The King of the Monsters returns to the big screen in Godzilla! But is the new vision of director Gareth Edwards worth checking out? 411's Jeffrey Harris checks in with his full review and an interview with screenwriter Max Borenstein!
Directed By: Gareth Edwards Written By: Max Borenstein and David Callaham; Based on the TOHO Character Runtime: 123 minutes MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
Ford Brody - Aaron Taylor-Johnson Dr. Ishiro Serizawa - Ken Watanabe Joe Brody - Bryan Cranston Elle Brody - Elizabeth Olsen Admiral William Stenz - David Strathairn Captain Russell Hampton - Richard T. Jones Vivienne Graham - Sally Hawkins Sandra Brody - Juliette Binoche Sergeant Tre Morales - Victor Rasuk Lieutenant Marcus Waltz - Patrick Sabongui Sam Brody - Carson Bolde Young Ford - CJ Adams
The King of the Monsters, Godzilla (also known as Gojira), makes his long-awaited return to the big screen with a new Hollywood reboot from Legendary Pictures, simply titled Godzilla. After the disappointment of Roland Emmerich’s abomination in 1998, one is certainly cautious about a Hollywood movie studio taking another crack at the cinematic kaiju icon. However, the movie is an extremely well made and satisfying experience. Director Gareth Edwards, in his sophomore effort, does quite an expert job with the film. However, while the new Godzilla is a good movie, at times very good, it falls short of greatness.
The story begins after an opening credits montage depicting an alternate history involving the clandestine organization Monarch, and the military's attempt to nuke Godzilla in 1954. The story picks up in 1999. Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and his protégé Vivienne Graham (Hawkins) examine a large specimen site unwittingly found by miners in the Philippines. The fossilized graveyard holds the skeleton of a massive kaiju-like creature and nest-like cocoons. However, it appears a cocoon hatched and whatever was inside already got out of dodge and headed straight for a nuclear power plant in Japan. Working at the plant is American expatriate and engineer Joe Brody (Cranston) and his loving wife Sandra (Binoche). Unaware of the terror that is about to befall them, Sandra goes to investigate some strange seismic readings emanating from the plant that Joe discovered earlier. Unfortunately, it’s a death trap. The creature that hatched from the nest is taking root in the power plant. Joe is powerless to do anything to save his wife from the plant before it goes through a meltdown. Joe and Sandra’s young son, Ford (CJ Adams), can only watch helplessly from his school as the neighboring nuclear power plant turns to rumble.
Events pick up fifteen years later in 2014. Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is now an adult and a military lieutenant working in explosive ordinance disposal, returning home from a 14 month tour overseas. His happy reunion with his wife Elle, a nurse, (Olsen) and five-year-old son Sam (Bolde) is cut short after the estranged Joe was arrested again for trespassing on the quarantined meltdown site. Despite Ford not wanting to deal with his father’s drama anymore, Elle encourages Ford to go to Japan to help him, “It’s not the end of the world.” Ford gets Joe out of jail and tries to convince Joe to come home with him. However, Joe is obstinate and wants to investigate his theories. Joe discovered the same seismic readings again from the same day of the plant meltdown, and he believes there are two identical signals that are “talking” with each other. Reluctantly, Ford goes with Joe to the quarantined meltdown zone to retrieve Joe’s data disks from their old home. Strangely enough, the area is clean and free of radiation, despite being ground zero for a nuclear power plant meltdown. The two are then arrested and taken into custody by the Monarch goons. We see they have been keeping a giant creature cocoon hidden at the site where the plant once stood.
Joe tries to warn the goons about what’s going on before it’s too late, but the cocoon soon hatches, giving birth to one of the main antagonist kaiju of the picture, a mantis-like and winged creature. Serizawa believes this creature, labeled as a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO), is the prey for a prehistoric alpha predator, that being Godzilla. The military and Admiral William Stenz (Strathairn) try to track the creatures and want to use nuclear weapons to dispose of them, but as Serizawa tries to point out, nuclear weapons are powerless against the creatures. In fact, the MUTO eat nuclear weapons like candy and can absorb radiation and nuclear energy almost like a food source, making humanity’s best weapon utterly useless. Serizawa believes Godzilla is the only power that can match the MUTO creatures and destroy them, and it’s not long before the king kaiju eventually appears to hunt his prey. Meanwhile, Joe is desperate to get back to his family. After another companion MUTO awakens, it appears the creatures are all on a collision course for Ford’s hometown of San Francisco.
Considering Godzilla is only his sophomore effort as a director, Gareth Edwards pulls off something rather remarkable here. His feature directorial debut, Monsters, was also impressive. That film was made for a budget of only about half a million dollars, and now Edwards gets the opportunity to work with about $160 million. He creates a strong, organic and naturalistic aesthetic. Throughout the movie, Edwards’ style is reminiscent of classic Steven Spielberg films and the original Jurassic Park. Appropriately enough, at a Q&A session following the screening of the film, Edwards cited Spielberg and his films, such as Jaws and Jurassic Park, as two of his main inspirations for the new Godzilla. Edwards imbues the movie with great pacing. The plot moves very well over the course of two hours. The cinematography is suitably epic for the material.
