Article By: Dan Clark
There are few names in movie history as noteworthy as Godzilla. It is a name that has transcended cultural boundaries, generational gaps, and technological advances. A creature born out of the atomic age of the nineteen fifties has relatively remained unchanged. Hollywood has previously attempted to Americanize Godzilla, which lead to rather troubling results. It appears this time around lessons have been learned. Instead of attempting to translate Godzilla for a new audience, they are taking the timeless universal qualities of the character and increasing their intensity.
Director Gareth Edwards is making quite the fiscal leap in only his second feature film. His first film Monsters, was a micro budget indie that used store-bought computer equipment to craft its special effects. Limited finances did not hinder Edwards’s ability to display a world full of wondrous mystery. That resourceful imagination was a key factor in creating a Godzilla movie that reminds us of the awe-inspiring excitement that can fill a finely crafted spectacle. Unfortunately some of the issues with Monsters also carryover as the human drama that was used to give context to this grand scale destruction was ineffective and lacked emotional depth. Godzilla gives us the monstrous mayhem we have wanted, but its insipid characters impede it from being the transcendent blockbuster many of us hoped for.
When you have a film of this nature the one name that is often brought up is Steven Spielberg. He is the king of taking high concepts and grounding them in relatable drama. When he is at his best his stories and characters work on their own without the amazing special effects that accompany them. Edwards shows he is capable of creating his own spielbergian moments that are packed with pure excitement. A night stroll on top of a train bridge showed Edwards could create tension with well-placed silences and clever camera techniques. What the film lacks are strong characters to keep your attention when things slow down.
Godzilla maybe the titular character, nevertheless he is limited to a comparative supporting role. Most of the first half is spent creating back story and slowly revealing the mystery behind this notorious creature. The reasoning behind Godzilla and his motives is an actual effective retelling. Godzilla is not just a mindless creature that enjoys knocking over buildings. He is an anthropomorphic police force used to bring balance to nature. Humanity is more of an afterthought left to witness nature takes it course.
Of course humanity being the way it is simply cannot take a backseat and allow our world to crumble without fighting back. Edwards places us within the thick of the destruction. At first he is effective in establishing a sense of intrigue. Showing an ancient cave full of massive fossil allowed the mind to spectacle at the possibilities of what’s to come. Even Bryan Cranston’s story of a man trying to uncover the truth behind a nuclear disaster that killed his wife gave the story an emotional center to build upon.
Regrettably once Cranston’s mystery is solved that emotional center dissipates. Part of the issue lies with our main protagonist played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays a military weapons expert that is also Cranston’s beleaguered son. Cranston has a natural allure that brings life to every scene he is in, while Taylor-Johnson is an emotionless void absent of any form of screen presence. He is less of a character and more of a bland vice used to provide the audience a firsthand perspective of these Earth shattering events. Edwards provides him time to define his character, but his performance never does enough to earn his screen time. It is difficult to not become impatient and bored with his character, and demand the film get to the monster action it consistently teases.
One wonders if Edwards became too coy for his own good as he relied too heavily on delayed satisfaction. Each action sequence had a progression to it that was masterfully crafted. We all know the main event. The showdown we all want to see. Edwards gives us a few undercards to hold us over before we get there—a tsunami on the streets of Hawaii, the aforementioned train sequence, and Godzilla holding his own next to the Golden Gate Bridge are all well designed moments in their own right that can be easily be overlooked. The issue becomes the constant cutaways right before things become really heated. By the time the main climatic battle begins it is difficult to become invested as you are waiting for it to divert attention to another matter as it has done repeatedly in the past.
Major destruction is certainty nothing new for movies, without cities being half destroyed you could not have a Godzilla movie. Advances in special effects gave this destruction a unique feel that was faithful to the original material while maintaining a sense of modern realism. Having ash fill the air in the final showdown gave the cinematography a black and white appearance reminiscent of the original film. Undoubtedly this is one of the best looking blockbusters in some time as its color pallet was unique for the genre. I just with it would have the occasional action sequence in daylight to better showoff the inspired creature designs.
Although more delayed than expected once the action kicks to a high level we get the monster brawl we signed up for. Edwards does pay off our patience with an action set piece that redefines the way we look at the character of Godzilla. The finale is not without its faults as a nuclear bomb becomes a poorly used McGuffin used to add unneeded weight, but its poor execution merely made things more convoluted. When focus returned to the towering monsters those shortcomings became irrelevant.
Godzilla has an all-star cast full of worldwide talent. Names like Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, and David Strathairn are mostly wasted or given one-note characters that are easily forgettable. One-note characters can work in a movie like Godzilla if that one note is at least interesting. Here that note is monotone and deficient in personality. Oddly the only character that consistently works is the main attraction Godzilla. Edwards vision for the character undoubtedly works on a high level. It is just everything surrounding that vision that needs work.