The new Godzilla focuses on delivering a spectacle worthy of the King of Monsters, while also honoring dramatic themes and concepts for which the original 1954 Japanese classic and the 1956 American version starring Raymond Burr were famous for. The dangers of nuclear radiation, humanity’s arrogant assumptions about its understanding and control of the natural world and the consequences of that arrogance, all those ideas are represented here, along with other clever nods to the film franchise’s long history.
However, the new film misses the mark on fun because, among other things, there’s simply not enough monster movie mayhem and too much focus on the pesky little humans getting in the way. The ill-conceived human drama and mystery concocted by the filmmakers to make up the rest of the film, when added to underwritten roles and either phoned-in or ridiculously over-the-top performances, proves to be too much for even Godzilla in all his reptilian 3D-enhanced glory to overcome.
After an opening credits montage featuring “archival” footage showing missiles and atomic bombs being used on shadowy, blurred shapes in the Pacific, the film opens in earnest in 1999 with the work of Drs. Serizawa and Graham (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins), scientists studying remains of an enormous prehistoric creature found in the Philippines in deep caverns discovered after a mine collapse. Their terrifying discoveries coincide with what appears to be a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear plant nearly 2,000 miles to the north, near Tokyo, Japan. The plant’s chief engineer, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), whose family is among the hundreds torn apart and displaced by the resulting fallout and quarantine of the area surrounding the plant, suspects that the tremors and power failure immediately before the meltdown were not a natural occurrence, and spends the next fifteen years investigating and obsessing over finding out the truth.
As those years pass, Joe’s son Ford, played as an adult by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Anna Karenina), grows up believing Joe’s suspicions are the result of being broken by grief. The younger Brody, now a husband, father, and explosives and ordinance specialist in the U.S. Navy, is called back to Japan when Joe is caught once again trespassing in the quarantine zone surrounding the ruined nuclear plant. On the condition that Joe come back with him to America for care, Ford accompanies his father back to their old house in the quarantined area one last time to retrieve data Joe insists will prove there was a cover up of the real cause for the meltdown.
It’s not long before the two are caught, but instead of being jailed, they’re brought to a facility built on the site of the old plant. While they are questioned about their presence in the quarantine zone, Dr. Serizawa and his team, on site investigating the connection between the caverns in the Philippines and the meltdown and observing the interrogation, realize in short order that Joe’s ramblings about tremors and electrical disturbances not only make sense within the true narrative of the plant disaster, but also are happening again in the here and now.
What happens next, and what the powers that be are hiding within the remains of the Janjira nuclear plant, is not exactly what audiences might expect. Suffice to say that its from this point that the kind of chaos you do expect to reign in a Godzilla movie erupts, and in the midst of that chaos Ford joins the forces trying to protect civilians from a force of nature the likes of which they’ve never seen before, while also trying to get home to protect his wife and child. The battle will, of course, put Ford’s family at risk again, but the film’s biggest surprise for audiences may just be who, along with Ford, they find themselves rooting for once that battle begins.
After more than sixty years, Godzilla remains a icon in both American and Japanese pop cultures, but the aesthetic mystique attached to that icon differs significantly. For most Americans, it’s the kitsch and camp associated with recollections of Saturday morning movies, bad English-language dubbing, Raymond Burr not playing Ironside or Perry Mason, and an actor in a rubber lizard suit stomping on cheap-looking miniature cars and buildings.
But for the Japanese, the original 1954 Godzilla represented an exploration of cultural fears borne of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II: fears of man’s capacity for recklessly cultivating and utilizing vast destructive power through science, and his willful ignorance of the possible consequences for his actions. The many sequels that followed that original version, both Japanese and American-made, often lost sight of those original themes, resulting in films characterized more by their outlandishness and cheapness than for their analysis of cultural themes.
This Godzilla film, directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (Monsters), makes it clear from the get-go that it seeks to return to the somber, über-serious tone of the classic, from the faux-50’s era images of atomic bomb detonations in the film’s first minutes to composer Alexandre Despiat’s (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts 1 and 2) somewhat heavy-handed score. When considered along with Edwards’ vision of the monster itself, true to the original’s look while larger than any other previous incarnation (335 ft tall, according to production notes) and entirely digital, and the amount of time spent in the film’s script developing the backstories of the human characters, and the goal of crafting a Godzilla disaster epic grounded by human emotion and tragedy seems clear enough.
It’s the approach one would expect from a true devotee of the genre, and it’s admirable, in its own way. But what gets lost in all that devotion to the source material is an understanding that the rest of the movie viewing public might not care for all that heavy thematic material in a monster flick, and probably just wants to have a good time at the movies if they’re paying for a ticket to see Godzilla.
So believe it or not, much of this film is not fun. In fact, much of it is humorless, plodding in pace, and just plain boring to watch. The work turned in by the international all-star cast of proven, talented actors does the film remarkably few favors, as they are either fall flat (Taylor-Johnson, Watanabe) or go overboard to the point of being teeth-gnashingly terrible (Cranston, in full “Malcolm in the Middle” mode). To make matters worse, the performers audiences might want to see more of — Juliette Binoche as Ford’s mother, David Strathairn as the Navy admiral in charge of the fleet fighting to contain the situation — just aren’t on screen for very long. It’s strange and sad, considering how prominent Strathairn’s distinctive voice was in the film’s promotional teasers and trailers, that he in particular should figure so little in the final cut of the film.
It’s not entirely the cast’s fault. The script by Max Borenstein follows the monster movie formula by filling the frame at every turn with well-worn cliched parts: the crazed, obsessed scientist, the brave soldier who only wants to survive to get back to his family, the military leader who refuses to believe his forces won’t prevail against the monster, etc. From the look of the finished product, it seems that Edwards had little interest in bringing out memorable, nuanced performances from his cast, or helping them develop their roles beyond what could be fully described in a sentence. Perhaps he just wanted to be sure they could look appropriately frightened on cue. They do get that right, at least.
Credit where credit is due: when audiences finally do get to see the King of Monsters fully revealed and in action, it’s almost worth the wait. The roar, the “atomic breath”, the devastation left in his wake, all of it is delightful eye candy for the action/sci-fi/monster movie lover, and should put a smile on the face of the monster’s loyal fans. There’s just not enough of it in a film that runs over two hours in length.
Finally, because this is, in fact, only the second time a Godzilla film has been made entirely by an American film studio, naturally there will be comparisons to the last time it was attempted, the much-maligned 1998 Godzilla film by Independence Day director Roland Emmerich. Godzilla fans can rest assured that this new film is superior to that abortive effort in every measurable sense but perhaps one: the last one was so hilariously bad that you could find fun in the experience through all the unintentional humor.
This time out, though, there are no laughs to be found, unintentional or otherwise. It’s all deadly serious and deadly dull. So what’s worse: laughably bad or deadly dull? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Score: 2 out of 5
Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, with David Strathairn and Bryan Cranston. Directed by Gareth Edwards.
Running Time: 123 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.