“You have no idea what’s coming!”
Everyone knows of, or at least has heard the word Godzilla before. The name itself represents a cultural icon and phenomenon that has been around for decades. In its most recent screen depiction, the giant creature goes back to its origins in a faithful retelling of the monster’s story. And that is where the initial problem lies. Movies that follow this mold often fall into the same trap. So many crucial elements to basic storytelling are sacrificed in order to pay homage to the original 1954 film. Updates aren’t easy, but they can be done, so long as the film itself adapts to the culture of the time. That doesn’t happen here. Director Gareth Edwards constructs a beautiful looking film that is empty in terms of establishing any level of human emotion, which oddly enough attempts to be the driving force behind everything. With Godzilla not really playing a major role until roughly the last third of the movie, I almost forgot about the legendary lizard.
The story begins in 1999 Philippines. Scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his sidekick Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are called to a quarry. An ancient skeleton awaits them. There appears to be eggs of some kind, one of which has presumably already hatched. We’re then transported to a nuclear power plant in Tokyo that is eventually attacked by the monster. Plant supervisor Joe (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) in the disastrous events. Jump ahead 15 years, Joe is arrested for trespassing in a quarantined zone forcing his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to come to his aid. Mischief and curiosity gets them both arrested and taken to a secret facility. It’s there that we see the M.U.T.O (short for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) responsible for the ’99 catastrophe being held and studied in confinement.
From there on out the story is almost purely dialogue driven. We’re told the M.U.T.Os feed off of radiation, learn the existence of another prehistoric creature (yes, it’s Godzilla), and how the military plans to take out all three with one bomb. Futile attempts that create massive scenes of destruction and chaos force them to listen to Serizawa’s suggestion; let the monsters fight. The decision in turn only causes more obliteration of urban cityscapes. Up until the climatic last battle, Ford, an explosive ordnance disposal officer for the Navy, tags along with the military to help in any way possible. He does so, despite his wife Elle’s (Elizabeth Olsen) desire to keep her husband home with their child.
The title should have been M.U.T.O. The two parasitic monsters shown dominate the movie and the story, pushing Godzilla all the way back to the second hour of the film, and even then the “King of the Monsters” still sparingly shows up. Because of that the lead up to the final act is grueling in length and filled with exposition. In the game of show and tell, this movie commits the cardinal sin of being a kindergartener with their new favorite toy, going into great description on every last detail in front of their classmates. What it should have done is break down the mythology into an opening sequence, then show us what happens because of what we just learned. Instead we have to listen to uninspired actors spout uninspired dialogue, and it just doesn’t hook the audience.
Speaking of the performances, the only character with a shred an emotional integrity is played by the dependable Cranston, and he does as solid of a job as one would expect. Besides that though, in a monster movie trying to be a study on humanism, the characters flatline. Ford is as close to a protagonist as we get, and his lifeless personality paired with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s one note delivery stymies any hope for his development.
By far the most disappointing aspect is the complete lack of any compelling female characters. Oscar winner Juliette Binoche is killed off after less than ten minutes screen time. Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins is stuck posing evaluative questions such as, “You don’t think…?” And Elizabeth Olsen, a promising young actress, pretty much just cries in distress. To say that they’re robbed of an opportunity to bring anything to the table is an understatement.
With a sequel already on the way after a monster opening weekend (no pun intended), Godzilla is sure to grace the screen in years to come. I had high hopes for the movie after seeing the impressive first trailer. Gareth Edwards is a talented director (watch his 2010 low-budget film Monsters. It’s leaps and bounds better than this) and I hope he gets the chance to redeem himself with another take on Godzilla that has a better and more believable script. The movie is undeniably entertaining in spurts, filled with unique shots and interesting creative decisions, like a fight scene being abruptly cut away, but that’s as high as the positives can climb. Great monster / disaster movies have heart. We embrace the characters and loath the creatures trying to eradicate them. Independence Day is just one example that does this well. Sure, that’s not a perfect movie, be we make the connection with the people in it. Godzilla doesn’t come close. That’s not to say that it didn’t try.
“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.”
Rating: 2 out of 5