The legacy of Godzilla began back in the 1950’s, where the original addressed issues and fears of the atomic bombs in Japan in World War 2. After the original, Toho Studios developed over 20 other films featuring the big green lizard. In those, Godzilla usually battled strange and over-sized creatures bent on destroying the world, eventually making him the hero. In 1998, the U.S. wanted to develop their own Godzilla project. The film, directed by Roland Emmerich, was a fiasco, turning [Godzilla](movie:45291) into a vengeful creature battling an inept military. This basically destroyed the entire concept of the series. Now, director Gareth Edwards has staked his claim in the Godzilla saga, bringing the iconic creature into the 21st century.
The film opens as a husband and wife team of nuclear engineers, Joe and Sandra (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are investigating a disruption at a plant in Japan. The disruption literally destroys the plant, killing Sandra. This leaves Joe devastated with the thought that he was responsible for her death which leaves their young son, Ford, without a mother.
Flash forward 15 years, where we find Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) grown up and returning from assignment in the Middle East as a bomb detonation expert. After one night with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son, he is called by the Japanese consulate-His father has been arrested for trespassing near his home that was contaminated with the nuclear accident 15 years ago. What Ford finds is the broken shell of his father, blaming himself for his wife’s death, yet he still knows there is some form of cover-up that would explain what happened.
Starting to get drawn in on what his father is ranting about, Ford takes Joe into the contaminated zone, and return to their old home to retrieve information that might prove his conspiracy theory. But before they could leave, they are captured by the military, who takes them to the site of the old plant. Here, scientists, including Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), have been studying an object in a pit that is emitting the same impulses that Joe was recording the day the plant was destroyed. In an attempt to stop the impulses, a creature emerges from the pit, resembling a giant praying mantis, known as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms). We learn there are two; the other buried in the desert of Nevada and both feed off of radiation.
The 2 MUTOs are sending off a signal to each other, leading the creature that was in Japan headed towards the western United States. But according to Dr. Serizawa, another creature is following their path towards each other, with the intent to destroy them. That creature is (duh duh DUH) Godzilla. The big green lizard has been sitting dormant at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean ever since the government had tried to destroy it, using the nuclear testing as a cover. Godzilla senses the signal the MUTOs are transmitting and attempts to intercept them in San Francisco, the home of Ford’s family. Of course, this is a coincidence, right?
Director Gareth Edwards is used to dealing with films with enormous creatures. His first feature film was the low budget Monsters, which dealt with a journalist’s attempt to get a woman out of Mexico after an alien invasion. The film was made on a budget of one million dollars. Here, Edwards gets to work with 175 million dollars, and every cent is on the screen. Huge destructive battles fill the second half of the film. Unfortunately, you have to wade through the muck of the first half.
The film opens with the destruction of the nuclear plant. After that, for nearly the next hour, the audience has to endure the introduction of the main players. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as Ford, has definitely bulked-up since we last saw him in the Kick-Ass films. He has the look of a hero, with the soulful puppy-dog eyes, but it is one of the blandest performances I’ve ever seen. His character is involved in some of the biggest action set pieces, and he looks as if he’s watching paint dry.
Elizabeth Olson, playing Ford’s wife Elle, has the thankless role as the fretting wife, which she handles well. Unfortunately, she isn’t given very much to do. The majority of her role in the second half of the film has her looking over her shoulder at the rumbling above her. Ken Watanabe has the film’s best dialogue, including the “Let them fight” monologue. But, he delivers his performance as Dr. Serizawa very subdued, as if he he’s seen this all the time. When he actually sees the creatures, he gives the same facial expression, with mouth wide open, jaw hitting the floor.
Directed by Edwards, this cast is playing Godzilla on the polar opposite of the spectrum seen in previous Godzilla films. Whereas earlier films were almost campy, here everything is played dead serious. More than anything, this film could have used a slight bit of humor. Not to the extent of the Matthew Broderick version, but enough to give the audience some relief during the intense action pieces. Only Bryan Cranston, as Ford’s father, appears like he’s having fun, simply because his character is bat-shit crazy.
The screenplay by Max Borenstein is both intelligent and logical. Hell, I would believe there could be a 350 foot lizard out there under these circumstances. Unfortunately, the interplay between characters is the film’s weakest aspect. Throughout the film, it seems like there are few moments where characters actually have a conversation. Except for the opening sequence with Cranston and Binoche, characters make statements and walk off, which makes it hard to root for these people and not hope they become toe jam on Godzilla’s feet.
The film’s special effects are quite amazing. The first time you actually see ALL of Godzilla is pretty awe-inspiring. Everything from the scales covering his body to the small tongue protruding from his mouth when he roars looks absolutely perfect (and he had to look perfect, otherwise millions of fans would burn theaters in protest). The MUTOs, on the other hand, seem unfinished. When you look at them, they tend to lack detail. When I first saw the MUTO, the only takeaway I got from them was the hook-like claws (how can they hold on to something?) and that weird angular head (again, was there something missing?). The look of the creatures made them seem almost unthreatening.
The destruction in the film, most notably occurring at Honolulu and San Francisco is incredible. In the older films, the buildings were made of thin wood, so that a costumed actor could walk through them easily. Here, with CGI technology, when a building is destroyed, you see floors and furniture come pouring out. One of the films highlights is the parachute jump into San Francisco during the film’s climactic battle. You see everything mostly from the POV of the diver as they come through the clouds of smoke and realize they are right next to the creatures. It’s an awesome moment in the film that is the highlight of an action-packed second hour of the film. Along with the visual effects, the audio effects are just as impressive. Hearing the roar in an auditorium with a great sound system will literally make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. If there is one complaint, it is that almost all of the battles occur in the dark, which makes it extremely difficult to follow the action. Don’t these monsters ever come out in the daylight?
Overall, Godzilla comes across as a merging of Pacific Rim and World War Z. You get the giant creatures along with the worldwide trek to try to stop them. The film starts off sluggish, you actually don’t see any of the creatures until about 50 minutes into the film, and Godzilla doesn’t come onscreen until the beginning of the second hour. But once he finally arrives, it is non-stop action. The filmmakers did an amazing job bringing the actual creature Godzilla to life. Unfortunately, they worked so much on the “character” of Godzilla, they forgot about giving us human characters to care about which would actually build the story. Godzilla is a good attempt to re-establish the classic franchise by bringing it into the 21st century. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to have removed some of its heart by creating a flat back story and trying to make it the forefront of the film. Perhaps a little more Godzilla in a Godzilla film would be a good thing.
This review was originally written by Bob Garrett for Project-Nerd.