Film review: Godzilla (2014)

It’s been 16 years since Hollywood last tried to bring the king of the monsters to the screen. Has Gareth Edwards finally managed to deliver the film we’ve hoped for?

The Godzilla franchise has one of the strangest stories going. It began with Ishiro Honda’s 1954 classic. A grim, atmospheric masterpiece of apocalyptic paranoia that stands as both a great sci-fi film and startling litmus test of post-war Japanese fear. It’s also a complete outlier among the other entries in the series and not really what made Godzilla the cultural icon he’s become in the years since. Instead it was in the series of ever more ridiculous sequels that Godzilla took full form, moving from villain to hero and taking the franchise’s tone in a much lighter direction. Since then the heart of Godzilla has always been closer to pro-wrestling rather than a traditional disaster or horror movie. It’s chief appeal has been ludicrous sci-fi plots that culminate in bizarre monsters fighting each other for tenuous reasons. It’s glorious fun and it shouldn’t be any other way.

Unfortunately this is what Gareth Edwards’ 2014 American reboot of the series seems curiously lacking. It’s not that it’s entirely grim and dour, it’s just that it slams on the brakes each time it begins to look like it might be fun, it continues a tradition of American versions of Godzilla that come off as being faintly embarrassed by their source material.

It starts out very well with Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody living in Japan with his wife (Juliet Binoche) and his young son. A series of mysterious vibrations trigger a meltdown at the power plant Joe works at causing the evacuation of a large part of Japan. Cut to fifteen years later and Joe Brody has become estranged from his now grown up son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnston) and is obsessively hunting for the truth behind what happened. This is probably the best section of the film with lots of good conspiracy stuff and fitting ties parallels to Fukushima that serve to tie it to more recent nuclear fears. For a while I thought that it may actually avoid one of the pitfalls of many of the Japanese Godzilla movies by providing interesting and likeable human characters in the form of Bryan Cranston and Juliet Binoche who each put in great performances but unfortunately both get quickly sidestepped in favour of Aaron Taylor-Johnston’s personality devoid generic military guy and his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) who exists purely to give Aaron Taylor-Johnston some sort of motivation.

It turns out that the meltdown was due to one of a pair of villainous giant monsters called Muto’s who quickly emerge from cocoon states and begin smashing up large parts of Japan, Hawaii, and Las Vegas. A bunch of army types argue about how best to kill them and Ken Watanabe’s scientist character suggests leaving them for Godzilla, who’s apparently just been hiding in the ocean somewhere since the 1950’s.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that I turned against the film. Godzilla shows up very little throughout the early half of the film, building tension towards his final reveal. It builds and builds until he finally arrives and roars in the face of one of the Muto’s, an epic battle between the monsters kicks off and it’s incredible. Or at least I assume it is because we don’t get to see it. After Godzilla roars it cuts to a few seconds of Ford’s son watching the battle on a TV news report.
The pattern repeats through the rest of the film. Each time it looked like we’d finally get the monster action we were craving the film would abruptly cut to the less interesting human characters and every time it did it I would feel insulted and cheated. When we finally do get a full on monster battle it’s short, unspectacular and so dark and dimly lit (particularly if you see it in 3D )that it’s almost impossible to see what exactly is going on.

It left such a bad taste in my mouth that it overshadowed all of the things that the film does get right. There are some really fantastic action set pieces in this film. Just ones which barely involve Godzilla or other monsters.To cap it off the ending is also abrupt and nonsensical and features a hugely jarring piece of fan-service that doesn’t fit with the rest of the tone of the film.

I love Godzilla films and really hope that this film actually does get a series of sequels though, because even though I didn’t enjoy this one it could be a step towards getting the Godzilla film I want and if the franchise is allowed to continue we might just at some point get a decent film.

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