It’s nigh impossible to go anywhere in today’s planet and not find someone who knows of the king of the monsters. Much like Mickey Mouse for the US or James Bond for the UK, Godzilla is a national icon for Japan that’s recognized globally. Consider that the bulk of Godzilla’s 60-year story is entirely, intrinsically Japanese and yet the names of Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah and other monsters are as common in the West as they are in the East. Alas, attempts at bringing it to these shores and making it with American sensibilities have led to at best secondary covers (Cloverfield) or worse bad adaptations (Godzilla 1998). Does this latest attempt fare any better?
Godzilla starts with Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche), nuclear engineers working in Japan and their young son, Ford. Rare seismic readings have Joe fearful of damage to the nuclear reactor. But the readings are less and less like an earthquake. Before he knows what’s happening, the reactor fails and Sandra is trapped behind, their city is evacuated and quarantined. Believing the Japanese government was involved in a cover-up, Joe goes on a fifteen-year long crusade for the truth; which drives a wedge between him and Ford, who grows up to be a Navy lieutenant that specializes in explosive ordinance demolitions. When Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finally returns home to his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son, the last thing he wants to hear is his kooky father has been arrested by Japanese authorities for trying to enter the quarantine zone again.
But it’s his father’s research and how it ties into the work of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) that will bring Ford Brody to the truth. And that truth is that two terrifying creatures dubbed MUTO (Massive Underground Terrestrial Organisms) have been awakened and are heading for one another. Feeding on radiation sources – power plants, nuclear bombs – they trample and destroy everything in their path. Unable to stop them, the US military turns to Dr. Serizawa for a solution, which he explains as another, larger and far deadlier creature that lays at the bottom of the ocean. One that’s been studied since the 1950s and kept hidden by the governments of the United States and Japan. A monster unlike any other dubbed “Godzilla.”
Coming off the very low-budget but decent Monsters, this is the biggest of jumps for director Gareth Edwards. Not only is he making a mega-monster movie; he’s been entrusted with the monster franchise of monster franchises. He brings a lot of the sensibilities in his earlier movie to this one. He makes it a human story centered around Ford Brody, his father’s quest for the truth and then his own quest to get back to his wife and son. He also keeps much of the monsters – both the MUTOs and Godzilla – out of the picture for as long as he can. Rather than a multitude of battles, he builds and builds towards one gigantic match between the monsters.
This is a doubled-edged sword for Edwards and the movie. It means that the audience, which is coming to see Godzilla, has to settle for a lot of build ups to momentary monster action before the humans take over again. And that works. The MUTO’s first scenes are impressive and the arrival of the giant lizard is like nothing you’ve ever seen. They’ve size and weight and they throw it around with some great capacity as they level Japan, the American West and Hawaii. When the battle is finally joined, it’s impossible to not get a grin on your face. Specially if you grew up loving Godzilla.
However, for stretches of time, the movie has to follow Ford as he either goes to get his dad in Japan or he tries to get back to his wife or joins the military mission for San Francisco. And that isn’t as exciting because none of the human characters are exciting. Don’t get me wrong. Taylor-Johnson does a decent job with Ford. He actually has an arc – from an estranged son whose family was shattered by the monsters to a desperate husband/father trying to get back to protect them from their wrath. It’s just that he’s not called to more beyond that.
For the rest of the cast, they’re set on very one-note roles that they never deviate. Ken Watanabe might as well be the Godzilla whisperer – as he does nothing but chase the monsters and provide accurate exposition to David Strathairn’s Admiral Stenz, who does nothing but give orders and act in charge. Elizabeth Olsen is the worried wife/mother/nurse who is caught in the middle. Sally Hawkins is Serizawa’s assistant and support structure. Juliette Binoche dies early in the movie. Bryan Cranston is cranked to 11 in his solitary quest for the truth. There’s a few more actors who fill out the military roles – Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, Patrick Sabongui – but their roles are minor and most of them end up being cannon fodder for the MUTOs and their quest for radiation.
Which brings me to another question I have: Why exactly is Godzilla battling the MUTOs? Serizawa explains that Godzilla is an ancient apex predator and that he’ll be the one who will seek out and take out the MUTOs. But it’s never explained if, like other apex predators, he’s going to eat them or he’s going to take them out to eat the radiation they’re greedily consuming. I get that Edwards and screenwriter David Callaham (The Expendables) — with help by David S. Goyer (Man of Steel), Max Borenstein (the upcoming Seventh Son), Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3) and Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) — are bound to the Godzilla rules as set by Toho Studios and are depicting the king of the monsters as a force of nature. That said, it wouldn’t have killed them to better explain why Godzilla would hunt down and battle the MUTOs when they seem to have no interest in seeking him out.
Let me step back and congratulate the visual effects teams led by Jim Rygiel (The Lord of the Rings) which manage to make Godzilla, the MUTOs and the devastation they cause so pretty. At no point do you doubt that these gigantic beasts aren’t tearing shit up. Kudos also to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) who gives the right color palate to each location and makes the movie sharp and clean. Edwards’ eye is supported by the work they do and they help make this the best monster movie I think anyone has ever seen.
So why does it sound like I’m so negative? I’m not. The movie is chockfull of exciting set pieces. When the movie is focused on the monsters destroying cities, it’s exciting. Whenever the military tries to take on the MUTOs or Godzilla, it’s exciting. When the army HALO jumps into San Francisco, it’s exciting. The arrival of Godzilla and the battle in Honolulu is exciting. Every time it feels like the battle is about to commence between Godzilla and a MUTO, it’s exciting. And when Godzilla finally faces off against them on the streets of San Francisco, the movie doesn’t get any better.
Unfortunately, it is tough to get over a Godzilla movie where the main attraction is so rarely seen and enjoyed. This wouldn’t be a big deal if Ford’s tale or Serizawa’s or Elle’s was interesting or exciting. They’re not. Compare them to the characters in last year’s Pacific Rim. Yes, these are humans while those were caricatures. But those caricatures had verve and felt like they mattered in that story. In this one, humans are, at best, assisting and, at worst, in the way. This isn’t even like the story of how humanity found out about the monsters since very little is eventually learned about them.
That said, if you are a fan of the giant green lizard, I’d say go see it. If you love monster movies, go see it. You’ve never seen Godzilla realized the way this movie realizes him. I do eagerly await the following movies and hope that means we will get to see some of those other famous monsters. I also hope that next time out, humans are actually worthy of sharing the silver screen space with the king of the monsters.