Popular culture has obviously changed dramatically since 1954 when Toho Studios released Ishirō Honda’s inaugural kaiju movie, “Godzilla.” Originally a horror/science-fiction movie, “Godzilla” and the subsequent Toho Studio movies (all 28 of them), were never really big on character. Various scientists were always tasked with stopping the gigantic monster—or assisting him when he veered toward hero, facing off against rival “evil” monsters—but the draw was always the visual spectacle of Godzilla destroying and battling his way through each movie. Times have changed; the atomic age and post-Hiroshima fears that bore the monster movie in the first place are long gone, and today’s audiences demand something different. Even when modern monster battle movies fail (“Pacific Rim”), they at least appreciate that it’s the humans the audience has to ultimately connect with—otherwise all you have is empty visual bombast (and as poorly written as it was, “Pacific Rim” made the humans the focus).
The Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Godzilla” reimagining demonstrates early on that it has an excellent grasp and understanding of character, emotional stakes and human value. Which is perhaps why their “Godzilla”—an initially character-rich movie about relatable ordinary humans in extraordinary circumstances—is ultimately so frustrating as the picture inadvertently turns its back on those core principles.
Unfolding across several continents, “Godzilla” begins with a terrifically engaging and multifaceted prologue that sets up the heart of the movie with a surprisingly emotionally-layered father and son story. Nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) cannot let the tragic events of 1999 go; a mysterious disaster at a nuclear plant where he worked in Japan caused the death of his wife and leveled an entire city. 15 years later, Joe is deeply estranged from his son, Ford, now a man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a father, a husband, a soldier and Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert living halfway across the globe in San Francisco.
Still living in Japan, Joe remains haunted, seen by his son as a crackpot conspiracy theorist trying to prove the calamity was not a natural disaster. So when Ford is suddenly obliged to fly to Japan and help Joe, he is not only forced relive a past he has worked an entire lifetime to forget, but confront his consumed, possibly deranged father, who is fixated on the tragedy and what actually caused it.
Their schism is rich and detailed, with Cranston firing on all cylinders throughout, and when Joe finally convinces his reluctant son to enter the irradiated forbidden zone where this nuclear catastrophe occurred, their discovery begins to convince Ford that his obsessive father had not been crazy for all these years.
These revelations soon unravel the backstory and the meat of “Godzilla” begins: an apex King of All Monsters predator that is awakened from the deep when two radio-active-feeding monsters—the ones responsible for the Japanese atomic incident—threaten to destroy the planet. The layered “Godzilla” film thus focuses on the military’s plan to save mankind, the scientist’s order-of-nature theories that understand the creature's behavior, and Ford’s journey home to his family amidst a harrowing level of 9/11-like destruction. But lost in all this is the dramatic, engaging father and son story. Inexplicably, “Godzilla” abandons the complex motivations, vendetta, and obsessions of Joe that had become the heart and soul of the film and becomes a standard operating modern monster movie. A fairly decent one for what it is, but also relatively hollow and empty, especially compared to what came before.
“Godzilla” makes a critical mistake when it shifts POV. The movie has sold itself as being Bryan Cranston’s movie—his motivations are easily the most multi-faceted of any single character—and when it attempts an admittedly ballsy POV pass, the picture drops the baton. Its second crucial error is having Aaron Taylor-Johnson take over the movie from Cranston. Compared to Cranston, he is wooden, dull, and uncommanding, and the movie begins to deaden with his lead weight (the emotional and dramatic transference the movie tries to give Taylor-Johnson simply doesn’t resonate like Cranston's lead). Thus, as the countdown to the ensemble’s collaborative efforts to stop these monsters from destroying the world begins, one has to struggle to care because the lead is so generic.
The first act of “Godzilla,” which admittedly might be a little slow for general audiences, is otherwise perfect. Cranston and scientists Juliette Binoche, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins suck you in with commanding performances and the realistic world-building is urgent and dramatic, with a tangible sense of calamitous consequences (Elizabeth Olsen is also absolutely terrific in her few scenes, but isn't given much to do). Director Gareth Edwards’ world building is excellent and even on par with the exigency of Christopher Nolan’s genre films, a tone and ideal that “Godzilla” seems to strive for in its opening act. But when the monster movie kicks in, all this earned goodwill goes out the window.
As monster spectacle, “Godzilla” is fine and should please any monster movie fanatics. It looks good, sounds good, the creature looks totally convincing and the scale of it can be awe-inspiring (though Alexandre Desplat’s score gets a little too melodramatic when Godzilla shows up). So if you’re looking for a good monster fight movie where Godzilla mashes other villains, you’ve probably come to the right place. But if you’re engaged in the emotional story the filmmakers have set-up for the audience—one that should ride throughout the entire movie—on that level the picture totally fails itself to a really disappointing degree.
Godzilla gets a lot right, hiring excellent actors even in bit parts to sell every inch of the story, focusing on characters, the emotional stakes of the leads and even embracing the atomic-age fears and allegories that the Toho Studio films utilized while putting a modern-spin on them—the casualties and cost of life within such disasters (there is a 9/11-esque disaster-porn tinge to the film, but it’s certainly not as thoughtless as it is in “Man Of Steel”).
Director Gareth Edwards knows character is the core of any spectacle. His low-budget debut “Monsters” put an intimate twist on the giant-creature genre focusing on an unlikely pair in otherworldly danger that arguably borrowed the tried-and-true dynamic from “It Happened One Night” within the frame of world full of monsters, and so it’s doubly frustrating when his movie drops the ball.
At times “Godzilla” feels like a cut above most mindless summer fare; it has great intentions, admirable ambition and most fan service moments are mostly kept at bay (until they’re not). But its radiation-eating monsters are rather silly and unimaginatively look like monsters borrowed from “Cloverfield” only with wings. More crucially, when you don’t care as much, all the fighting becomes noise.
Featuring a story by Dave Callaham, a screenplay by Max Borenstein that Gareth Edwards helped shape and then an (uncredited) rewrite by Frank Darabont (“The Mist”), “Godzilla” doesn’t feel as if it was written by committee. However, the idea to switch from Cranston’s character to Taylor-Johnson’s as the lead is not only miscalculated, but has a vague odor of studio heads wanting to place a 30-something, good looking white male as the lead of their movie.
Themes in “Godzilla” are myriad, but the strongest ones (reconciliation) are forsaken and the most reoccurring one (nature must restore balance to Earth via its top predators) is really more expository dialogue than anything.
“Godzilla” begins as a character-based movie that quickly shifts to a plot-based one, with a far less compelling lead character representing human courage in the face of titanic calamity. But ultimately, this blockbuster's undoing is that the movie promises something different, at least at first. "Godzilla" asks you care about its characters, achieves that aspiration, earns your trust, and then not only pivots towards a far less interesting character, but abandons most of its absorbing emotional legwork for a fairly rote and straightforward rock ‘em, sock ‘em monster movie. [C+]