Godzilla turns 60 this November. The King of the Monsters had a great run between 1954 and 2004, when Japan celebrated his golden anniversary by having him squash the life out of almost every monster in his rogue’s gallery in Godzilla: Final Wars; including dishing out a veritable curb-stomping to the mutant iguana beast of Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 would-be reboot.
But looking back on 1954’s Godzilla (or Gojira), it’s easy to forget how important a film it was, reclaiming the monster movie from the B-movie bin where Son of Kong dumped it only nine months after King Kong(1933) became the genre’s first masterpiece. Gojira balanced strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization with a highly political but not overwrought metaphor for nuclear destruction in the atomic age.
So where does that leave us in 2014? A Godzilla reboot with state-of-the-art digital effects is where; featuring strong pacing, effective monster attacks and light characterization. But it’s not all it could have been, and it so easily could have been great.
Gareth Edwards’s take on the colossal lizard is a mixed bag. Opening with flashes of historical drawings of mediaeval monsters, there is an air of pretention to this project which is quickly rinsed away. Images of A-bomb tests in the Pacific from the 1950s are shown to apparently destroy Godzilla (the Godzilla? A Godzilla?). Cut to the late 1990s and some Japanese nuclear facility (let’s just call it ‘Fake-ashima’) comes under attack from an apparent earthquake caused by some burrowing beastie – the white guy (Bryan Cranston) saw it coming, but could not prevent it.
In the present, Cranston looks to his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to help him prove that something unnatural happened at Fake-ashima, and that a cover-up has taken place. Soon soldier Ford, scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins and the U.S. military are chasing creatures across the Ocean towards a final showdown in San Francisco.
All the components of a best-of Godzilla franchise are in place. The design of Godzilla is sublime. The drama is very much in check (Ford’s wife and son are in San Fran). The action sequences and monster fights are choreographed with balletic composure. Alexandre Desplat’s bombastic score is a noble successor to the work of Akira Ifukube. So then what’s wrong? The answer mostly lies in characterization, but not where you might expect.
Edwards rose to notoriety in film circles when his 2010 film Monsters managed to tell an engaging human drama against the backdrop of a semi-apocalyptic monster attack; all for $500,000. Here, working with a budget nearly 500 times that size, the monsters are infinitely more satisfying, but the human drama hasn’t succeeded. That falls largely on the fact the central romance, Taylor-Johnson and wife Elizabeth Olsen, only get one scene together. It’s a strong scene of married life marred by military duty, but it’s not enough to hang the emotional core of the film on. Secondly, looking back on the entire Godzilla oeuvre, there’s a reason the heroes of those films are regular scientists and journalists and never soldiers – soldiers are only interesting characters when they’re forced to go against the orders they’ve dedicated their lives to follow through, but here Ford is actually the good little soldier boy throughout, and it’s not exactly endearing.
Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen are given far too little to work with, acting only as emotional fulcrums for a weight Taylor-Johnson still can’t lift. David Strathairn struggles to fit into his role as a top-tier general worse than he struggles to fit into camos a size too big for him. Ken Watanabe, that ever-reliable token Japanese star, is given the preposterous exposition section of the script; you’ll buy everything he’s selling, but when he’s not telling you what to believe, it’s hard to believe in what’s happening.
And that’s because of Godzilla. What is Edwards’s Godzilla? The film never seems certain. Certainly no product of the nuclear tests as in 1954 or 1998. More curious still, having a bomb dropped on him in 1954 has not left him with any vengeance towards mankind (in fact, like last year’s Pacific Rim, the film seems oddly unconcerned with nuclear power as a danger at all – an awkward Hiroshima reference gets briskly swept aside). The rival monster has far more explanation of where he came from; Godzilla comes off as an awkward plot-device, “addressing an imbalance in nature”, if we can excuse such hippy nonsense coming Watanabe’s mouth, and hunting that monster because… because. A line of dialogue from the trailer where Watanabe calls Godzilla “a god” has thankfully not made the final cut, which would have dumped even more confusion into the mix.
But the real shame is not the “what is he?”, but the “who is he?” Godzilla over his 50-year Toho run has been wrathful, vengeful, arrogant, proud, delighted, caring, even overtly sarcastic. Here the monster ranges from angry, to sad, to kinda tired, to kinda happy. He’s been reduced from a complex monster to a bland array of Seven Dwarf names. He has less characterization than the average Taylor-Johnson.
Which is not to say that when he unleashes his classic roar, or stomps defiantly on his opponent, that he isn’t clearly a worthy version of the classic monster. He’s just not quite there yet. Despite inherent problems, Godzilla is assertively satisfying, with a finale that rewards wholeheartedly after 100 minutes of monster foreplay. There’s enough innate craftsmanship on show to demand more appearances by this version of Gojira, but some proper fantasy world-building is required before we can buy this monster wholesale. Edwards has a lot to learn as a filmmaker (his reliance on Spielbergian child-shots to sell his disaster scenes proves this), but he is well on his way to becoming a force of nature himself. Should he return to Godzilla, there may no stopping the pair next time.
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)