When Gareth Edwards released Monsters into the world a few years ago he was a relative unknown, having only really worked in the special effects departments of a few small-time BBC series. With his first feature film though, Edwards pulled off a minor-miracle, creating a seriously entertaining and intricate monster flick with a budget reportedly under $500,000. Not long after, he was poached by Legendary Pictures to make his own version of Toho’s Gojira and with a budget 320 times that of Monsters. Unfortunately, the better Godzilla film of Edward’s two monster movies is easily his first – Godzilla itself is a seismic misstep.
Edwards’ Godzilla revolves around Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnston) and his family, who continually cross paths with gigantic nuclear leviathans dubbed MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). While military commanders, spearheaded by a wasted David Strathairn, want to simply blow these gargantuan monsters to smithereens, Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa suggests another – less destructive? – plan. They let the MUTOs fight it out with “nature’s last line of defense”. They awaken Godzilla. Eventually.
I wanted to love this film, I really did. The posters, the trailers, the cast – all epic. Unfortunately, Godzilla is let down most by its story, which proves a pretty disengaging and vapid affair. It takes almost half the film for the titular beast to actually feature in his own story and in the mean time we’re supposed to be engaged by a human plotline that is played so safe that there are barely any stakes. The plot is redeemed slightly by the presence of Heisenberg (read: Bryan Cranston), whose opening exposition scenes are a standout amid a thorough but dreary first half.
There’s a lot of wasted talent on show. Elizabeth Olsen, of Martha Marcy May Marlene fame, features as Ford’s wife and a San Francisco nurse, but she’s given practically nothing to do aside from the occasional quivers and gasps. While Sally Hawkins, another very strong actress, seems to be there just to fill a quota, as all her character does is finish Ken Watanabe’s sentences. Cranston is easily the strongest human cast member and his early scenes are misleadingly interesting. Unfortunately, his on-screen son, the film’s actual lead, played by Taylor-Johnson, just ticks the boxes for armed-forces macho-male, without doing much in the way of creating a noteworthy protagonist.
To his credit, Edwards has gone out of his way to make a very faithful Godzilla film. Saro Lusty-Cavallari, in a piece for 4:3 last week, talked about the American fascination with annihilation compared to the Gojira analogy of nuclear destruction. Though it doesn’t really tap into any sort of cultural anxieties, the films time-lapsing credits sequence establishes the deep mythology of Godzilla and the nuclear bomb, clearly looking to distinguish his monster from Roland Emmerich’s GINO, “Godzilla In Name Only” of 1998. He also includes other kaiju, such as the iconic – but colourless – Mothra. While the idea of Godzilla as a truly deific force of destiny is very closely aligned to Toho’s original beast.
The usual problem with these sort of destructive Hollywood blockbuster is that they focus too much on action sequences at the expense of character development and exposition. Godzilla is kind of the opposite. A lot of time is given to the travels of Ford – who is conveniently a bomb disposal expert! – but his character is too weak to carry a film of this scale. There’s also a whole lot of rubbish about family and kids and whatever, but thinking about it, the only moments of true emotional investment in the entire film are in the first 15-to-20 minutes, the rest is pretty remote.
In amongst the chaos though are some truly spectacular shots. The post-apocalyptic Japanese quarantine zone in the film’s earlier scenes is a truly stunning, underused landscape. And later on, when soldiers skydive gracefully into the urban war zone with red flares attached to their boots, the hellish beast and the urban destruction are shown in all their bloody glory. Generally though, the special effects, in all their vastness, don’t do the B-movie campiness of Gojira justice, instead, much like Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel last year, the film gives too much credence to ultra-seriousness.
And that’s one of the main reasons the film and the actors fall short, Edwards is caught somewhere between campy B-movie and gloomy Nolan-esque drama. He takes some of the tropes and caricatures from the former but leaves the satire and humor alone. Though it is possible to pull off sincerity and intelligence in this sort of film, Edwards needed to bring more to the table in terms of making the human story engaging. Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield, by comparison, was stylistically clever, but was also subversive, terrifying, and quite personal, none of which can be applied here. Even Edward’s own Monsters had really interesting character dynamics amid its post-apocalyptic road trip. It seems though, in making the film as large a scale and geographically widespread as possible, Edwards felt the need to dislocate his characters from one another, and in doing so, he gave up the possibility of creating compelling interactions or character development.
Ultimately, it is a monster movie, but that shouldn’t constrain Godzilla to the extent that it does. The monster battles are impressive, the soundtrack is roaring and mythical, and the almighty reptile is the size it should be, but with a cast and crew as strong as this, Godzilla should have been more than a disposable Hollywood blockbuster.
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