There’s a giant monster and it’s threatening to cause bodily harm to humanity!!! How could an idea like this fail? Oh, it can. I’m proud to present my first buzzkill review of the year. I knew this day would come.
2014’s Godzilla is, of course, the most recent reinvention of the famous monster movie franchise started exactly sixty years ago in Japan with Gojira, made by a pretty smart dude named Ishiro Honda. In 1954, Honda took inspiration from classic American monster movies like King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms while adding an important extra layer — a potent allegory warning against humans’ attempts at harnessing nuclear energy (after all, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had occurred only nine years before).
One of the main reasons that the original film is still so good today is that instead of focusing too much on the pure entertainment value of watching a guy in a lizard suit smash miniature cities, the film devotes a lot of time to the human characters. In hindsight, this works out because while the monster looks so unrealistic and goofy nowadays, the focus on how the Japanese people respond to the Godzilla threat feels much more realistic and relatable in comparison. In addition, by switching from the small human moments to scenes of large-scale destruction, the epic scope of Godzilla’s wrath is easily conveyed.
Back then, filmmakers took for granted the knowledge that human drama would always be the necessary core of movies, even large-scale ones. Looking at recent blockbusters like Transformers and Avatar, it feels as if the new assumption in a world of high-tech CGI is that the actual real-life characters have become less and less important.
But here we are at the new Godzilla, which promises to nuance the epic city-destroying spectacle by putting the focus back on real-life, skin-and-bone human beings. Thus, the movie brings in a talented, stacked group of actors including Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe (who has been working on his accent since Inception), Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and Elizabeth Olsen (the best thing to happen to the Olsen family since this). This cast is already a big step ahead of a Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich BOOM-fest.
The next smart move by Warner Brothers was to hire director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous movie was a super low-budget monster movie creatively titled Monsters, which got attention for specifically marginalizing the monsters themselves in favor of the human characters. There were admittedly better options than Edwards. One of the best modern monster movies is Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, which found the perfect balance between human relationships and monster action.
But you can bet Edwards was much cheaper than someone of Reeves’ caliber (whose most recent movie is July’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and even though Monsters is not a very good movie in my opinion, it’s easy to see why Warner Brothers thought they could trust Edwards to make a summer blockbuster that was more than just a series of endless explosions.
Godzilla (2014) begins in 1999 with Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche as a couple working at a nuclear facility in Japan. Some weird stuff is going on. Watanabe and Hawkins find some crazy fossils in the Philippines, and then an abnormal earthquake destroys the facility, irradiating the surrounding city. Flash forward fifteen years and Cranston is sure that there is something about the incident that doesn’t add up. He and his son Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson aka Kick-Ass in…uh, Kick-Ass), who is married to Olsen with a kid of their own, return to the facility in an attempt to get answers.
That’s the basic setup, and it’s hard to get much further without spoiling the film’s major plot curveball. Let’s just say that the studio made a unique, daring choice that at once is able to pay homage to the original Gojira while also celebrating the evolution that the character has gone through in the decades since. In fact, it’s almost tragic that just when they try to make a Godzilla movie that focuses more on the human drama than on Godzilla, the most interesting thing in the movie, the thing that you’ll want more of, ends up being Godzilla after all.
Because somewhere along the line, after about five screenwriters worked on the script, the human story was fumbled. They clearly wanted to have this intimate, emotional story revolving around one family, but they needed to make sure the characters would always be close to the action. What this means is that the script keeps coming up with contrived ways to make sure the family is always in range of some sort of danger. It becomes implausible quickly, and makes the emotional stakes feel artificial and unrealistic.
Of course, a monster movie doesn’t need to be realistic. After all, last year’s monster movie Pacific Rim was a lot of fun and was maybe the least realistic movie of the summer. It embraced how unrealistic it was. In comparison, Godzilla takes the opposite approach. It plays everything straight, completely serious. Whereas the Godzilla character has built its legacy upon being campy, Edwards’ movie is humorless (seriously, there are zero moments of even the lightest of humor in the entire thing), pretending it’s a realistic take on the situation despite the fact that the chunks of sci-fi exposition are hilariously illogical.
