Godzilla (2014): Written by Max Borenstein and directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Bryan Cranston. Running Time: 123 minutes. Based on…..do I really have to say it???
After some deliberation, I find that my reaction to the latest addition to the Godzilla canon bears a striking resemblance to my reaction to last year’s Man of Steel, also a divisive reboot of a long-standing cultural icon. Both are revivals of franchises that I have never been particularly drawn to, nor have I had much exposure to them. Both are films that I sincerely hoped would nudge me towards being a fan, and give me a feeling for what keeps bringing so many people back to them. And while both films certainly have their moments of power and awe, I walked away from each one feeling slightly underwhelmed by the overall experience (although I definitely think Godzilla is by far the superior of the two, in terms of overall quality).
We get an opening montage more or less establishing for us that the governments of the world have known of Godzilla’s existence for some time, and founded an international organization that has been monitoring him ever since the events of the first Godzilla film in 1954. Furthermore, this organization, or more specifically, its lone on-screen representative Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (followed around by a sinful waste of Sally Hawkins) is aware of other creatures apparently from the same era as Godzilla. One of them is discovered to have hatched in a cave in the Philippines, and soon afterwards, it turns up in a coastal Japanese town most definitely not called Fukushima, where it destroys the nuclear facility and effectively sets itself up in a cocoon there to feed off the remaining nuclear energy in the core (the explanation we eventually get is that these creatures are from a more radioactive era of earth’s history, and therefore feed off nuclear reactions).
Obviously, this is covered up by the world governments, much to the fury of nuclear scientist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston), who survived the attack but lost his wife in the process, shown in the one genuinely great scene in the entire film featuring real, human emotion. After the attack, we cut to 15 years later. Brody’s son is now a munitions specialist for the US military, while Joe has made a hobby out of obsessively studying phenomena like what he witnessed at the plant, trying to prove that it was not, as the Japanese government claimed, an earthquake. More out of exasperation that anything else, the son agrees to accompany him on one last trip to the quarantined facility to try and find out the truth. There, they discover that it was, in fact, a monster that destroyed the facility all those years ago, and that the quarantine was merely put in place so that Ishiro and his colleagues could study it.
Shortly after they arrive, the creature, referred to by Ishiro as a MUTO, awakens, leaves the cocoon, and begins to leave a trail of destruction and death in its wake as it heads across the Pacific to San Francisco, where they realize it will meet up with another MUTO that recently awoke in the Nevada desert. Assuring the military that they have no possible way of killing these creatures, Ishiro claims that there only hope is to lead Godzilla, accompanied by an entire naval fleet, to San Francisco as well, so that he can so battle with the great monsters from another age.
It’s a lot of exposition and build-up for a very basic monster-movie premise, but the serious amount of time needed to explain and show all this is not the reason that the film fell flat for me on more than a few occasions. The movie makes a big deal of out very slowly building up the atmosphere of human terror of the awesome, supernatural might on display, waiting to fully show Godzilla and the MUTOs in action until the very end, and as far as the technical side goes, it handles itself very well. The movie looks great, there’s none of the shaky-cam nonsense that ruined so much of Man of Steel (one big reason why it’s a superior reboot, all else aside), and every time we get to see Godzilla, the effects really are jaw-dropping. The final battle taking place, for once, in a city not starting “New” and ending with “-ork,” is of a much different sort than the quick pace of last year’s Pacific Rim, with the monsters slower and more ponderous, but it’s still engaging and a ton of fun to watch.
No, the real issues start to pop up whenever the monsters are not screen, which, sadly, is most of the movie- the humans are not well written, and with the exception of the always-dependable Cranston and Watanabe, they are not well-acted or well-directed. Taylor-Johnson could not come across blander if he had rice cakes stapled to his forehead, which is a major problem, because his relationship to his Dad and his efforts to get to San Francisco before the monsters do (his also-boring family is conveniently located right in the middle of the city) is clearly meant to be the emotional center of the film. And….yeah, there’s no way around it, everything involving him and his family just does not do it for me. I am yet to hear from anyone who thought that that aspect of the film worked. Which is a shame, because if the film had focused more on the dad or Dr. Ishiro and on their issues, we might have a genuinely great film on our hands. Hell, I would have loved to see a movie devoted solely to Dr. Ishiro, who seems to have a really fascinating backstory that never gets let out of the box.
Ultimately, the real question to answer is this; the flaws with how the human characters are handled aside, is it worth the wait once we finally get to a good, old-fashioned monster smackdown with a $160 million facelift? I think it was for me. The opening, centered around old man Brody, works great, and I loved the scope of the third act. For myself, and for a lot of other people apparently, that was enough. For others, it wasn’t. To decide whether or not it works for you, you’ll just have to see for yourself.