The new kaiju or MUTO introduced in this film are quite impressive and strongly designed. I hesitate to call the antagonist creatures MUTO because in this new universe, MUTO is the catchall generic term for the giant creatures, much like kaiju. In the Godzilla: Awakening graphic novel (my review of which is available HERE), there are different giant, parasitic organisms Godzilla faces that are unlike the antagonist creatures here, and they are also referred to as MUTO. So hopefully, Legendary comes up with more unique names for the creatures at some point.
What’s most interesting about the antagonist MUTO here is that all of humanity’s attempts to quell them are utterly fruitless. Nuclear weapons, generally the great equalizer for nations, are powerless against them. In fact, the antagonist MUTO readily seek out nuclear weapons and radiation for sustenance. The military’s nuclear warheads then become like a hot potato throughout the film as they play keep away with the warheads from the MUTO. It underscores the pointless role of humanity in this conflict. No weapon created by man has the power to stand against the MUTO. That power belongs only to nature’s apex predator, Godzilla.
Despite Edwards’ previous claims that Godzilla is an antihero for this story and “the punishment we deserve,” Godzilla is really more hero than antihero here. Most of the worst destruction and collateral damage depicted throughout the film, that the trailers misled us to think is caused by Godzilla, is actually caused by the MUTO. Godzilla is really the last line of defense against them, more or less. In fact, Godzilla is about as destructive as Superman was in Man of Steel. Godzilla as the hero is reinforced by one rather blatant, superhero-like reverence gag toward the end. Also, Godzilla is essentially escorted by the US Navy throughout the film and generally avoids military conflict. The MUTO are the true threat to humanity, and Godzilla does not appear to see humanity as an enemy. For the most part, this approach is fine because Godzilla is the monster you want to root for in the story. Godzilla’s new design is great, and a huge improvement over GINO. Just to be nitpicky, the head and neck are a tad too thick and over-pronounced; but a thinner neck might not have worked as well for this design.
Now to be more critical, we don’t get to see very much of Godzilla until the third act. After a great deal of buildup to Godzilla’s first reveal, we are essentially denied the first major fight between Godzilla and the antagonist MUTO. What was even more frustrating is that this happens later on in the picture for a second time. This repeated dangling of the carrot for the audience is quite frustrating. Edwards’ justification at the Q&A for this more minimal use of Godzilla throughout the picture was to not be “seduced” by all the CGI and visuals, not wanting to throw it all at you at once. He extolled how Jurassic Park actually only had a small number of visual effects in comparison to most other modern blockbusters. Or how in Jaws, you don’t really see much of the shark until the end. However, Godzilla is not a lone rogue killer shark movie, and it’s not a movie about dinosaurs running amok on an island. And so, after already being dealt a great deal of buildup for this clash between monsters, it is difficult to put up with a significant portion of the action happening offscreen. Granted, when we finally do get to see a true battle royal between the titans, it is very well done and quite satisfying to watch, especially when this Godzilla unleashes his atomic breath. And yes, it is the legit atomic breath. The buildup sequence to the moment Godzilla uses this ability is one of the best moments in the film.
Unfortunately, in terms of performances, the picture falls short. Taylor-Johnson is not a bad performer at all, but here his Ford Brody is an especially weak and bland presence. Brody barely has any chemistry with his wife. And for a man in a desperate race against time to save his family, he seems remarkably and disappointingly dispassionate about it. He never seems to have time to make a quick emergency call or get a pre-paid cell phone. Bryan Cranston had the most compelling character and performance in the movie, but his character arc is ridiculously anticlimactic and disappointing. His subplot was the most interesting, but disappoints with a weak payoff. Ken Watanabe as sort of the anchor of the plot was not really up to the task. Throughout the movie he adopts a strange bewildered look on his face that he constantly repeats. It appears as though he is “acting,” and this is perhaps where Edwards was unable to come through as much. While Edwards creates an outstanding style, aesthetic, and ambiance, the performances his main actors deliver are lacking. For example, there’s a sequence where Ford Brody comes home from his deployment and he remarks that he “hopes” he has a family waiting for him. This line seems to suggest the tension of being deployed for so long in the military is hard on him and his family, and he’s trying to prevent a potential separation. Things seems OK once Ford gets home, but in moments he’s dragged away from his family again to deal with his ne'er do well father. The emotions and tension from moments such as this just come off so flat. Wouldn't Ford be furious with his father over this? Taylor-Johnson barely appears slightly annoyed throughout his performance.
That aside, these elements are not really deal breakers in my enjoyment of the film and what Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein managed to create. Overall, if you are looking for a good alternate Godzilla action movie, this movie delivers very well. I’d definitely like to see more installments involving this Godzilla creature and see how his relationship with humanity might evolve over time. But just in terms of comparison, and delivering those big satisfying moments, Pacific Rim was the more effective, satisfying picture.
The 411: Godzilla has a great look, tone, and style to it. The visuals and new monster designs are incredible, and Edwards does a very competent job in stepping up to this franchise. The themes of nature and Godzilla as the only equalizer against the MUTO are very well executed, considering that mankind's strongest weapons are absolutely powerless. The acting performances were rather lacking, but overall, this was a satisfying cinematic experience that is definitely worth seeing on the big screen.