Review by Daniel Rester
Godzilla has the feeling of an old-school monster/disaster movie at times, which comes as a pleasing and refreshing surprise. Director Gareth Edwards obviously has affection for the past Godzilla works and doesn’t drop the ball like Roland Emmerich did with the 1998 film. It’s so nice to see the big creature up on the screen like this again. However, there is a big issue here: Godzilla is reduced to being a small supporting character in his own film.
Before letting us see Godzilla, Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (working from a story by Dave Callaham) give us a set-up that involves multiple characters. First we meet Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra Brody (Juliette Binoche), a husband and wife and a scientific team working in Tokyo in 1999. After an accident, we cut forward 15 years and meet an older Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Joe and Sandra’s son. Ford is an explosive ordinance disposal officer, while his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), is a nurse; the two also have a son.
When bad things start happening and monsters show up, Ford must team up with scientists Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). Also coming into play is Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), who is intent on taking down the creatures with powerful weapons. All of this gears toward a globe-trotting story in which the humans must survive against monstrous beings.
Edwards – who’s only feature film before this was the low-budget Monsters (2010) – knows how to both show restraint and deliver the thrills. There is some Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott influence in his handling of the material. He is certainly a talent to watch, as he pays close attention to both scale and movement; Michael Bay could take lessons from him in executing disaster scenes.
The problem is that Edwards and Borenstein don’t handle the human element as strongly as they should before giving us Godzilla and the showdowns with monsters. Spielberg waited to show us a lot of the shark in Jaws (1975), but he examined three interesting characters along the way in order to get us through to the big moments. This film lacks that character thrust.
The first act in Godzilla does have a fine set-up, with Cranston shining as Joe in the early scenes. But then we sink into a lull in the middle act, going along with characters that we don’t know – or care – much about. We see a lot of aftermath and people freaking out, but a lot of it just has a lackluster feel. However, the third act kicks into gear and showcases an awesome climax. Why? We finally get to spend more time with Godzilla, the real star and something that is more compelling than all of the human characters.
The cast is full of likable actors, but Cranston is really the only one who brings any life to his character. Johnson is dull but occasionally good in the lead. Olsen, Hawkins, and Binoche’s talents are all wasted as the supporting females. Strathairn is believable but just okay as Stenz, while Watanabe mostly just stares and delivers dialogue that falls heavily on plot contrivances. The combination of these mediocre performances, writing with little character depth, and minimal appearances of Godzilla nearly sinks the picture; there are also many unintentionally laughable moments, including a couple of ridiculous ones involving binoculars.
Despite the flaws, Godzilla still emerges as a slight success. As said before, Edwards shows care to the title character and knows how to make him pop. The visual effects are very impressive, making the big guy look really amazing, and the production design around him for the sets is great as well. The sound mixing and editing is also top-notch, with Godzilla’s roar sounding better than ever. Alexander Desplat’s music score aids the film as well, though it isn’t particularly memorable; one scene lifts some music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is a nice touch.
The highlight of the film though, at least for me, is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey. Edwards and McGarvey consistently provide images that are eye-opening, often delivering wide, still angles that give coherence to chaotic scenes. It’s great to actually see a film like this nowadays where we can really tell what is going on. The climax is a bit dark and dusty, but the majority of the film gives camerawork that is worthy of edge-of-your-seat moments; I especially enjoyed a scene involving paratroopers.
Godzilla is both awesome and sometimes disappointing, but it is more than a mixed bag on a whole; the film is still pretty damn good despite its issues. The original Godzilla film was an allegory for its time and handled its human element well. This movie doesn’t do as well in that respect, and it lacks in giving us enough of the title character. However, Godzilla still emerges as triumphant when he is shown, and there are other filmmaking qualities that help too.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem, and creature violence).
Runtime: 2 hours and 3 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: May 16th, 2014.