The Americanized Godzilla movies always get the same thing wrong: no one cares about the humans! When the star of your movie is as tall as the Empire State Building, resembles a cheerful alligator, walks casually through massive structures and can breathe fire, who cares about the puny humans who stand in his vast shadow? The new Godzilla has an international, all-star cast and at no point did I care if they were all simultaneously stepped on. In fact, I think it would have helped the movie.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Ford, a recently deployed soldier whose R&R time with his wife (Elisabeth Olsen) and son are cut short when he learns his father (Bryan Cranston) has been arrested in Japan. Ford leaves his family, but not before his wife tells him “you’ll be back in a few days,” which, in movies like this, means he won’t be home anytime soon. Once father and son are reunited, their prickly banter is interrupted by discoveries of a massive government cover-up and filmed proof of a giant monster emerging from the sea. At one point, a weathered, on-edge scientist (Ken Watanabe) turns slowly towards the camera and announces: “his name… is Godzilla.”
The establishing imagery brings to mind modern disasters, like Hurricane Katrina, as well as Hiroshima and Chernobyl, indicating a serious tone. While this is better than the jokey, broadly humored (and stupid) 1998 interpretation by Roland Emmerich, it bears a similar story outline. After a wrenching opening scene, the story trots all over the world, giving us lots of exposition and piles of rubble but never taking off.
No one in the cast ever steps up and takes hold, leaving us with no rooting human interest or emotional center. Cranston reliably conveys angst but he exits the movie far too early. Watanabe and Sally Hawkins look silly dishing out paragraphs of plot details, though David Strathairn, looking really lost playing an admiral, fails to convince when asking things like, “where is Godzilla?” Taylor-Johnson has the most to do but his sharp looks are all he brings to the role. Olsen is stuck in yet another half-baked role unworthy of the actress, who has yet to capitalize on her amazing Martha Marcy May Marlene debut in 2011. We’re supposed to care about all of these people, but their character traits are overly familiar and predictable. They display no inner life.
The monster movie going on around them is a mixed bag, as there’s no fully sustained set-pieces until over an hour in. After we finally get introduced to the title character (who doesn’t have enough screen time), the camera keeps cutting away from him and his earth-shaking battles. Since the cinematographer decides to keep the action at ground level, there’s too much focus on people running away and taking cover and not enough of the monster mash.
There are great scenes, like a bridge encounter out in the woods that finally establishes some momentum. There’s also a stunning free-fall sequence, leading to the grand finale, which finally delivers the goods we’ve been waiting for. Director Gareth Edwards capably borrows visual cues from Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg (especially Jaws, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds) but his movie takes too long to get moving. Thankfully, his climactic scenes are so thrilling and crowd-pleasing that it salvages an uneven summer movie.
While better than the idiotic Pacific Rim, the problem isn’t over-plotting but over-population. Except for Cranston and Watanabe, no one on the screen can hold a teeny candle next to The Big Fella. My Dad took me to see Godzilla 1985: The Legend is Reborn when it came to our local theater and I remember the delight of seeing the green monster knock over buildings and battle “The Super X.” That perfectly cheesy movie downsized the screen time of the humans, a lesson Edwards should heed if he ever makes a sequel.
Score: ** and a Half Stars