Release Date: 16th May 2014
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen
The ground shakes as a replica Eiffel Tower falls crashing to the ground in Las Vegas. There is screaming and panic as a huge hotel crumbles in a shower of falling masonry. Off in the distance a huge, terrifying creature wreaks havoc as it cuts a swathe through Sin City. It’s heading westward towards San Francisco and the Pacific coast, laying waste to everything in its path. Sixty years after its Japanese debut and Godzilla is as clumsy as ever.
In 1999 a nuclear power plant in Japan – under the supervision of Bryan Cranston’s Joe – is hit by weird seismic activities and goes into meltdown. Now, fifteen years later, Joe is obsessed with uncovering the truth of what happened that day, something that seems closer than ever when those same strange seismic patterns begin to emerge from the plant once more. Joined by his son Ford (all grown up and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) Joe sneaks into the radiation quarantine zone in time to see an ancient creature waken from a decades long sleep. What follows is large-scale destruction at sea and on land as Kaiju roam the Pacific ocean and American mainland.
After the astoundingly horrible attempt at an American Godzilla back in the 90s (a film so bad that the best thing about it was a Jamiroquai song) hopes were high that this iteration would crush any remaining bad memories of that earlier film. To a large extent it does just that; not only is Godzilla 2014 vastly superior to its ’98 counterpart, it’s also surprisingly faithful to the Toho Studios films that inspired it. Godzilla looks less like a giant iguana and more like the lumbering behemoth seen fighting giant moths and three-headed dragons in Tokyo and he shows a sort of monstrous dignity evident in much of those films but absent from the 90s version.
After making only one feature film (low budget indie hit Monsters) director Gareth Evans has been handed the reins of one of cinema’s largest and most iconic monsters; as well as being given a pile of money to realise his vision that’s large enough to choke said creature. While Monsters was mainly about a young couple trying to cross a country infested with aliens rather than the aliens themselves, Evans showed real talent in using his budgetary constraints to hint at and allude to his creatures. With Godzilla, Edwards uses similar restraint despite his vast budget. His monsters are hidden and hinted at for large periods of time and a sense of impending doom is wonderfully evoked with little touches. Sequences like a flock of sea birds fleeing from the coast, or the tide receding dramatically as precursor to a Godzilla inflicted tsunami are reminiscent of the trembling glass of water in Jurassic Park or the fin cutting through the surf in Jaws. And when Godzilla finally does appear onscreen he is hugely impressive. The filmmakers clearly have a lot of affection for their leading lizard; there are several iconic images of him in action surrounded by flames, smoke and crumbling skyscrapers. Evans also takes great care to position his shots from a human perspective and to include people and buildings in the frame to convey the mind boggling scale of Godzilla.
Cool Kaiju don’t look at explosions.
Unfortunately, between all the monster mashing fun there are long, talky lulls as scientists and military leaders gather in dimly lit rooms, furrow their brows and explain things for anyone who’s not been paying attention. It robs the film of momentum but even more galling is the manner in which these conversations flag up the themes of the movie, which it does with the subtlety of a giant monster stampeding through San Francisco. Ken Watanabe in particular is given the almost thankless task of having to keep the audience regularly updated on Godzilla’s motivation and thematic relevance. It’s the kind of role where he sadly laments the “arrogance of man” before stating that Godzilla is nature showing us who’s boss. It’s laughably on the nose and only the quiet stoicism Watanabe brings to his performance salvages anything from the part.
In fact, pretty much all of the highly talented cast are wasted. It is only Watanabe and Bryan Cranston who manage to find a character amidst all the plot machinations and thematic affirmations. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s military-man lead is a simple square-jawed hero that’s bounced around from one location to the next in the company of one group of characters after another. At no point is he given the chance to build any meaningful relationships with anyone anywhere. Worse still, poor Elizabeth Olsen is relegated to speaking on the phone a few times, crying occasionally and little else. I guess it must have paid well.
It takes itself and its subject matter quite seriously which is no bad thing, but when the title character is shunted to the background it becomes rather boring. Despite getting so much right: the look, the scale, the tension; Godzilla feels weighed down with its own sense of import. If the filmmakers want us to care about the humans, they need to give us better characters, otherwise just focus more on the impact of the title character.