REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Occasionally impressive special effects, standout and often suspenseful sequences, and outstanding imaginings of the classic kaiju don’t manage to save Gareth Edwards from a big budget sophomore slump.
SYNOPSIS: Decades after an atomic blast creates a monster, two ancient creatures threaten civilization, with only a giant being to stop them.
PROS: Impressive sequences of destruction, especially on the island of Oahu and in San Francisco; several suspenseful sequences…
CONS: …that seem heavily borrowed from Steven Spielberg; sluggish screenplay that never finds proper pacing; lack of any emotional center; routine and ultimately generic directorial entry from Gareth Edwards.
The mistake director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein make with Godzilla, the 2014 iteration of the classic daikaiju that has stomped Tokyo and surrounding bergs into dust more times than Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling reveals himself to be racially tone deaf, comes neither with the action onscreen nor with what is absent, but simply with its focus. Sixty years after Ishiro Honda terrified audiences by preying on its atomic fears with Gojira (and after Toho Studios featured him in no fewer than 27 more adventures), the special effects for the epic-scale lizard and his nemeses reach a level of sophistication and believability that they almost dump the battles occurring of Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla into the dustbins of cinema history. And yet Edwards and Borenstein allow spectators so few moments to witness the smackdowns that occurs between the King of the Monsters and a pair of winged massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (or, even more clunkily, “MUTOs”) that a sense of deprivation becomes almost unavoidable. Many of us have waited decades for these kinds of magnificent battles; withholding them for much of Godzilla’s 123-minute running time feels a cheat.
Not that the battles, when they finally arrive, or the creature renderings fail to amaze. Godzilla’s first roar, which brays across the Honolulu airport (the first point where he makes landfall to battle the first MUTO), manages to fill the viewer with terror, awe, and, for those of a certain age, no small amount of giddy pleasure. It arises again when the creature battles two MUTOs among the ruins of San Francisco and, his fins glowing, erupts a blast of white atomic halitosis from his mouth…and for fans who always wanted to witness these moments without embarrassing effects, they finally deliver the desired frisson.
Before we actually get to see the monster-on-monster threesomes, we must endure the backstory, which actually works quite well for the first half hour or so. After an impressive credit sequence detailing the 1950s Castle Bravo atomic testing (which appear to create Godzilla), the action moves to 1999, where scientists Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins) discover two pods attached to a gigantic skeleton beneath a mine in the Philippines, and view the destruction left in the wake of an opened pod. Nearby, in Janjira, Japan, a massive explosion and containment breach occurs at a nuclear power plant, ultimately killing investigator Sandra Brady (Juliette Binoche) before she can reach the containment doors, leaving plant supervisor Joe Brady (Bryan Cranston) despondent. (Brady was the one who had to close the doors.) Fast-forward to the present day, where Brady’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who looks like a cartoon version of Joaquin Phoenix), a U.S. Navy explosive ordinance technician living in San Francisco with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson) and son, learns that his father (still living in Japan) has been arrested for trespassing in a quarantined area. Brody, with the wild-eyed conviction of the most paranoid conspiracy theorists, convinces Ford to travel with him to Janjira (because why not?) to uncover what actually happened. When they arrive, they learn that radiation does not saturate the island and are quickly taken into custody by a military and scientific team. There they learn that a chrysalis that absorbs radiation rests in the ruins of a power plant, which subsequently and suddenly hatches, releasing a winged muto that levels the plant and begins flying east to the United States. At the same time, the U.S.S. Saratoga monitors the underwater movement of a colossal creature that seems to be following the MUTO.
Up to this point, Godzilla positions itself to stand alongside Gojira as a terrifying experience. Edwards demonstrates the considerable skill he brought to Monsters, his first feature, in setting up often breathtaking shots, with scenes of devastation incredibly rendered (one really should see Godzilla on the largest possible screen). Waves drown Honolulu as Godzilla makes landfall, but not before Edwards sets up sequences with people expressing curiosity at anomalies, then terror at the realization of danger. Such moments remind seasoned moviegoers of the moments before Steven Spielberg revealed the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park, as well as the moments when a second MUTO escapes from a facility in Las Vegas. (In one scene, a platoon runs through a room in the Bellagio Hotel and discovers it ripped apart as Elvis Presley’s “The Devil in Disguise” plays in the background.) Edwards also delivers impressive thrills when a team of soldiers led by Ford must examine the integrity of a suspension bridge as a MUTO flies nearby. Unfortunately, the characters lose much interest by the time the action leaves Japan, making Edwards’s handling of the property damage technically adept but emotionally static.
Flat, too, is Edwards’s pacing. If the first part of Godzilla engages as it speeds through the discovery of the MUTO (and up to the point of Godzilla’s first deafening screech), its remainder spends too much time with Serizawa and Graham wringing hands at humankind’s fate, Saratoga commander Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn) brooding over the orders he must give in attempt to stop the giants, and Ford running across northern California with a military team attempting to acquire, and prepare, a nuclear weapon that might destroy the MUTOs. All are standard equipment for such movies, which would be okay if they only served as scaffold for the fighting. But Edwards and Borenstein frontload the human action to the point that the kaiju sequences almost serve as background. Godzilla and the MUTOs often begin to fight, and then the action shifts. Did the effects team run out of bits in their computers?
Borenstein takes great care to give Godzilla some degree of plausibility, from the rewriting of fossil history to the rationales for the MUTOs consumption of radioactive decay—perhaps too much. Previous Toho efforts spent little time trying to rationalize the existence of its pantheon of beasts (or its care for accuracy); a concern for how Godzilla might actually exist saps the movie of a lot of its potential excitement, and even a sense of heart…which perhaps is Godzilla’s biggest problem. It offers an epic scale, yet never draws one in. It wants to be a story of kaiju and people, but skimps on both.