Godzilla, arguably cinema’s most iconic of monsters, has in recent memory been relegated to an also ran thanks to a misguided film in1998 followed by films such as Cloverfield and Pacific Rim that rift on the premise to a grander scale. So it was with huge cheers that the announcement of a new Godzilla would be helmed by none other than Gareth Edwards, a director who knows how to take a behemoth premise and inject it with something truly intimate. But does the return of Godzilla mark a rip-roaring success or more of the Roland Emmerich school of cartoonish nonsense?
In 1999 an unseen force causes a nuclear meltdown at a Japanese power plant. Having witnessed his wife trapped in the power plant Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with finding the cause of the meltdown and subsequent cover-up. Fifteen years later he recruits his military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is forced to cut-short his leave with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and the pair discover something terrifying lurking in the fallout zone. When the beasty breaks free of his government captors it seems to be making a b-line for more nuclear goodness and expert in the field Dr. Ishiro Serizawa thinks the only way to stop these monsters is to release a prehistoric alpha predator known as Godzilla.
Edwards’ Monsters was a film that told a brilliantly, character driven story while using the giant creatures of the title as a sub-plot that both influenced and commented on the key storyline. It was powerful, beautiful and frequently terrifying in all the right ways, something that Godzilla was screaming, with atomic breath, out for. Alas this latest version lacks any heart.
For starters we’re never given much time to rout for any of the human characters, the only one we’re really invested in is ill-advisably dispatched which rather than shocking instead baffles. What heart the film does possess is reserved for the title character, clearly making him humanities’ saviour rather than its potential destroyer.
It’s all well and good to have us want to witness the sky-scraper size lizard kick-seven bells out of hockey creatures, after all the original Godzilla franchise made a killing doing just this, but here he doesn’t turn-up properly until close to the final act. By then we’ve been lumbered with either dreary one-dimensional characters or wasted talents such as Sally Hawkins whose sole purpose is to spout preposterous exposition.
That being said the spectacle is unquestionably excellent. Edwards knows how to start slow before ratcheting the thrills up to jaw-dropping levels. The halo-jump sequence seen in the trailer remains one of the year’s finest while the first time we glimpse Godzilla has more than a whiff of the Spielberg about it, that ability to infuse a sense of epic wonder while revealing almost nothing that will later drop the curtain to wondrous effect. But without any emotional investment Godzilla remains just that, spectacle with little else. That Edwards has said he was given a collection of set pieces by the studio that had to be included shows just how little regard the moneymen have for genuine story-telling. Godzilla isn’t story telling, it’s rollercoaster filmmaking, the kind that Michael Bay has made a career out of. But Edwards has shown with Monsters that he is a filmmaker of infinitely more interest and nuance than he is allowed to display here.
As such the characters are always secondary. Cranston brings a nice level of his early day Breaking Bad manic nature, that slack-jawed horror often plastered on his face. Taylor-Johnson is required to do little else other than be an avatar for which we can conveniently be placed among the monster carnage with. Elizabeth Olsen meanwhile is wholly wasted considering her talents. Asked to turn up, be a dotting wife and mother before first disappearing and then returning for no other reason than upping the ante of Taylor-Johnson’s action-man.
It might make the floor shake, your jaw-drop and your eyes-pop but this Godzilla is shallow on plot and severely lacking in a strong pulse. Hope that the sequel allows Edwards to draw on the brilliance he displayed in Monsters.