This all can be great lighthearted fun in a movie that observes with clarity or perspective. But the newest “Godzilla,” the first in 15 years, is one heck of a curiosity. It is stillborn. For 123 minutes, our eyes are transfixed by endless displays of colossal mayhem and screaming crowds of bystanders, but nothing observed inspires much in the way of genuine excitement. The fact that the movie cost so much to make and contains notable production values certainly adds to that curiosity. There is no question that ambitious people have made a movie here far more focused than the last attempt to bring Japan’s most popular export to our shores, but is there anyone left in the studio system that truly gets what made this idea so entertaining in the first place? Going this big only works, I suspect, if you bring a certain level of humor to the mix.
The movie begins with an ambiguous prologue. In 1999, an excavation team in the Philippines drops into a massive cave system where a recent disruption has transpired, and discovers the bones of a massive creature beyond the size of anything discovered in modern times. The dilemma: something equally massive has escaped this cavern and crawled into the sea. Not coincidentally, a scientist working at a Japanese nuclear reactor named Joe (Bryan Cranston) rushes off to the power plant because a series of tremors, thought to be aftershocks from an earthquake several weeks prior, have endangered the reactor’s core and could pose a serious threat to those living nearby. His fearful eyes are contrasted by the optimistic smiles of his wife and co-worker Sandra (Juliette Binoche), but their union is destroyed when a massive tremor results in total meltdown, and she dies after being exposed to the radiation. Were the tremors really a result of tectonics, or was the discovery of the massive dig site related? Without knowledge of such coincidences, Joe begins a life of obsessed isolation in his pursuit of an answer.
Flash forward fifteen years. Joe’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), still scarred by that tragic day in Japan when his mother was killed, now lives in San Francisco with a wife and young son. Recently released from military duty, his loyalty in familial interactions suggests resentment in the detached nature of his own father, and when he is summoned back to Japan to bail him out after he is caught trespassing at the sight of the meltdown, the two engage in arguments that are typical of strained father/son relationships in summer blockbusters. Alas, any attempts Ford makes in asking his father to “let go” of the past are nullified when Joe takes yet another excursion into off-limits territory, only to discover that it actually contains no remnants of radiation. Curiosity in both drops them back in the hands of government officials, who have now moved right back into the reactor to study something of apparent importance. And when the same tremors from fifteen years prior begin occurring again in the exact same frequency as before, it becomes obvious that the source never was just a work of nature or tectonics.
There is tact in this build-up. The camera does not give away too much too early, and it has some semblance of interest in its subjects that is piqued by gradual pacing. Once the monstrous villains are revealed, however, the movie becomes a jumble of action sequences impossible to care about. Consider, as an example, an ambitious sequence in which an insect-like beast is trampling its way across Hawaiian terrain, and Godzilla emerges from the murky depths of the Pacific. Ford is on a shuttle heading towards the airport when the attacks commence, looking after a lost Asian child as the power is disrupted and loud roars are heard off in the distance. The dilemma in these scenes is that the figures of the monsters are indistinct and murky; because they are often shrouded in darkness, our perspective is choppy at best, alleviated only momentarily when the camera manages to pull back long enough to catch a still sight of Godzilla – who is designed well, I admit – roaring with the same familiar pitch that recalls the old Japanese movies. It goes without saying that the civilian bystanders look like nothing more than ants fleeing a collapsed hill, and even the suggested main character drifts off into the background when the fights intensify. Can we really blame it? An idea this silly, after all, would be diminished if it came close to figuring out how drastic the body count actually was.
The circumstances that cause Godzilla to do battle with these two overgrown insects involve some mumbo-jumbo about evolutionary obligations, but in movies like this the explanations only exist to propel everything towards non-stop mayhem. Amazingly, the movie manages to even attract A-list talent as opposed to minor actors reading generic one-liners; in an ensemble that includes a few rising talents, we also have Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins and even Juliette Binoche occupying space in narrative gutters. What interested them in this material? Two theories: 1) the allure of appearing in a big-budgeted revival of a very famous B-movie villain is a good way to pass time while waiting for more interesting scripts; or 2) paychecks with these movies are great for financial security in an unpredictable industry. In either case, none of them really look like they’re having much fun with this stuff; Watanabe always looks forlorn and uncomfortable in his scenes, while Hawkins has the gaze of displacement, suggesting even she doesn’t understand why she is there in the first place.
The movie was directed by Gareth Edwards, a relative unknown in Hollywood, which is just as well – in the hands of someone well versed in the clichés of modern action pictures, the material would be completely hopeless (Emmerich, who did the last “Godzilla,” certainly couldn’t argue that point). This result is not nearly the insult that its predecessor was, but the deadening impact of all those over-staged monster rampages calls to attention a reality that filmmakers just may not be able to face: the fact that creatures this size are not very interesting or exciting to watch in the context of tangible realities, because we can’t easily accept them as possible. Here was a beast created in the trenches of obscure – and silly – b-movie fodder several generations ago; by placing him in a polished Hollywood excursion with special effects that seem boundless, the idea has been rooted too firmly, losing sight of the joy and undermining the irony. A lot of descriptive words can be used to critique the new “Godzilla,” but the last one I ever expected to use was “dull.”
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Science Fiction (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence; Running Time: 123 Minutes
Aaron Taylor-Johnson: Ford Brody
Ken Watanabe: Dr. Ishiro Serizawa
Bryan Cranston: Joe Brody
Elizabeth Olsen: Elle Brody
Carson Bolde: Sam Brody
Sally Hawkins: Vivienne Graham
Produced by Yoshimitsu Banno, Bob Ducsay, Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Kenji Okuhira, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, Leeann Stonebreaker, Thomas Tull and Patricia Whitcher; Directed by Gareth Edwards; Written by Max Borenstein