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Review | ‘Godzilla’ Stomps and Roars But Can’t Remain Focused

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After 16 years, Godzilla is back in theaters, bigger than ever – if not necessarily better.

Director Gareth Edwards’ franchise reboot begins with ominous seismic activity that draws the attention of engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who’s so concerned with the anomaly and the potential threat it poses to the Japanese nuclear reactor where he works, that he misses the birthday surprise planned for him by his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and young son Ford. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s no ordinary earthquake, and events take a dark turn, leading to the quarantine of the Brody’s Japanese home.

Fast-forward 15 years, and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now a bland U.S. soldier married to an equally uninteresting nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) with a child of his own. When he learns his father trespassed into the quarantine zone, Ford flies to Japan and is drawn into Joe’s obsession to uncover the truth of what actually happened all those years ago. It’s not long before the two come into contact with scientists Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who reveal classified footage of Godzilla stirring in the ocean depths, and admit that two other enormous creatures have been brought out of the bowels of the Earth. As the monsters emerge onto the surface at the same time, the film becomes a story of survival as Ford treks across a devastated world in an attempt to reach his family.

godzilla5The best parts of the film are the earliest, as Cranston unleashes his acting might, spitting out agonized speeches and chewing scenery so thoroughly that Godzilla would be proud. Unfortunately the Breaking Bad star is barely in the film, because he’s shunted aside as the focus shifts to his son, the real protagonist, played by a near-catatonic Taylor-Johnson. The Kick-Ass star has little to work with — his dialogue consists of mainly “No, sir,” “Yes, sir” and promises to his wife that he’ll be home soon — because Ford is such an obedient soldier and son that there’s nothing beneath the surface for an actor to explore. Cranston’s Joe is motivated by guilt and obsession, and Watanabe’s Serizawa by a mystic idealization of Godzilla and his fears for the planet’s future. But Ford is pulled by external forces batting him around Japan and the United States like an action figure at the mercy of a child, lacking any agency of his own. Even his mission to go home to his family is given to him by his father; at no time does Ford act of his own volition or run contrary to what others tell him. The film’s decision to focus on the ho-hum Ford and his equally boring wife makes jettisoning the enticingly anguished Cranston in favor of Taylor-Johnson all the more grating.

Luckily, however, the film doesn’t get rid of the charismatic Watanabe, who imbues every scene he’s in with enjoyable melodrama. Godzilla is essentially divided in half by tone, one part serious action film as Ford runs home to his family, the other pure 1950s B-movie camp wherein Army generals designate monsters “MUTO” and “Godzilla” and talk about nuclear weapons as the only solution while scientists gasp and plead for other courses of action.

godzilla10That second part is where Watanabe shines as the perpetually shocked Serizawa, whipping off his glasses at the drop of a hat and otherwise ratcheting the drama up to 11. One can see the glee in the actor’s eyes as he declares, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control … and not the other way around!” or as he theatrically halts in front of camera to drop bits of plot-changing exposition. Although clearly meant to bring to mind the serious Dr. Daisuke Serizawa from the 1954 original, Watanabe’s lines are so silly yet delivered so profoundly that it’s clear he’s more interested in tapping into the ridiculous versions of the stock scientist in later Godzilla films. His performance, as well as that of David Strathairn as Serizawa’s stoic pro-nuke foil Admiral Stenz, mostly makes up for the stretches of film in which we’re forced to endure Olsen and Taylor-Johnson.

It’s this campy half that the monsters inhabit, and despite fan worries about the size of Godzilla, he and the other CG creatures look amazing. Seen almost entirely from human perspective, the enormity of the monsters is their greatest asset. Godzilla and the MUTOs barely notice the people they crush or the buildings they rip apart. Indeed, it’s obvious the human world is nothing but an obstacle course for these giants, and not a particularly difficult one; the film has a lot of fun with monsters obliviously destroying Las Vegas landmarks, or having the insect-like MUTOs smashing people underfoot like, well, insects. There’s a palpable sense of humor too in scenes where Godzilla manages to flood an entire block and take down a building yet allows a dog time to untie his leash and get away to safety. The film is clearly paying homage not just to the classic monster-versus-monster Godzilla films but to the PG-friendly B-movie: The world may be going up in flames, and soldiers may be dying left and right, but not a single child or pet is placed in real danger.

