed scene of an attack on a Honolulu airport, which we see from inside the airport windows and luggage carts, which will take your breath away. Edwards’ sleight of hand is astounding, as he never resorts to shaky cam or frantic camera angles to get his shot’s point across. Buildings fall not to titillate a blood thirsty audience, but to narratively serve the story. The only thing I will ding Edwards on is a completely unnecessary onscreen countdown. I know it was put there to give a heightened sense of urgency to the film’s conclusion. But to me it served no purpose other than to annoy. However, in a last third that is prodigiously directed, that is a minor
Overall, Godzilla is an arduously good time. The film is 123 minutes long, but it is also the recipient of the biggest complement I’ve given a film in quite a while: once it ended, I wanted more. Yes the human characters and plot surrounding them was nothing to write home about. But neither was Jurassic Park’s. Godzilla is chock full of enough surprising stand up and cheer moments that you would be well served to see it on an IMAX screen. After all, even Godzilla gets insecure about his size. Especially after that horrible iguana-like creature he was portrayed as sixteen years ago.