Only during the final scenes do things get so insane and awesome that it finally gives you a glimpse at the fun-loving movie it could have been, rather than the dour, overly-serious downer it is (let’s call it the Man of Steel of monster movies). Warner Brothers seemed to forgot that Godzilla has remained in the hearts of moviegoers partly because of how goofy it all is. After all, this is a monster who eventually found himself doing stuff like this. Oh, that is just beautiful.
And then there’s the other giant, scaly, fire-breathing elephant in the room: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who the movie shifts to abruptly, presumably because it can’t be a summer blockbuster without the main character being a young, handsome white guy. He’s a soldier of course, the easiest plot device to kick him either into the frying pan or into the fire, over and over again. But he also happens to be the least interesting character in the movie, and he isn’t much better at acting than, say, Shia Labeouf. It’s a baffling shame that the film spends so much time creating emotional stakes for Cranston’s character only to get rid of him completely.
The supporting cast, literally all of them capable of broader acting than Taylor-Johnson, are completely wasted. Poor Elizabeth Olsen and Juliette Binoche are literally just there to make sure there are females present in the film. Olsen’s role is pretty much relegated to missing/answering her husband’s phone calls and looking scared.
Despite being a great actress, Olsen emphasizes yet another issue that’s hard to ignore — the unconvincing human reactions to the monster. Whereas Cloverfield is a masterful example of how you would except people to respond when something like Godzilla rampages through a city — namely, incomprehensible screams and expletives — nobody reacts believably to anything in Godzilla. In one scene, Olsen does not answer her husband’s phone call, who she knows is in grave danger, because she is busy brushing her son’s teeth.
In another scene, she’s working at the hospital, looking bored despite the fact that there is a monster attacking that same town! She’s told she has a phone call, and she says she doesn’t have time to pick it up. When she’s told it’s her husband, she all of a sudden looks and sounds incredibly panicked, and starts crying while explaining how scared she is. It makes no sense. This isn’t Olsen’s fault — almost all characters act strangely calm, or at the very least unconvincingly frightened, to the chaos going on around them.
Though I’m laying waste to this movie like a giant reptile lays waste to — sorry, I shouldn’t have attempted that analogy, give me another shot. Though I’m being harsh on this movie, once we actually see the big third act explode-a-thon, it’s been built up quite a bit, and the eye-popping scene of destruction and Godzilla’s badass appearance serve as a big apology for all the poorly-executed human crap we only thought we wanted. At this point, all we want is Michael Bay like action, and Godzilla delivers, despite the fact that in the middle of the climactic battle, we keep cutting back to Tyler-Johnson for another round of things nobody cares about.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t redeeming qualities to this movie. Edwards is super talented at illustrating the gigantic scope of the film, with camera angles that highlight just how tiny people are in the shadow of a giant reptile. The cinematography is consistently top-of-the-line, with a great variety of locations to see get wrecked. Even before the monster shows up, there is a globe-trotting adventure-movie quality to the film that kept me engaged until Taylor-Johnson took over. It’s only in the second act that the movie gets bogged down in it’s own need to be a blockbuster.
In addition, the sound design is amazing. That may not be a thing that most people think about, or think they care about, but when you hear a train plummet into a river from underwater, or a giant monster rip through metal, or Godzilla’s trademark spine-chilling roar, it’ll be obvious just how important the audio can be in a movie like this.
By the time we get to the finale it’s unfortunately too little (ironic, I know), too late. You may accuse me of being one of those guys who doesn’t want human drama in my explosion-filled action movies. But you’d be wrong …what I don’t want is bad human drama in my action movies. And the movie disappoints in this regard. If you can get past that, there are a few moments that reveal just how right the movie could have gotten the human/monster formula. Overall, that challenge ultimately proves to be too large and volatile for Edwards on his first Hollywood movie. Better luck next time.
Score: 2.5 out of 5 Stars