I need to stop doing this to myself.
I need to stop expecting **** Top 10 films from blockbusters. I almost always screw myself over, downgrading a film just because it wasn’t transcendent.
Godzilla isn’t a **** film. It’s a *** film, close to a ***½ film, but I didn’t use any algorithms to justify my score, I went with my gut. Watching the film, only occasionally achieving the sense of true and terrible wonder and absorption I was expecting, and afterwards, finding myself remembering it more in a general sense than remembering great moments, great lines, or the like, my instincts told me: it’s a good film, not a great one. But there are certainly reasons to see it, and not just for Godzilla buffs.
1999: In the Philippines, researchers Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) discover the remains of a massive ancient creature and an egg pod which appears to have recently hatched. In Japan, nuclear plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is monitoring unexplained tremors which occur at regular intervals and are increasing in intensity. The cause of these tremors attacks the plant, causing an accident which kills Brody’s technician wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche).
15 years later, Brody is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined zone around the plant, and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now working as an EOD specialist for the U.S. Army, bails him out. Although Ford doubts his father’s claims that the plant’s destruction was not an accident, he accompanies him on a further expedition into the quarantine zone, where they discover the radiation levels have fallen to zero. They return to their old home, where Brody recovers his findings from 15 years earlier, proving that what destroyed the plant has returned.
Brody and Ford discover that the site of the plant is the center of some large-scale operation, and are arrested and taken there. At the center of the plant is an egg pod, which Serizawa and Graham are monitoring. Brody, now in custody, demands to be heard, claiming that whatever force caused the previous accident is bound to return and send humanity “back to the Stone Age”. The radioactive pulses within the pod intensify, and the operation electrocutes it. Instead of killing it, a winged insectoid creature emerges and destroys the plant, mortally wounding Brody, then flying away to the east.
The Army assumes control of the operation and dubs the creature a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Serizawa reveals to Ford that in prehistoric times, when the Earth was much more radioactive, creatures existed which fed off radiation. As the Earth’s radioactivity decreased, these creatures moved underwater, ultimately to the bottom of the ocean. The apex predator of this race, we learn, was the target of what were believed to be bomb tests in the Pacific decades earlier. This predator, Serizawa says, may be the only thing which can kill the MUTO.
Or MUTOs, since in a nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada, another egg pod which Serizawa and Graham had studied has hatched, the fruit of which is headed west to meet with the first MUTO–they are a male and female seeking to mate. The apex predator surfaces and begins following the MUTO, first to Honolulu, but all three creatures appear to be converging on San Francisco–where Brody’s wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde) are. Thus, the happy outcome of all depends on the showdown between the MUTOs and the predator–named Godzilla.
As seemingly complex as that summary was, the film itself is quite straight-forward in its plotting, since what matters here are not the humans, but the beasts. And the beasts are impressive indeed. When the MUTOs are united, and nuzzle each other affectionately, it’s really kind of touching, since as portrayed here, the beasts (I suppose I should call them kaiju, but I feel like Pacific Rim appropriated that term) are not truly malevolent; they just don’t give a shit about humanity. The MUTOs have a sinister quality to them (it goes without saying that the special effects are impeccable), but they’re not out to wipe out humanity or anything like that; they want to eat radioactivity (when they meet, one gives the other a warhead as a love offering) and fuck.
As for Godzilla…well, what do you expect? The first time we see him in whole (as opposed to glimpses of his spinal ridges) is a great moment, and throughout he’s realized as a primordial force, a powerful, slightly weary (and as portrayed here, a touch out of shape), yet ultimately impressive monster who earns the title he receives at film’s end–the King of Monsters. His screentime in the film is actually pretty limited, but he makes the impression he needs to.
The film deserves credit for its ending, which doesn’t delay matters, doesn’t force a sequel (while leaving the door open for one), and reminds us who the real star of the show is.
But the film has weaknesses. The human element is less obtrusive than one might fear, but when the cast was announced, I expected it to be more accomplished. Indeed, the strength of the cast backfires a little, because you’ve got these fine performers playing roles that ask very little of them, and playing second fiddle to the action sequences and the kaiju.
Cranston easily gives the best performance here: the scene of Sandra’s death is quite heart-rending, and Cranston plays his grief and self-blame as well as he plays Brody’s later obsessions. The trailers suggested that he would be a major protagonist, and as far as I’m concerned, he should’ve been. Ford just isn’t that compelling of a character, and while Taylor-Johnson plays him well enough, he’s pretty unmemorable. (Taylor-Johnson seems to be one of those actors Hollywood doesn’t totally know what to do with.)
Watanabe is also quite solid, subtly showing the toll decades of monster-chasing has taken on Serizawa, yet remaining focused (in this he is sort of the opposite of Brody). In one of his best moments, he argues with a Navy Admiral (David Strathairn) about the wisdom of using a warhead to destroy the MUTOs and Godzilla. The admiral explains that his objective is to save human life, and Serizawa produces a watch–his father’s–which stopped at the exact moment of the Hiroshima blast.
Beyond Cranston and Watanabe, though, the cast is not especially well-used. Binoche is good, but is barely in the film, Strathairn likewise brings more to the table than the role would suggest, but he too doesn’t do that much (and his monologue from the great teaser trailer is not to be found). Olsen is stuck with pretty thankless role, and can’t really do much with it. Hawkins has a few good moments of educated desperation, but she’s still wasted in the role.
Again, the human characters aren’t and never were the film’s real focal point, but when a cast this strong is assembled, you expect a little more.
This is only Gareth Edwards’ second feature as a director (his first, Monsters, has a good reputation), but he handles the film pretty well. There isn’t a strong directorial voice at work here (advantage: Pacific Rim), but Edwards makes a fairly lean monster movie and doesn’t let it devolve into camp or calcify into glum seriousness. There are some weak moments (a few attempts to pull the heartstrings with the tribulations of children feel gratuitous), but on the whole, Edwards makes a solid film, and I can’t find too much fault with his work.
The script, credited to Max Borenstein (though quite a few others had a hand in it), is likewise solid, but there are few really memorable lines, and the characters are no more fleshed-out than the average.
Technically, it’s as good as you’d expect from a tentpole summer franchise film. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is pleasingly subdued, forgoing extraneous flair in favor of showing the monsters and the havoc they wreak clearly and fully. Alexandre Desplat’s score is not one of his most memorable, but it adds to the film’s effect.
And the visual effects are quite marvelous. Godzilla and the MUTOs have real character, giving the film perhaps its biggest advantage over Pacific Rim; you actually care a little about these creatures. There’s one climactic moment which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say it makes the MUTOs more sympathetic than you might imagine.
All told, Godzilla is a very solid film that avoids some (but not all) of the pitfalls that such films risk. But solidity and the avoidance of error do not a great film make. Perhaps the intent was never to make a great film, just to make a good piece of entertainment. In that, they succeeded. But they did not make a truly memorable film.