In my mind, the criteria for a good Godzilla movie is this: do the necessary human characters and plot get in the way of Godzilla smashing and burning stuff, or does it mostly stay out of the way? If the last serious American effort at adapting the iconic Japanese monster, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 bomb, is any indication, finding that balance is even harder than it looks.
The new Godzilla film, a franchise reboot of sorts, seems to be in a much better position, at least on paper. Whether it succeeds as a good Godzilla movie depends on your idea of what constitutes Godzilla in the first place.
No one has ever really attempted to make a Godzilla movie with compelling human drama or reaching some kind of rich meaning behind the destruction, but that’s exactly where this film positions itself. With the Legendary production label backing it up, it’s very much a “gritty” interpretation, in the vein of Man of Steel or The Dark Knight. If the idea of a gritty Godzilla movie sounds ridiculous, that’s because it probably is. But it’s also what makes this incarnation worth a second look.
The surprisingly heavy plot concerns a Japan-based nuclear plant supervisor (Brian Cranston) who is obsessively investigating the seismic activity that killed his wife when it caused a powerful power plant to collapse. He believes the government is hiding something big, and has soon pulled in his Navy engineer son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), along with a pair of research scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins). Soon enough, they find a giant chrysalis containing a MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism); and there would be no monster movie if the darn thing didn’t hatch and start wreaking havoc. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), there is an ancient beast that has been awakened, hell bent on destroying the MUTO itself.
The human elements of the film start off surprisingly emotionally resonant thanks to standout performances from Brian Cranston, as well as a sensitive performance from the underrated Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, Elle.
But other elements bring it down. The vast majority of the dialogue is either complex scientific jargon or painfully obvious foreshadowing. A character actually says “It’s not the end of the world” before all the smashing begins. Cute. I didn’t ask for Christopher Nolan-esque ponderings on man and nature in my monster movie, but I’m sure we’ll get them anyway.
The globetrotting nature of the plot doesn’t help, either. The film jumps around from location to location so frequently it’s easy to lose track of what you’re supposed to be focusing on. The jarring editing, especially when cutting to different characters, adds to the frustration.
It’s a slow burn getting to the giant lizard in action, but it’s definitely worth the wait. Godzilla’s new design is beyond awesome, and the creatures he goes to bat against are impressive in both scope and design. The quality of an incarnation of Godzilla and its monsters should be directly proportionate to how many “wows” the audience utters whenever it’s on screen. I emitted several. This is some of the most visually impressive destruction and creature design I’ve seen in years.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t feel the need to show that much of it. Every time we think we’re going to get a really good Godzilla fight, the movie cuts away to the increasingly boring humans trying to figure stuff out (we need to stop a nuclear bomb and multiple rampaging terrors? Why don’t we follow them around on a giant, slow moving ship?). There is a lot of devastation (including a particularly awesome leveling of Las Vegas), but we often get to see only the aftermath. While last summer’s Pacific Rim got 4 or so fully visualized giant monster showdowns, we maybe get 2 here. At least they’re shot well and convey an appropriate sense of weight; these are, after all, the equivalent of rampaging skyscrapers knocking each other around. If the action’s slow pace throws off modern audiences, that’s only because the blockbuster’s overindulgence in shaky cam and fast cutting has desensitized us to the allure of good, solid, classic combat. Whether the last 20 minutes of Godzilla truly strutting his stuff is a suitable payoff for the hour and a half of build-up is up to you. For me, it was.
I think a great Godzilla movie might get made someday, and I think this Godzilla is a giant clawed footstep in the right direction. The balance between wanton destruction and telling a compelling (and, more importantly, coherent) narrative may need some major work, but the big guy himself can’t help but garner a giant, childlike grin every time he’s on screen. And, coming from someone who has never even given Godzilla a glance, that is impressive. Some fans may be fundamentally opposed to a serious take on Godzilla, but if, like me, you never could get past the inherent cheese factor of most previous incarnations, this might be the monster movie for you.