Film Reviews

Godzilla Gareth Edwards

Rating - 6/10

I’m a fanboy. There’s my bias, right out in the open. You’ve been warned. I’m a giant monster-loving, sci-fi weaned fanboy who runs through useless, hypothetical scenarios like “who would win in a monster showdown: Megalon or Gigan?” on a daily basis. I work in a comic book store. I’ve seen all 28 Godzilla films — 29 if you count Roland Emmerich’s late ‘90s debacle — and that’s not even counting the hours I’ve spent combing through his many appearances in cartoons, comics, and the Japanese live-action TV show, Zone Fighter! I am a fanboy, and judging by his uneven, yet admirable work on the latest Godzilla film, I’d say Gareth Edwards is probably one, too.

The background of this incarnation of Godzilla is pretty black-and-white — literally, most of the origins story is told in a fantastic opening credits sequence using doctored black and white news footage of atom bomb tests (including the infamous Bikini Atoll footage) from the late 1940s to mid-1950s — a nod to the time period and political atmosphere the original film was released into. Flash forward 40+ years to 1999, when scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) come across a mysterious radioactive exoskeleton and a virtual canyon of giant bones underneath a mine in the Philippines. At that same moment, trouble surfaces at a Japanese nuclear power plant. Seismic disturbances begin to run amok, leading to an event that single-handedly lays waste to the entire facility. Naturally, the authorities use this tragedy as an excuse to keep everyone away from the wreckage for the next 15 years, including the frantic, conspiracy theorist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who lost his wife (Juliette Binoche) in the reactor meltdown and who's now convinced that the powers that be are hiding something — something big, strange, and often beautiful, yet nevertheless a bit disappointing.

Despite the filmmaker’s promise to adhere to the gloomy tone of the original Japanese Godzilla, this latest incarnation of the big green lizard actually seems more in line with the American edit, King Of The Monsters. Gone is the heavy political allegory that imbued the original with that much more emotional weight. Instead, we’re given a few, sparse allusions to the recent Fukushima disaster and an extremely brief refrain to the atomic events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nothing particularly weighty or even noticeable to the casual viewer. This is especially shocking considering Gareth Edwards’ previous film Monsters, which took pains in establishing its overtly political agenda. Also, just like the ‘50s American edit, the remake downgrades the role of its characters to that of a first-person POV. Just like Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) huddled in his hotel room reporting Godzilla’s every move from a distance, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is more or less just an excuse to track Godzilla’s movements from place to place without any real attention being paid to either. While this approach does well in hammering home the scale of the creatures and the natural aura of awe and beauty that surrounds them, and provides plenty of space for cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to supply some arresting imagery, it also serves to obscure other important aspects of the film.

Unfortunately, Godzilla is somewhat relegated to a supporting role in his own feature, which is on one level an understandable sacrifice for the sake of narrative, but on another, still sort of a bummer. It’s sufficiently apparent that Edwards was going for a Jaws effect here, continually teasing the audience with parts of the monster — an arm here, a spiny dorsal fin there — until he finally reveals Gojira in one orgasmic, giant monster bonanza. While this is somewhat of a refreshing choice that definitely bucks the standard approach popularized by Michael Bay — who would rather throw a plethora of gaudy CGI environments at the audience than hint at any shred of a plot or character development — it nonetheless falls a bit flat. I can’t help but feel like the marketing campaign played a big part in this, prematurely revealing the monster before you even entered the theater and sapping the moment of its potential shock-value. 

But just the same, this is also due to the overall lack of compelling characters in the film’s script. For the most part, Godzilla tragically misuses its cast, consigning its most celebrated talents — Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, and Sally Hawkins — to mid-shelf dialogue and half-formed character arcs, and assigning plodding data-dumps and playful, romantic chatter to its somewhat lesser actors — Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Though, I can’t help but wonder if some of those romantic tidbits would have been better sold by Monsters alum Scooter McNairy and Whitney Able. But again, these characters are merely there for an on-the-ground perspective of the beasts, a variable size comparison and not much else. In total, the Jaws effect fails to connect because we never feel that same sense of dread and danger that Steven Spielberg had painstakingly mulled over in his own script. That sense of tension and dread is missing because (for the most part) we don’t completely care about the people involved.

But all of this really isn’t much of a change from the typical Godzilla format. Any fan of the original Japanese films will tell you that the human plots are more or less filler material with the staunch exception of Godzilla Final Wars, which has an X-Men-like subplot about mutants and some space-age brouhaha — but truly, the box office debacle surrounding Pacific Rim proved that American audiences are not yet ready for that sort of blockbuster silliness. I’m not saying that its acceptable for a film with as much acting prowess, directorial talent, and budget as Godzilla to be conspicuously ‘light’ on plot, but for us fanboys it just seems to come with the genre. In all honesty, longtime fans of the big G should rejoice, as this is one of the more reverent takes on the series. 

While Godzilla might be noticeably absent for most of his own movie, Edwards’ and company don’t waste the moments that he is on screen, and by the film’s final act, we’re treated to possibly one of the best giant monsters battles the genre has ever seen. Visually speaking, Godzilla looks better than ever, having a rather chunky, bear-like quality to him, and while this version isn’t of the man-in-suit variety, the filmmakers have done enough here to preserve his signature lumber and bodily expressiveness. There’s a personality behind his every move, an age-old wisdom behind his eyes. He’s an old, tired beast for sure, but he’s got plenty of surprises left — not to mention a few that are particularly well-timed and crowd-pleasing. Ultimately, my inner-child (who spent quite a lot of time surrounded by G-man merchandise) left the theater giddy after both showings I attended — my outer-film connoisseur, not so much. Fans will rejoice, casual filmgoers will be satisfied, film buffs will be plenty critical, as always, but in the end these are merely the opinions of puny humans — an insignificant chirping that giant behemoths like Godzilla (and the financially resolute studios that produce his movies) need not concern themselves with.