Gareth Edwards brings his latest film to life with ambition and a great scope. Edwards previously dabbled in the monster genre with his refreshing low-budget film called Monsters, which was impressive in its effectiveness. This time, Edwards gets a gargantuan budget of $160 million for Godzilla, which only seems right for the King of the monsters. Godzilla thrives in its cinematography, visuals and score. It’s a visually stunning film, but it’s disappointing that there’s only twenty seconds of daylight monster clashes. At least there isn’t as much rain as in Pacific Rim, but it’s a bit disappointing that the monster clashes are basically all at night. It must be less expensive to render the creature effects in a darker setting.
The plot is that Godzilla has to stop these malevolent creatures who threaten humanity. They gain their strength by absorbing radiation as a food source, and there’s no short amount of that in 2014. The strange creature design makes them look like hybrids of a praying mantis and a pterodactyl covered in some sort-of metal coating. Well, that might be the worst explanation of what they look like, but trust me – they look weird. A team of anthropologists and scientists were experimenting on the radiation beasts to learn about their species. Ken Watanabe is only okay but that’s basically because his character, the boss behind the research in Japan, is so boring. David Strathairn has a role as a military general who orders bombs to be brought into this whole situation. Their interference is how the film suggests that humans only make matters worse. Just let the giant lizard handle it. Why not, right?
Godzilla is the star of the show, even if his screen time is basically the same amount as Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. But when he’s on-screen, the film is an absolute blast. And when fire-breathing is brought into the mix, it’s truly exciting. Director Gareth Edwards is able to orchestrate fine intensity throughout the film. He does it like a master with the film’s phenomenal score. Edwards has Godzilla swim beneath boats, teasing characters like Bruce the Shark of Jaws might. (Edwards is smart to take tension building inspiration from Spielberg’s films.) Since Godzilla has mildly limited screen time, Edwards spaces out four nifty action set pieces with intelligence – the HALO jump is awe-inspiring, made even better being set to the Monolith scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey – teasing us with little tastes of what’s to come before a memorable finale.
His direction is the film’s saving grace. Godzilla’s most disappointing aspect is that it is phenomenal in so many areas but just awful in so many others. When action isn’t happening, or when Godzilla isn’t on-screen, this is so boring – save a great opening half an hour, because they are emotionally charged and gripping. During those thirty minutes, Bryan Cranston compels as Joe, the film’s strongest character. He delivers the film’s only strong performance. Joe becomes obsessed with a project after a loss (his drive as a character, as well as sacrifice and love) which leads his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to assume that he’s bat sh-t crazy. The strong character development for one person is strange, because this way you’re allowed to expect other characters to be solid as well, but nope – the others are quite poor.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Elle Brody is mediocre. She’s okay for what she is, either a crying or smiling character. She’s only elevated by Olsen’s appealing tenderness as an actress. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford is a different story. After the death of his mother, he picks the basic human reaction of the latter of the fight or flight concept, while his father goes deep into the former. Ford, a military Lieutenant whose expertise is bombs, initially gets separated from his wife when he is called to Japan to pay his dad’s bail after he is arrested for trespassing on an evacuated radiation site, which is the location of his old home. Ford’s motivations are his family – and that’s the only reason you’ll want him to get home safely and see his lovely movie family again. He’s one of those average guy characters plunged into a greater situation, but he’s so freaking boring. Taylor-Johnson isn’t able to make this character remotely interesting. Where’s his charisma from Kick-Ass? He doesn’t bring any of that to the table, and he’s like a different actor with little charisma. The only strong aspect of his performance is his chemistry with Olsen.
The boring characters might stem from the film’s grave tone and Gareth Evans’ inability to make his film consistently fun. I haven’t felt this dead inside since August: Osage County. This is like the monster movie equivalent of Man of Steel – because it will either be perceived as fun or boring, and if anyone makes a joke, it feels foreign. You will beg for the so-called comic relief character that is usually a point on the modern summer blockbuster checklist. Couldn’t have they broken tone by having a well-known comedian roaring back at Godzilla? That would be welcome as one of his long roars feels empty. Maybe Godzilla could have broken the fourth wall and said something witty. Like this for example: “If I’m monster royalty, I need a stronger Hollywood film for me to headline next time.”