We’re not going to argue here at all about “Godzilla.” His look is more classic than groundbreaking and that’s totally OK—there’s no point in fixing what isn’t broken. The visual effects are top notch, and Godzilla looks really gigantic and immense. Particularly cool are the “fin scale” shots when he’s swimming to shore. The visuals are really impressive and perhaps more importantly, feel realistic to the world of the movie around it. And give a shout out to the sound design, too, which helps make for an immersive “Godzilla” that goes far beyond his iconic roar.
The Action/The Fights
While some will argue there’s a paucity of fight sequences in the early stages of “Godzilla”—the first battle between the M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) and “Godzilla” appears off screen on television—it’s a smart and inventive tease of what’s to come. When Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s finally throw down in the ultimate battle for global supremacy, it’s through thoughtful filmmaking that doesn't lean on volume or fast camera moves. Quite the opposite, in fact. The camera is largely still and from afar so you can absorb this unholy spectacle, which is a nice counter-intuitive choice. Particularly when compared to most blockbusters that don’t know when to sit still.
The Cast, Minus One Particular Guy
Even going back to “Superman: The Movie” where Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando co-starred, the idea was that including top-notch actors in your popcorn spectacle would elevate your (potentially silly) movie and lend it some gravitas. From Tim Burton's “Batman” through the Nolan years, that idea has been leveraged over and over again. And it’s smart thinking that “Godzilla” takes it to heart: fill your movie with excellent actors and not only will you not strain credibility, you’ll make for an involved world with emotional and dramatic stakes that leave you all the more hooked and engaged. The terrific cast of “Godzilla” certainly do that, especially Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe. Unfortunately, none of these characters have a lot to do or are wasted in the movie ultimately, but let’s at least give props to the casting choices and their performances (about as good as they can be given the circumstances of the plot).
“The Hidden” Godzilla
One of the chief complaints leveled toward Edwards’ movie is the “hidden” nature of “Godzilla.” The audience is nearly taken through two full acts of a movie with no monster in plain sight, until things really get moving in the final third. Well, less is more and Edwards knows that. While most studio thinking is that you want the movie to open with an action sequence and the King of the Monsters kicking super ass, this one leaves you wanting more, and endeavors to the put the audience in the shows of the masses looking up to see Godzilla on the horizon. “Godzilla” adopts the Spielberg-ian “Jaws” m.o.—tease your monster, show him in bits and pieces and then unveil him for the finale. And Edwards' orchestration of that is quite strong and runs counter to most blockbuster thinking. Of course, there’s a reason why it’s not as classic as “Jaws,” but we’ll get into that further down the piece.
Alexandre Desplat is one of the world’s greatest composers, and landing him for “Godzilla” is just one of the many ways the Legendary Pictures' movie tries to hire top-notch talent across the board, be it a DP, the cast, and terrific below-the-line craftsmen. But Desplat’s score isn’t really that memorable, and even forgettable at times, especially when compared to his run of incredible scores. But worse, the movie seems to cross that fine line between melodrama and melodramatic as there are a few times, especially during crucial moments, where the music goes too big and overwrought. Don’t get it twisted, Desplat’s worst score is still better than most, but by his standards, it’s certainly not his best.
For the first thirty minutes or so, “Godzilla” creates a world you’re willing to invest in and care about. A tragic disaster hides a bigger conspiracy, tearing a father and son apart, with the drama spread across two continents. But after all that time and consideration spent creating an emotional backstory and achieving a deep investment in the characters, this is all mostly ditched for what becomes another ninety minutes or so of people staring at radars, staring with concern at the horizon and asking, repeatedly, where the monsters are (it’s basically the cinematic version of “Where’s Poochie?”). After Bryan Cranston’s death (which we’ll get to), the audience gets an exposition dump by Ken Watanabe on a military ship, and the film ostensibly switches gears to focus on Aaron Taylor-Johnson. But even that isn’t quite true. “Godzilla” essentially becomes a military action picture, with everyone always seemingly arriving just a couple minutes too late after the slow moving monsters have destroyed something. Granted, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance doesn’t help matters, but he (and the rest of the cast) can only do so much with what they're given. How much can you ask of Elizabeth Olsen if she spends most her performance on the phone or waiting for the phone to ring? How much can one expect of Ken Watanabe, whose sole job seems to be standing out of frame, only to walk in every twenty minutes or so with grave worry or concern? One wishes that writer Max Borenstein (and all the ghostwriters) had given the characters and story as much the texture as the monster’s skin.