This review was originally published at milowickipedia.wordpress.com
When you’re dealing with a big-budget monster movie, it’s easy (and often understandable) for the human element to get lost in the shuffle. After all, it’s the visual spectacle which draws audiences to these films in the first place. Perhaps in an effort to make it stand apart from all its identically-named predecessors, the 2014 incarnation of Godzilla makes about eight too many attempts to affirm humanity’s place in the narrative. Regrettably, each try to make the characters seem relevant falls increasingly shorter as the creatures battle on.
Unfortunately for director Gareth Edwards, noble intentions and extraordinary production values do not add up by themselves to make a good movie. One of the worst screenplays of the year demotes Godzilla to the role of summer blockbuster eye candy. The lack of stakes stemming from the uncomfortably austere writing of the human characters is a massive roadblock in the way of granting Godzilla any deeper meaning than watching gigantic monsters lay waste to large buildings.
The mythical monster of Japanese lore is joined this time by “MUTOs”, large spindly beasts that look reasonably similar to the monster from Cloverfield. As the monsters migrate from Japan to California, the US military and a team of scientists race to figure out the best way to alleviate the monsters’ threat to the human populations standing in their path. Predictably, conventional human weapons are no match for the creatures, leaving the humans baffled and short on options.
Right from the start, Godzilla suffers from the “three-villain problem.” It isn’t quite as obvious as it was in Spider-Man 3, but its result is exponentially more disappointing. I don’t know about you, but I went into Godzilla anxious to see the titular monster wreak havoc and breath fire, as the trailer (and a brilliant one at that) heavily foreshadowed. That certainly happens, but his role almost takes a backseat to the smaller and far less interesting MUTOs. Because of them, we don’t even see Godzilla himself until nearly an hour of screentime has passed. Even then, the scenes of destruction are painfully separated, with tiny eternities of human interactions rife with plot convenience filling in the gaps. The result is a poorly-paced mess that stretches out for every bit of its 123 minutes.
The actors are not particularly at fault for the phoniness of their characters. Their consistent overacting is more of a byproduct of their characters being underwritten than anything else. Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Ford, a bomb expert in the military who finds himself pressed into duty by constantly being in the right place at the right time. He is by far the least interesting role in the film from an internal conflict standpoint: his loyalty and patriotism are never questioned, and he always seems to understand the sacrifices he needs to make to his family in order to serve the greater good. Thus, devoting most of the human screen time to a character with no changes in motivation is an awkward choice. Furthermore, despite all attempts to prove the contrary, Ford as a character has little to no agency over anything, merely responding to all the chaos around him.
This reactive style of human interaction carries over to all the other characters as well. Throughout the movie, each actor gets no fewer than 10 overly dramatic reaction shots each as they look on in horror at the events around them. This is not an unreasonable motif, as one of the key themes is humanity’s inability to prevent the relentless mayhem the creatures cause. But, with little else for these characters to do, it just seems like a silly ploy to get as many big name faces on screen as possible to look famous and gaze slack-jawed up in the sky. Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe (Inception), and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) eat up minutes by doing little more than either yelling in disbelief or frivolously trying to scientifically explain the monsters’ behavior. The actor who does the best at this is reliable Bryan Cranston, who delivers an almost Cage-esque performance as Ford’s father and the scientist who comes the closest to understanding the abilities and nature of the creatures. Although Cranston’s role amounts to nothing more than the “misunderstood scientist” that we’ve seen a hundred times in sci-fi/disaster movies (Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day or Jurassic Park comes to mind), he gives it his all as he sprints, cries, screams, and argues his way into the most memorable moments starring the human characters.
The movie’s lone saving grace is that its nearly-impeccable visual quality almost carries enough weight to make the audience forgive the trash heap of a screenplay. The CGI employed here is top-notch, and urban destruction never looked as good as it does here. Every penny of the $160 million budget was worth it in my book, as the monster fight sequences were simply stunning. The monsters themselves look pretty darn good as well, as they tower above human civilization without looking as campy as the 1950s monster films from which they are inspired. In addition, there is some inspired cinematography as well, and I particularly enjoyed the varied uses of foreground and background to keep things looking fresh whenever a monster-on-monster fight veered close to the edge of monotony. Also employed is an interesting sound design philosophy, alternating between the loud score and sound effects of demolition with stretches of near silence. At first this really appealed to me, but as the cycle repeated, the silence motif wore a bit thin for me as well.
For traditional summer blockbuster fans, Godzilla might just be exactly what audiences are looking for. After all, it looks spectacular, and features enough destruction and terror to make Roland Emmerich sweat. But as a human drama, which it so desperately aspires to be, the film fails spectacularly as it woefully attempts to grant its human characters stakes in the events at play. As such, the story slogs on as we wait impatiently for the monsters to start smashing things again. That in and of itself isn’t that unique of a concept for our Transformers-loving era of filmmaking, and it renders Godzilla easily forgettable and highly disappointing.
RYAN’s RATING: 2 Stars out of 4