It’s obvious why director Gareth Edwards was chosen to helm another American reboot of Godzilla. His feature debut Monsters showed he could achieve spectacle on the cheap, build a convincing world inhabited by monsters, and, best of all, fill that world with compelling characters. It was a human story that happened to have monsters looming in the background. With Godzilla, it’s a shame it’s not the other away around, because the stunning CG creatures are far more entertaining than the humans they play second fiddle to.
That’s unfortunate for many reasons, including the film’s very promising prologue. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play Joe and Sandra Brody (in what’s likely a nice nod to Jaws), a married team who work together in a Japanese power plant. Sandra is checking on an electrical problem when a massive accident happens, causing the destruction of the power plant, the evacuation of the city, and her death.
Fifteen years later, their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is living in San Francisco with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen). He’s in the military, so he’s been away from home for a little while, but he returns only to learn that his father has been arrested in Japan, which means reluctantly flying across the world to help. When Ford gets there, Joe strikes him as the same paranoid lunatic he remembers from growing up, but this time his father has proof there was a cover-up of the real cause of the disaster that killed Ford’s mother. That cause? Monsters. Not Godzilla, though, who the film wisely plays as the misunderstood hero he is.
What’s not-so-wise is how Edwards treats Godzilla like a total tease. Building suspense is one thing, but it’s frustrating that the big guy becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet that we’re not allowed to touch for an hour and a half. What’s worse is that the movie continues that pattern of deflating promises into the third act. The most egregious example comes late in the game when Godzilla and one of these monsters lock eyes, the music intensifies and then… Edwards cuts away, only to return later to show the aftermath of a fight that would have been a lot of fun to actually see.
There’s one fantastic cutaway early in the film which is played as a great gag, but once we’re in the third act and the thick of it, it becomes an inexplicable annoyance.
Clearly Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein are inspired in this regard by Jaws and Jurassic Park. The key difference is, Steven Spielberg earned that buildup because he had amazing characters. We would watch Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper in a movie without a killer shark. There is no Quint in Godzilla. There is no Chief Brody. There is no Hooper. There are mostly only cardboard characters. Say what you will about Pacific Rim, but the leads in that movie have arcs, character definition, and personality, none of which Ford and Elle possess. They have few, if any, identifiable traits. We’re meant to root for Ford to return to his wife and child, but they’re thinly drawn, post-it note reasons to care about his success.
With one exception, no human character in Godzilla is fully realized.
Joe Brody is that one exception. He’s tortured, dealing with genuine personal conflict. His journey is more personal than his son’s, but since Joe isn’t a 23-year-old, he isn’t the lead. The only way Ford grows as a character is through his difficulties with dear old dad, but that whole conflict is wrapped up too soon to echo throughout. For the rest of the movie we’re pretty much following a blank slate going from point A to point B — a character who might as well have been named “Heroic Young Father.”
Johnson suffers as a result of his thinly drawn character. His performance mostly requires reacting to Cranston, hanging out while a lot of exposition is delivered, or looking up at the monsters. “Looking up” is also a major component of Olsen’s performance. She’s saddled with expressing worry for most of the film, and it’s impossible to share in her terror, because, again, she’s not a real character, so there’s never the threat of heightened consequences. Sally Hawkins and David Stratharin don’t fare much better. They may have more screentime, but they’re no less wasted as expository tools.
Of course almost no one plans on seeing Godzilla because they’re dying to go on Ford Brody’s adventure. They’re coming for the main attraction, the one whose name is in the title. On that front, anyone who’s solely interested in seeing Godzilla in an epic brawl won’t be disappointed. In fact, the finale is so good it just about saves the movie. Edwards employs that same fly-on-the-wall perspective from Monsters, where you feel like you’re right next to these massive beasts as they duke it out. The camera moves urgently, making the action immediate and real, and when Godzilla squares off with the building-smashing villains, it looks like two monsters fighting (and not blurs of CGI slamming into each other).
The sheer scale of the creature is awe-inspiring, especially when viewed in rather nifty ways, like when we see from Ford’s point-of-view during a breathtaking skydiving sequence — a sequence which also uses an unsettling silence to magnify the chaos. It’s the small touches like that which remind us of what we were missing out on in the first two acts. If Brody wasn’t a bland hero or if Johnson had the chance to express some personality, then the buildup to this fight would’ve been all the sweeter. Unfortunately, it’s a bright spot after a slog through the mediocre so when we finally get to pig out at the buffet, it’s not nearly as satisfying as it should be.
It’s doubtful many set pieces this summer will top Godzilla‘s third act. When we finally hear Godzilla roar and feel his awesome presence, it’s a billboard for seeing movies in theaters. What Edwards and all involved have accomplished on a technical level is, at times, truly remarkable and makes the movie worth seeing. It’s just a shame the rest of the film isn’t as impressive.
The Upside: Godzilla in action; top notch special effects; the first 10 minutes; Bryan Cranston
The Downside: Needs more Bryan Cranston; missing a good lead; a majority of the first two acts; wastes Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and David Stratharin on nothing roles
On The Side: There’s a cool little nod to Mothra in the film.