Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein, David Callaham, Frank Darabont
Distributed By: Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche
Release Date: May 16, 2014
MPAA: Rated PG-13
It’s time for another installment of MOVIE MONDAYS, and for this installment we’ll be taking a look at the newest and biggest big-screen outing for one of Japan’s most well-known commodities…GODZILLA! His newest movie stomped its way into theaters earlier this Summer, clearly aiming to be one of those big Summer Blockbusters. Many critics have called this new film, simply titled Godzilla, a reboot of the franchise or a reimagining of the first Godzilla from 1954, and they’re wrong on both counts. It establishes a new possible origin for Godzilla, but that’s really the only reimagining this film does. Much like many of the previous movies in the franchise, this film establishes its own continuity, with Godzilla being a thing at least some characters are vaguely familiar with, leaving fans to place it however they want in their own cherry-picked canons.
Godzilla has been around for SIXTY years, with over THIRTY movies under his gargantuan belt. In addition to this prolific film career, he’s been the star of several video games, novels, radio plays, manga, and COMIC BOOKS since his inception in 1954, including a stint with Marvel Comics (where he had a showdown with The Avengers).
Big G’s latest film has him facing off against two rather terrifying and huge insectoid monsters called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Along the winding road to the showdown, eccentric scientists and ineffectual military personnel do everything they can to get in the way… of everything: from the plot to ANY real character depth, and especially the action. Now, let me be clear: I’m not some action-junkie that wanted mindless wall-to-wall fights and explosions. If I wanted that I’d watch 2004’s abysmal Godzilla: Final Wars. But this movie runs right at two hours, and thirty minutes could have been trimmed, or replaced with better scenarios with better actors. This film had acting powerhouses like Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, and David Strathairn, and relegated them to unimportant side-characters with maybe 15 – 20 minutes of screen time. Instead the weight of this movie falls squarely on the shoulders of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, famous for being the weakest part of Kick-Ass (again as the star) and the unforgivably bad Kick-Ass 2. Oh…we’re in for a treat!
The film’s strongest emotional piece comes during what is ostensibly the prologue, featuring Cranston as the lead engineer at a Japanese nuclear plant and his wife played by legendary Juliette Binoche. The destruction of the plant leads to Cranston’s character investigating a series of cover-ups, and eventually years later, with his grown-up son Ford (Taylor-Johnson), stumbling across a giant radioactive monster kept hidden by Japanese scientists who wish to study it. These scientists are led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe) (named for original and frequent Godzilla director Ishiro Honda and the first film’s scientist turned tragic hero Daisuke Serizawa).
For reasons which will remain unexplained in this review *(NO SPOILERS)*, Cranston’s character leaves the story so that his son Ford can take center stage. Ford and Serizawa wind up joining forces with Rear Admiral Stenz (Strathairn), who must try to destroy the giant monsters at all costs. That’s basically the whole movie in a nut-shell. Until…Serizawa explains that there is another monster named Godzilla who, while basically a living agent of destruction, may be humanity’s only hope in stopping this crisis. So, what does Stenz decide to do? Why, kill them all of course. And after Serizawa explains that these things feed on nuclear energy, Stenz of course decides that the only way to kill these creatures is by nuking them. AND THAT is the whole movie in a nut-shell.
There are some nice character beats in this movie to be sure. There is one sequence where Ford protects a lost child who has been separated from his parents in the turmoil. Another short-lived moment where Serizawa shows Stenz the pocket watch his father had, that stopped ticking the day of the Hiroshima bombing. If the entire movie had been more like this in style and presentation, it would have been splendid. Instead there are large plot-holes and plot-contrivances involving entire military bomb-squads where nobody has been trained on how to diffuse the bomb they intend to nuke the monsters with. There’s a neat sequence with the military attacking Godzilla as he passes a bridge, nearly killing all of the citizens on said bridge, and a random bus driver saves a bunch of children. During this five-minute sequence, I wound up caring more about that bus driver than the main character and most of his supporting cast.
To be fair, any scene not featuring Aaron Taylor-Johnson was pretty enjoyable. And it’s not just that his acting is atrocious. It’s his horrible, wooden acting paired with the lackluster script he was given. His wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen, presented the same problem. None of the potential she showed in Martha Marcy May Marlene made its way into this performance.
But that’s okay, right? It’s just a giant monster movie, right? It doesn’t need strong characterization, right? It doesn’t need good acting or a good story, right? WRONG. Kaiju movies (the giant monster movies of Japan) are their own genre in the East, much like our own monster movies are here. And like any genre, you run the gamut of spectacular to god-awful. Kaiju movies that lean toward the spectacular end of the scale, like any good movie, feature plenty of good acting as well as a good story. And this movie unfortunately fails to deliver.
But you must be thinking, it should still have ridiculous monster mayhem, right? That’s one of the key ingredients to a Kaiju movie, right? It’s like having a disaster film without any destruction, or a Michael Bay movie without explosions, and speaking of Michael Bay – having a Transformers movie without any Transformers. Well, this film goes the Michael Bay route, by keeping the camera squarely pointed at the uninteresting main characters while the possibly amazing monster battle happens just out of view, catching snippets of giant crashes and debris, or blurry shots of the fight off in the background. On multiple occasions the film will show Godzilla and another monster about to square off, only to cut away to something else entirely, returning to the scene to show the devastation of the fight we never saw.
I know, I know, I’ve been complaining a lot. But it’s not all bad. As I said, whenever Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, and David Strathairn get to act, they do the best with what little they have, and absolutely deliver in every scene.
Now, what of the titular “star” of the film? Well, he’s absolutely perfect. As is the case with the best of the Godzilla films, the character himself is treated completely seriously and presented in a somber fashion that just fills the viewer with awe. In a highly detailed CGI creation full of nuance and subtle bits of characterization, Godzilla is given arguably even more life and made even more relatable than his past incarnations. This makes it all the sadder upon realizing just how little screen time the film’s star is actually given. There are a few outstanding moments of fan-service that will thrill veteran viewers and those newly introduced to Godzilla, such as the first time Godzilla is shown breathing his atomic flames.
Honestly, the bad writing, the weak leading role, and the lack of screen time for our title character greatly detract from the film. If the film had a different story, featuring the briefly touched upon debate about nuclear weaponry, and replaced its key character with any of the three major supporting roles, the movie could have been absolutely brilliant. However, that’s unfortunately not the movie we received, and what we did get wasn’t great.
This film has its flaws, to be sure. But there are a few shining diamonds in the rough. And for all the complaints leveled against this film by this critic, out of all of the Godzilla films out there, this is hardly the worst of the bunch, nowhere near it. Is it the best of the bunch? No. Is it completely terrible? No. Godzilla certainly isn’t “The King of the Monsters” he once was, but he’s no Court Jester either. Godzilla earns a score of 6 out of 10.