60 years ago, film studio Toho burst onto the international stage with GODZILLA, an astonishing fantasy analogy for the Japanese nightmares of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2014, a new version of the tale has emerged from MONSTERS director Gareth Edwards. Tragically, Evans’ second feature is not very good, and not a patch on the original Godzilla.
The film opens in 1999, where two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) investigate the accidental excavation of some colossal animal remains in the Philippines. Along with a reptilian skeleton the size of a skyscraper, they discover something has hatched from a pair of strange eggs and is heading straight for the Japanese mainland. On the outskirts of Tokyo, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) discovers some seismic anomalies and advises the immediate evacuation of the plant he oversees, but not in time to save his wife (Juliette Binoche) who was trying to repair the core. Driven by his guilt and obsession with finding the truth, Joe spends over a decade digging for answers, sweeping up his unwitting, estranged Naval officer son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in the process, just in time for monsters new and old to make their presence known to the world.
Edwards’ Godzilla nods to the original 1954 Toho film in a couple of sequences (a monorail train comes off quite badly from crossing paths with a monster, Watanabe shares a name and little else with a character from the earlier film), but the real lifeblood of the film comes not from Ishiro Honda, but from Steven Spielberg and JURASSIC PARK. There’s an obscene amount of references to the classic dino-disaster in terms of story structure, the look and tone of certain scenes and even specific individual shots. The Jurassic Park nods include, but are not limited to: a creature imprisoned in a cage of electrified wire, and before it escapes, it pings the wire with one of its claws; a humorous moment where a bus driver has to wipe away fog from his windscreen to adequately survey the carnage going on outside his vehicle; Godzilla striking a victory pose and roaring after a particularly tough fight. There’s also a nod to Edwards’ own previous film, and I swear that there’s even a reference to Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned 1998 blockbuster, but describing it would be too much of a spoiler.
Whereas Honda’s Godzilla had nuance, depth and something important to say, Edwards’ film feels annoyingly non-committal. It never dares to make the leap to blame any one source for the events of the film. The Toho Godzilla was unashamedly an anti-nuclear, anti-war piece, but this movie can’t seem to decide whether nuclear power, the destruction of nature, pollution, or mankind’s violent nature are to blame. It tries to suggest it was a combination of factors and ends up criticising none of them particularly harshly. It’s all just a bit wishy-washy. The same could be said for Max Borenstein’s screenplay in general really – it just lacks punch.
Godzilla’s adversaries in the film, the radiation-sustained monsters dubbed “MUTOs” are really dull in their inception, like a lazy amalgamation of the creatures from STARSHIP TROOPERS and CLOVERFIELD. They gave me a newfound appreciation of how much effort and creativity went into designing the vibrant and varied kaiju of PACIFIC RIM.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes for a serviceable but vanilla hero. His motivations – the protection of his young family (Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) and a general sense of duty – make sense, but the macho-reckless way he goes about fulfilling them defy logic, and undermine his character. It could have been really interesting having a young military father torn between his paternal instincts and his patriotic drive, but instead, half the time Ford seems to forget he has a family. The more talented cast members are either under-used (Cranston) or are good, but not good enough to support an entire film (Watanable, Hawkins).
Alexandre Desplat’s score for the movie is admittedly gorgeous, a bright spot in a world of grey and brown. It’s grand and rich and sits perfectly between East and West composition styles.
It’s also nice to see a stylish title sequence (oh how I miss title sequences from modern filmmaking) that establishes the background to the plot in the form of a classified newsreel montage. The HALO jump that has been splashed all over the marketing is very impressively constructed too, but as I said, it was all over the marketing, and the sequence doesn’t last much longer than it did in the trailer.
The idea that Godzilla essentially functions as nature’s factory reset button is pretty clever too, but the big scaly dude himself is hardly ever there. When he’s on-screen, either standing proud against devastated cityscapes, or swimming crocodile-like between aircraft carriers with his towering spines exposed, or unleashing his secret weapon (Godzilla fans – yes, they’ve brought it back) he looks and sounds amazing, but I didn’t feel like I’d really got my Godzilla fix, and as weird as it sounds, I didn’t feel that I got to know him, which isn’t good in a film about, and titled, Godzilla.
Gareth Edwards’ take on Godzilla had a lot of potential – a solid cast, an interesting up-and-coming director and a studio that only last year delivered some great giant monster carnage. But Edwards evidently isn’t Guillermo del Toro, at least not yet. He may have bitten off more than he could chew by going straight from independent creature sleeper hit to helming the latest revival of one of the biggest icons in creature feature history. If only the script, the performances and the plotting had been as impactful as the soundtrack and visuals. Warner Brothers have already announced that a sequel is on its way, so maybe that will be better. SSP