Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Max Borenstein, David Callaham
Producer: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Richard T. Jones, CJ Adams, Victor Rasuk
The safety of the world is threatened when giant radioactive creatures rise from the ocean to do battle with one another.
Visualize a satisfying Godzilla movie like a balanced teeter-totter. The concept of a radioactive prehistoric beast rising from the ocean to pummel other giant monsters, one of which is a three-headed flying dragon while another is a robot constructed by sentient apes from outer space, represents popcorn-munching, smile-inducing lunacy on one end. At the other end is stark, somber melodrama treating colossal creature destruction with the same seriousness as a true-to-life natural disaster. What the 2014 reboot of Godzilla does is it takes a Tokyo-sized sandbag and drops it squarely on the latter end of that seesaw. Director Gareth Edwards produces such a sober take on the Godzilla mythology that the movie sadly neglects the spirit of Saturday matinee fun the Toho series always inspired.
Accolades lobbed at Edwards for this second American studio attempt at rejuvenating Godzilla have been for concentrating on the human element while resisting any inclination to overdo the giant monster mayhem. It is a “less is more” approach that befit the dark environment of his previous film, the low-budget indie hit “Monsters,” but it is a misguided strategy for a creature feature with scope increased to this massive size.
It is not misguided for “Godzilla” to willfully avoid being a noisy eye candy extravaganza of unrelenting FX like those which have stigmatized the “Transformers” series as summer blockbuster emptiness. But teasing glimpses with determined restraint meant to heighten tense anticipation is one thing. Denying the marquee draw from having a significant presence is counterintuitive to what makes a kaiju movie entertaining in the first place.
An early flashback notwithstanding, the King of All Monsters does not make his first full-bodied appearance, complete with telltale roar, until the 59-minute mark. Nowhere else in cinema would this ever be acceptable. Imagine a Dirty Harry movie where Clint Eastwood does not enter the story until after an hour has passed. Or waiting 60 minutes for the first drag race in a “Fast and the Furious” film. With all due respect to the tone Edwards prefers to put onscreen, I don’t go to a Godzilla movie to *not* see Godzilla.
When the climactic battle is finally unleashed, Edwards stages it in the dark of night and in the middle of debris clouds and San Francisco fog. The main monster at last gets his due in the spotlight and he is still shrouded in shadows and smoke. “Godzilla” is perplexingly resolute in treating its star like the Ark of the Covenant, unwilling to offer a full-view peek for fear that it might melt the face of anyone who stares too long.
The drawn-out reveal would be far less frustrating, even rewarding, if the build-up was mounted to make pulling back that curtain satisfying from a story perspective. Or if anything taking place during Godzilla’s abundant absence was more enthralling than what happens when he is present. But neither scenario is the case. The formulaic story is brewed from a predictable potion of conveniently contrived coincidences and subplots that do not intersect in a meaningful manner.
Unbeknownst to Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), he has followed a destiny intertwined with Godzilla’s since boyhood. Ford’s father (Bryan Cranston), once a nuclear engineer, knows that a cloak-and-dagger project is hiding something inside a Japanese quarantine zone. Just hours removed from a 14-month tour of duty in the Navy, Ford receives a perfectly timed phone call that dear old dad has been arrested for trespassing. Ford jets to Japan and the very next day, Ford and his father are taken into custody and transported to a secret facility housing an oversized egg. An egg that happens to pick roughly that exact same moment to hatch a gargantuan winged monster, Muto.
Ford escapes, does his duty by providing intelligence to the operation in charge of creature cleanup, and heads to Honolulu for a connecting flight back home. While Ford rides the airport shuttle tram, Muto suddenly resurfaces… in Honolulu, about 200 yards from Ford’s train car.
Once this new threat is averted, Ford can finally get back to reuniting with his family in San Francisco. What’s this? The creatures are on a path of destruction culminating in a Golden Gate Bridge confrontation, thereby putting Ford’s wife and son in direct danger? Face it, Ford. You were doomed to be a lightning rod for giant monsters no matter what, and no matter where.
“Godzilla” has an explosive megaton of star power that it doesn’t really require, although it reaps the benefits of having those names aboard. The strongest performances come from the supporting cast. Bryan Cranston practically acts in a different movie, overflowing with grim gravitas as though the Academy might be watching. With Juliette Binoche as his wife, the two of them together demonstrate how A-list actors can take a boilerplate scene done countless times before (you’ll know the one I’m talking about), and fill it to the brim with tear-jerking emotion.
Elizabeth Olsen, on the other hand, is saddled with a wholly uninteresting arc. She has just one brief scene with her husband Ford, affording the audience no investment in their romance that might make their struggle to reunite a trial of heartbreaking suspense. Further confusing the family man angle, Ford is given a random Japanese boy to protect from Muto instead of using his own son for the same purpose. As clichéd as that alternative would have been, it is actually less conspicuous than forcing some kind of grounded peril for the humans to act upon, since they are otherwise caught as helpless spectators watching two building-sized dinosaurs slug it out.
Whether Max Borenstein’s script or Gareth Edwards’ direction is at fault, the two top-billed human stars, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Ken Watanabe, are reduced to standing stone-faced for much of their screentime with two vertical worry lines between their eyebrows and slightly parted lips. A finger could also be pointed at editor Bob Ducsay for not piping up with, “don’t you think we might be cutting to these gape-mouthed reaction shots a little too much?” Like David Strathairn’s Navy admiral with an ultimately useless strategy, you come to realize when the finale occurs that virtually everything done by any human leading up to that moment has little effect on the outcome anyway.
Even buoyed by a top-notch production boasting a fantastic talent roster on both sides of the lens, what eventually sinks Godzilla isn’t a winged creature or a nuclear warhead. His true undoing is a flat-footed screenplay and a stubborn unwillingness to elevate the main attraction above a diminished role as a bit player in his own movie.
Review Score: 45