Destruction and spectacle are the choice du jour for the contemporary blockbuster. In the last few years alone, we’ve witnessed countless cities being obliterated by aliens, superheroes, giant robots, giant monsters, practically everything save for an enormous kitchen sink. It should come as no surprise then that Hollywood would eventually find it’s way at Americanizing that Japanese icon, Godzilla. Their previous effort, the 1998 Roland Emmerich flop, did not go over well with either fans nor mainstream audiences, and that’s putting it kindly. In a post-9/11 and post-Fukushima world, however, the potential for a truly good American Godzilla film is enormous. So it saddens me to say that, despite some truly inspired scenes and moments, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is not the movie it could have been.
Let me explain: the film begins in 1999 when a power plant in Japan is destroyed in what the authorities deem an earthquake. Plant Supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife (Juliette Binoche, here and gone in the blink of an eye) in the ensuing disaster, and fifteen years later remains obsessed with what actually caused that fateful accident. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass fame) attempts to break away from his old, broken family by creating a new one with his beautiful girlfriend (Elizabeth Olsen) and their son, yet he is drawn back by the past when he comes to collect his father in Japan after Brody, Sr. is arrested for trespassing on the prohibited grounds of where the power plant once stood. Papa Brody remains stubborn in his conviction that what transpired that tragic day was no mere natural disaster, and his son is roped into helping him. What could go wrong?
Quite a bit, as it would turn out. The two stumble upon a massive creature housed in a cocoon that is being studied at a top-secret facility. To say the creature eventually breaks loose and wreaks havoc would not spoil much, though its modus operandi remains unclear until the second half of the film, and by then another leviathan of the same ilk awakens to cause even more destruction. And then Godzilla shows up (that sounds like the punchline to some bizarre, nerdy joke). Despite the consternation of the military regarding the emergence of three behemoths, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his partner (Sally Hawkins) insist that Godzilla has come to counter the chaos by killing the monsters and restoring balance to nature. But really, any explanation for this type of film would suffice as long as it gave these monsters an excuse to beat the living tar out of each other.
Considering the failure of the last American Godzilla movie, this new film has some admirable creative traits. The film’s director, Gareth Edwards, has only directed one film prior to this, the micro-budgeted Monsters, yet his creative decision to withhold revealing the titular behemoth until nearly an hour in harkens back to revered classics like Jaws. Like Spielberg, Edwards also focuses on the dissolution and ultimate renovation of the Nuclear Family through the Brody clan. This would be all well and good if any of these people had even the basest framework for an emotional arc, but it is here that Edwards falls woefully short. Elizabeth Olsen tries valiantly to give her character some spunk but can’t overcome the flimsy work given to her by the screenwriters, and Johnson as the film’s lead is, to put it kindly, an emotional vacuum. He reacts to the catastrophic events happening around him less like a man fighting for his life, and his family, and more as if he’s annoyed at suffering yet another delay at the airport.
If our leads can’t carry the film, then the only hope would be in the supporting characters offering scene-stealing moments that inject vitality into the proceedings. Yet the only actor who manages to elevate the material is Cranston, who makes his Joe Brody a mass of rage and grief that, while not a character of the highest caliber, is the most recognizably human element in this blockbuster. If the film focused on him more, or even strengthened the arcs of the rest of its human cast, it may have stood a chance of matching some of the power of the 1954 original Godzilla. Yes, that film is dated and not terribly complex, but the humans there contended with the moral crisis of destroying Godzilla with a device that could be exploited as a weapon more catastrophic than the A-Bomb. At what cost do we destroy that which poses a threat to us? Where else can it all end than in mutually assured destruction? These ideas persevere and make the original a classic, and they are in fatally short supply here.
The name of the doctor in that film, Serizawa, is carried over into the new Godzilla as an homage. If only some of the ideas, the doom, or the humanity weren’t lost in translation as well. The fight sequences are entertaining enough, but even in comparison to last Summer’s Pacific Rim, this new Godzilla doesn’t have the visual panache of some of the sequences in that film, nor even a single character as memorable as Ron Perlman’s uniformly batty Kaiju dealer. Is this as bad as the Roland Emmerich disgrace? No, but it is a forgettable film as well as a missed opportunity, and in that sense that’s an even bigger disappointment than Matthew Broderick being chased by giant iguanas.