Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Ken Watanabe (Inception), Elizabeth Olsen (Kill Your Darlings), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Bryan Cranston (Argo)
Director: Gareth Edwards (Monsters)
Writer: Max Borenstein
Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes
Release Date: 15 May (UK), 16 May (US)
The self-proclaimed King of the Monsters has returned to the big screen after a ten year hiatus (his last appearance being 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars), and this time the Americans are taking another shot at it. After Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster of a disaster film, Monsters director Gareth Edwards has been given the reigns to try and salvage Godzilla’s reputation in the western world. In a land inhabited by Cloverfield, Transformers and Pacific Rim, is there room anymore for the original giant movie monster?
Right off the bat, I can easily get this out of the way: yes, this is a much better film than the Emmerich version and a much more accurate representation of Godzilla himself. He looks like Godzilla, he sounds like Godzilla, and he does the things you expect Godzilla to do. But getting that part right alone won’t make this a good movie, so how does the rest of it pan out? Godzilla certainly takes itself very seriously and strikes a good tone. It’s pensive enough that you can buy the somewhat ridiculous premise, but not so po-faced that it sucks the enjoyment out of the picture. The film takes the right approach by being coy about showing us the monsters at first before unleashing them onto the world, but I felt the pacing consistently lagged. It takes just a tad too long to get to the action, and even once the plot gets really going there’s too much time spent away from the main event. The film has about enough plot for a 90 minute romp, but it feels needlessly stretched out to just over two hours. When the film finally gets to its big climax it does deliver on its promise, but it feels less like a treat for your patience and more like an apology for the delay: you’re glad it’s finally here and you feel satisfied by the quality, but you can’t shake the fact that it should have come sooner.
I could accept the long stretches spent on the human characters if they were interesting, but that’s the problem: they’re not. The film’s cast is impressive and they give it their all at every chance they can get, but their roles all feel a bit thinly drawn. Taylor-Johnson’s Ford Brody is your basic stock protagonist with no flourish: the brave hero with a family to get back to, a connection to the crisis at hand, and with just the right skills needed to help avert it. He feels too much like a passive observer of the narrative; an avatar for the audience to inhabit while they watch all of the excitement but doing very little to engage with it. Up until the climax, Brody never impacts the plot in a significant way and he’s only given the barest of motivations to keep going. That motivation happens to be played by Elizabeth Olsen, who shares good chemistry with Taylor-Johnson but their screen time together is minimal and we aren’t given enough time to connect with them as much as the film thinks we are. Pretty much everyone else feels like an archtype, but ones cast with really good actors. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins play the classic “scientists that initially hide the truth as they try to avert disaster”, whilst David Strathairn is stuck with the old reliable “military man who will take drastic measures that threaten others in order to end the disaster earlier and ignores the scientists’ better solution”. They all do it very well, but it’s hard to excuse stereotypes especially when they play them so straight. Only Bryan Cranston manages to break this mould and he delivers a powerhouse performance despite the script’s deficiencies. Sure, he’s also stuck playing the traditional “crazy scientist who saw it all coming but nobody believes him” role, but Cranston sells it through sheer force of personality. He’s easily the acting highlight of the movie, and it’s a shame his screen time is fairly limited.
Where Godzilla thankfully shines is all in the spectacle. On a technical level, this gets everything pretty much right. The action sequences, when they decide to show up, are phenomenal. The scope and choreography of them is stupendous to behold, packed with plenty of crumbling buildings, fiery explosions and monsters throwing each other about. The cinematography really shows off the scale of the entire production, and the moody colours and lighting help sell a world in peril. The visual effects are top notch, creating the most believable and accurate representation of Godzilla on screen so far, and the design of him and the other creatures are interesting and unique. The sound design is masterful, with thunderous thumps and reverberant roars kicking in at all the right moments, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is saturnine and oozing with dread. If you can see this movie in IMAX, do so; the size of it all alone is worth the price of admission.
Godzilla is an enjoyable film for the most part. The tone is well balanced, the action scenes are exhilarating and it represents Godzilla himself in the way he should be. But the story’s pacing issues and bland characters do put a serious damper on the fun. I understand that the film needs human characters, as Godzilla himself doesn’t have a personality to hold the entire film, but the humans don’t seem to have much persona either so it doesn’t work. Next time around, either give us more compelling characters or just make the movie about Godzilla; a remake of Destroy All Monsters done in this style would be much appreciated.
FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10