Unfortunately, the monster-sized problem with the movie is its refusal to do more than tease its biggest character: There’s simply not enough Godzilla. The filmmakers seem to think the audience has come to see a boring soldier hitchhike to San Francisco to reach his equally placid family. That’s of course wrong; we’re here to see Godzilla fight monsters and destroy major cities. For all the fantastic effects work bringing Godzilla and the MUTOs to life, we never see them for more than 30 seconds at a time. The camera constantly cuts away to the human characters, or to news feeds or extraneous B-plots. That’s funny once, even twice, but after the fourth time of being teased with Godzilla versus MUTO only to have the shot end with a door literally being slammed in the audience’s face, it becomes unbearably frustrating.

godzilla9Worse, when the film finally gets to what should be the climactic monster battle, the camera doesn’t stay on Godzilla but instead follows Ford, with the giant-sized action pushed into in the background. For a movie named for him, Godzilla barely rates more screen time than Cranston.

While Godzilla’s third-act battle incorporates moves from all the classic fights we’ve seen in previous franchise installments, this only serves to make the audience wish they were watching one of those films instead. That men fighting in rubber suits are more entertaining than 400-foot CG behemoths clashing is bitterly disappointing. Yes, the two seconds Godzilla and the MUTOs grapple is great, but unfortunately that’s all you get. Meanwhile, you’ll have an uninterrupted 10 minutes of Ford fumbling with a boat, and then passing out.

That lack of focus plagues every aspect of the film, dragging down would could be an otherwise-interesting story: Cranston is set up as the protagonist, only for it to be decided that Taylor-Johnson will instead carry the film. The first act establishes Godzilla as serious sci-fi, only for the second to shift to high camp before the third act changes gears again to straight-up action. There are a lot of directions one can take the Godzilla, but unfortunately Edwards decided to try them all at once, leading what began as a riveting movie to stumble toward a disappointing and mediocre conclusion.

While the 2014 Godzilla is fun and leagues better than the 1998 version, it lacks the charm and excitement of the classic 1950s and ‘60s monster films it references. One can only hope the inevitable sequel will be placed in more decisive hands.

Godzilla opens Friday nationwide.

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Comments

  • Miles Jones

    idiot

  • ElWaldorf

    solid opinion right here.

  • Chuck777

    I don’t know if I would go into a Godzilla movie expecting it to be a masterpiece, or even expecting it to have a coherent plot other than “Monster bad, we should kill/contain it!”

  • Scooby

    Jaws is a masterpiece. If you can make a quality film about a shark, and invest the audience in characters whose lives are impacted by it, you can make one about a big lizard. It all comes down to a tight script, direction, and actors capable of performing.

  • Victor Acosta

    Bummer, I was afraid of something like this.
    But really, you get Cranston for this movie and then turn him into a 2nd fiddle because you want the guy from Kick-Ass to carry your movie?
    What kind of idiotic producer or director came up with that brilliant idea?

  • dekko

    If they feel a need to incorporate human actors, they should mine the old films and have either aliens trying to use Godzilla in their scheme, (but less cheezy) or human pilots in that advanced fighter plane or piloting a giant robot (mechagodzilla?) – let’s see *that* throwdown! My favorite was the first “Godzilla v. Mechagodzilla – it had aliens and humans and a giant robot in a story that was actually kinda interesting.

  • Chuck777

    Not saying it is impossible just unlikely. Don’t go in expecting Jaws, rather be surprised and delighted that it turns out to be Jaws.

  • Dre Day

    Lacks focus? WTF?! It’s a movie about a giant monster, fighting another giant monster. I’ll assume that Godzilla didn’t have much “character development” either. LOL. What the heck is wrong with some people?!

  • Nick3

    Cranston is a “character actor” and not a leading actor movie star. He has a great talent but has a face of a very ordinary man. Gary Oldman is a character actor too but has the movie star charisma. Both guys are fitted for support roles.

  • Nick3

    Jaws would be considered boring and slow by the standards of today’s audiences.

  • Tristen

    Damn, this reeks of “I’ve never seen a Godzilla movie” so much it hurts. “No one cares about the human characters” is pretty god damn stupid, because only a brain dead dweebs would want a two hour destruction fest with the monsters just dicking around the whole time. That’s not fun, it’s boring. By that logic, no one cares about the human characters in Alien or Jaws, right? Because those two have only bits of the monster, it’s about the people being effected BY them that makes the movie interesting.

  • Scratch89

    Why does one person’s opinion about a movie frustrate you?

  • Tommy Rankin

    Well this review doesn’t sound too good. I probably won’t see this in theaters because I’m broke. Of course movies with monsters need to have human characters for audience to relate to and show how they’re affected by the titular monster but it’s really frustrating when the movie shows all of 30 seconds of that monster and then 10 minutes of the humans. And especially if the actors playing them are wooden and can’t act. I’ve never seen Taylor-Johnson or Olsen in anything (Kick-Ass is on my to watch list at the top) but hearing that they both are uninteresting and boring in this makes me worried about their portrayal of twins in Avengers sequel. I hope it’s more because of the directing and script than their actual acting skills.

