Gareth Edwards, 123 minutes, 2014, United States.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! From his origins as a symbol of nuclear terror in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to his knock-down, drag-out battles with Mothra and Co. over the subsequent six decades, this legendary lizard is one of cinema’s most iconic characters, with more than 30 films, and countless toppled skyscrapers, to his name.
Now, on the 60th anniversary of his first appearance, Hollywood has coming a-knocking. It’s actually the second trip to the States for Japan’s most monstrous tourist – who amongst us could forget seeing him pal around NYC with Matthew Broderick in the late nineties? (The answer, unfortunately, is no one.) Directed by noted master of blowing shit up Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012), the ’98 American version was panned by critics, causing plans for a sequel to quickly be scrapped.
For the reboot, rights owners Legendary Pictures have gone in a different direction, tapping British-born effects artist Gareth Edwards. With just one prior directing credit, on the ultra-low-budget sci-fi drama Monsters, Edwards seems like a risky choice to helm the $160 million blockbuster, but nonetheless proves more than up to the challenge. His Godzilla, although unfortunately weak in the character department, remains one of the better disaster flicks we’ve seen in recent memory, full of smartly-staged set-pieces that purr with suspense before exploding into 10 on the Richter scale action.
After an opening credits sequence full of ominous nuclear test footage, Godzilla begins in 1999. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is the supervisor at a nuclear power plant in the fictional Japanese city of Janjira. Concerned by unexplained nearby tremors, Brody sends a team of technicians that includes his wife (Juliette Binoche) into the reactor, only to be forced to seal them inside after the plant begins to collapse.
Cut to 15 years later, and Joe is now a full-blown conspiracy theorist, unwilling to accept the official explanation that the disaster was caused by an earthquake. His adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) thinks Dad’s off his rocker, but still somehow allows himself to be convinced to return to Japan, in the search for proof of a cover-up.
We won’t go into detail about what happens next, seeing one of the great things about the film’s marketing campaign is how little it reveals of the plot – and specifically, Godzilla’s place in it. Suffice to say, there’s a good amount of stomping. Edwards takes his inspiration from Jaws, gradually providing glimpses of his creature in order to slowly but surely build tension. Unlike Speilberg’s rubber shark, however, the reveal isn’t the least bit disappointing.
Instead, the disappointment comes from the human element. Edwards has assembled an immensely talented cast, one that really deserves a lot more than the clichéd characters they’re forced to play. In his first major post-Heisenberg role, Cranston is compelling, yet soon gets replaced as the film’s main protagonist by the markedly less interesting Taylor-Johnson.
Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, meanwhile, are totally wasted as a pair of scientists whose job it is to look shocked and/or come to a sudden realisation anytime anything happens. The same is also true for the blink-and-you’ll-miss-her-death-scene Juliette Binoche. The biggest waste, though, is Elizabeth Olsen. The infinitely more gifted sister of Ashley and Mary-Kate, Olsen is phenomenally good in the few scenes she gets, yet can ultimately only do so much in her painfully thankless part as “wife of main character.”
That we don’t really care about any of the (human) characters means that, when man and monster eventually converge for a final showdown in San Francisco, the stakes don’t feel nearly as high as they should. Thankfully, it’s still staggering from the perspective of unadulterated spectacle. It’s also makes for a nice change to see a city destroyed in long, clearly edited takes, as opposed to the incomprehensive shaky-cam of so many Hollywood action flicks. If nothing else, Godzilla is proof of Gareth Edwards’ immense potential as a blockbuster director. Let’s just hope that next time the script is up to scratch.
Written by: Tom Clift, May 2014