The last time Godzilla came to America, he was subjected to the indignity of a rap battle with Puff Daddy. This time he gets a genuinely awe-inspiring, if overly serious, blockbuster worthy of his name. Thank God… zilla!
When Roland Emmerich’s god-awful ‘Godzilla‘ hit screens in 1998, it was preceded by an ad campaign hinged entirely around size and scale. The movie itself featured a silly square-faced cartoon that seemed to have no weight beyond that of failed expectations. (Zing!) ‘Monsters‘ director Gareth Edwards’ drastically better ‘Godzilla’ hits screens with an ad campaign that barely shows the monster, even though the director’s greatest achievement in the film is communicating Godzilla’s scale. Until the glorious finale, Edwards shoots his two-ton star on the ground from a human perspective, and just like the Steven Spielberg movies that inspired the approach, it works beautifully. The movie boasts incredible CGI, and the effects work better than those in competing blockbusters because they’re used by a filmmaker who understands that how you show a monster is just as important as the monster itself. Given that the monster in question is one of the most iconic ever created, Edwards has whipped up one hell of a Godzilla movie and slapped it onto the table to be eaten up by starved fans.
Before that, Edwards is also smart enough to take his time and tease the audience by developing characters and a world rather than just shoving the big guy on the screen. We’re first introduced to Bryan Cranston playing an American scientist in Japan who loses his wife to a tragic accident at a nuclear power plant. We then jump ahead a 15 years and follow Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Cranston’s son, who has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and boy of his own. Johnson has to fly to Japan when his father is arrested. He finds Cranston as a broken, paranoid man who has given up his life to uncover the conspiracy surrounding his wife’s death.
It turns out that conspiracy involves a giant monster underneath the power plant, which is explained by Ken Watanabe’s super scientist to be one of many prehistoric monsters stuck in frozen animation beneath the surface of the Earth. A big one named Godzilla popped up in the 1954, but he was bombed back down to the depths of the ocean by all those nuclear “tests “in the ’50s. All this information comes to light just in time for not one, but two monsters to emerge from who cross the Pacific Ocean to meet. Neither one is Godzilla. Nope, they’re new creatures that look like a cross between Rodan and ‘Cloverfield’. Godzilla shows up only to smash those guys into oblivion, because this is secretly an homage to the late Godzilla monster-mash movies, not the city-stomping villainous Godzilla pictures.
As all the monsters first arrive, they’re brilliantly shown in bits and pieces through the perspective of the humans in a terrifyingly visceral way. When they finally come together, it’s for an electrifying 45-minute battle royale with the humans running around like powerless ants amidst the action. It’s a glorious, massive climax that offers more than enough popcorn fun to justify the ticket price (especially the applause-worthy finishing move) and demands the biggest and loudest possible presentation. When it comes down purely to Godzilla and the monsters, the film is a rip-roaring success brilliantly crafted by a filmmaker working on a blockbuster scale for the first time.
The trouble, unfortunately, is in the tone and characters.
While the slow burn opening works well and even teases out themes of nuclear responsibility and Herzogian notions of the deadly power of nature, once the monsters show up, Edwards seems to lose interest in the humans entirely beyond how they see Godzilla and where they slot into the stunning set-pieces. Although it’s safe to say that no one has ever bought a ticket to a Godzilla movie for the human drama, the fact that Edwards bothered to set one up and fill his cast with talented players proves to be frustrating when they have nothing to do. All of the actors spend the last two thirds of the movie either starring off camera stoically or crying, neither of which is compelling for very long.
Likewise, the tone throughout is dark and deadly serious. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. However, when your movie peaks with something as goofy as a giant monster battle, you may as well have a little fun along the way. ‘Pacific Rim’ might have had similarly boring and serious protagonists, but at least by the time Charlie Day met Ron Pearlman, the humans were almost as fun as the monsters.
While the dour tone and one-note characters might be a problem, I don’t mean to suggest that they kill the movie. The selling points and focus of this flick are Godzilla, his opponents, and how much they smash the hell out of their surroundings. There’s no denying that Gareth Edwards handles all that material exquisitely. His movie delivers CGI monsters with weight and presence, as well as set-pieces that genuinely thrill and take advantage of the blockbuster scale. That’s an increasingly difficult feat to pull off at the movies these days, especially in a franchise-focused studio product. For that alone, Edwards’ ‘Godzilla’ can only be classified as a success.
The film may not be one of the greatest summer movies ever made, but it has the potential to be the very best blockbuster this summer that doesn’t come from a studio that starts with “M” and ends with “arvel.” Godzilla is back, and in such a pleasing package that you’ll actually leave the theater craving a sequel. Hopefully, next time the supporting humans will get to have a little fun backing up their ginormous co-stars.