  • beane2099

    The best Godzilla films are the ones that focus on the human element. The 1955 Godzilla film revolved primarily around a love triangle between Emiko, Ogata and Dr. Serizawa (and if you’re watching the American cut, Raymond Burr staring intently). Secondly it was about the Japanese people discovering what Godzilla was. Godzilla doesn’t appear until 2/3 of the way through the movie and even when he does the focus is on the people and how they cope with the destruction. Godzilla 1985 followed a similar pattern where the focal point was how the world was affected by Godzilla. The tension of America and the USSR almost going to war over an unknown Godzilla trashing a Soviet Sub was far more interesting than just seeing Godzilla trash buildings for 90 minutes. Now I haven’t seen this yet, so I’ll reserve my opinion but if that’s what they did here, I’d say Edwards did his job.

  • Scooby

    That’s absolute rubbish. It holds up better than most films released in that genre.

  • Scooby

    I totally agree with what you’re saying – but only because Hollywood today seems to be more interested in hiring mediocre directors to direct mediocre films that result in billion dollar box office. The only visionary directors out there seem to be the ones who are nearing the end of their lives. Thankfully there still are a few young interesting directors out there, but they’re overshadowed by the mediocre ones.

  • Dre Day

    Not frustrated, just ready to see the film, already!

  • Victor Acosta

    Look, Cranston can act circles around Taylor Johnson, and in all the trailers they continue using his voice overs, so the marketing is fooling you into believing that his role is much more important than it actually is going from this review.
    All I’m saying is, if you’re going to get someone like Cranston, or Oldman even, don’t make them a second fiddle to the guy from Kick-Ass, that is just plain insulting IMHO.

  • Kevin

    Did you just call a Sailor a Soldier? Are you kidding me?

  • JohnnyHendrix

    Exactly my thoughts. Great review.

  • JohnnyHendrix

    One can care about the human characters if they are interesting and move the plot forward. The human characters in this movie are plain boring and their presence in all the movie’s events is rather unlogical. That is why a Godzilla movie featuring 15 min of Godzilla footage but 90 minutes of boring human stories is not very good.

  • joe

    affected

  • guest

    saw it and had this exact same opinion and lo and behold, a google search later shows im not alone. its all spot on, but negative sounding it may be, i dont feel jipped. its as bad as transformers in the sense that we’re forced to focus on boring or unimportant human characters and not the title characters, but thats not to say this formula should never be used. it just wasnt used effifiently. if i could do it again, i would see it, but not twice. id rather see cap 2 again
    oh and p.s. unlike transformers, the title character didnt suck as hard as the humans, though its hard to mess up a giant lizard that marches around and beats up other monsters

  • gnarlk

    this was streets ahead of cap 2 or any “look at me make smart alecky comments for 2 hours” marvel movie.

  • gnarlk

    not my thoughts at all. crap review.

  • Go Jira

    I concur with this review. Apart from the bit about it being better than zilla 98, it’s not. They are about the same quality, except the godzilla looks right in this one.

  • Go Jira

    This film is mediocre on all fronts.

  • Go Jira

    It’s ’54, lol.

  • beane2099

    Yes. However, there are two versions of that movie. The Japanese movie in ’54 and the American version with Raymond Burr in ’55. Since I was also discussing Godzilla 1985 (the American version of Godzilla Returns) I thought I’d refer to the ’55 Godzilla with Raymond Burr for sake of parity. It felt weird for me saying ’54 and ’85. But thanks for your input. “lol”

  • http://vasilibox720.tumblr.com/ Vasilibox 720

    I actually didn’t think it was that bad . . . I liked the camera work (how most of the movie from Ford’s introduction on was almost POV style, it allowed for interesting angles and shots), I liked that Godzilla was an antihero, I honestly didn’t think Taylor-Johnson’s acting was as bland as I’ve seen reviews say it was, etc.

    I do think there should’ve been more Godzilla but some of that desire was satisfied with how much MUTO destruction we got, I do understand the criticisms of the film, and I do think Watanabe was underutilized, but having never seen a Godzilla film before I think the film was overall solid. It could’ve been expanded (it was only around 130 min so there was room for more) but I think it was better than people are giving it credit for.

  • YOU ARE WRONG TRISTEN

    What is wrong with you? There is too little Godzilla– Period. Cutting away from possibly epic fights is not building suspense — that is boring!!
    You don’t need 90 mins. of fighting, but how about more than 30 seconds? And by the way, there were TV cameras covering each one the whole fights, so why can’t we see what the people in the movie were seeing on the T.V.???