There are very few movie monsters that don’t need an introduction. Godzilla is one such creature. Standing taller than a skyscraper and weighing more than an entire fleet of army battleships, the original Japanese daikaiju — or giant monster — turned international icon has spent the past 60 years battling the likes of King Kong, humungous flying insects, and even a mechanized version of himself. The mightiest of monsters has prevailed every time. In 1998, however, Godzilla finally met his match: Hollywood. Even with a huge budget, the Roland Emmerich creature-feature “Godzilla,” starring Matthew Broderick, turned out to be a box office dud and all but sent the reptilian beast to its grave forever.
Fast-forward over 15 years and the god of monsters is back. Starring a buff and brawny Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and a fierce Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), the latest addition to the franchise is definitely a massive, Godzilla-sized step up from its predecessor.
Forget what you know about the old Godzilla, because fledgling director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) and screenwriter Max Borenstein (Swordsmen and Thin Men) spend the first half of the movie recreating the fiction behind the beast. Through a series of grainy camera footage and glimpses of classified government documents, the audience learns that the monster wasn’t created by nuclear testing — like the 1954 original film implied — but rather these radioactive bombs were an attempt to kill the colossal creature. Like a super dinosaur that never dies, Godzilla has been on earth pretty much forever.
Borenstein’s obsession with backstory, next leads the viewer to a Japanese Nuclear Power Plant. It is there that we meet Joe (Cranston) and Sandra Brody (Julliette Binoche), two Americans working at the plant. When an ‘earthquake’ wreaks havoc on the city, the facility crumbles and the community must evacuate. Years later, their son Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson), a soldier in the U.S. Army, is called to Japan to bail his father out of jail. Joe, the former engineer turned conspiracy theorist, has become obsessed with uncovering the truth behind the quake that destroyed more than just his livelihood. He doesn’t have to wait long, because soon after, mega-monsters start terrorizing cities around the world.
While it is refreshing to see an added human element to a film genre that generally forgets to do so, the story’s pace suffers because of it. Gareth Edwards, whose breakout indie hit “Monsters” landed him in the director’s seat, proves he is a master of foreplay. From subtle monster-like shadows that lurk beneath the ocean, to fossilized remains of a dinosaur that kind of looks like Godzilla, the director certainly whets the audience’s appetite before delivering the first glimpse of a fully CGI created Godzilla. But when it has been over 10 years since the iconic beast reared its mighty head, this delayed exposure doesn’t work. Ford, his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and Joe can be given as much character development as necessary, but in a movie called “Godzilla,” I don’t care about a heart-wrenching love story side plot until I see the gargantuan monster level a few buildings first. He’s the reason why I’m sitting in the theater with goofy 3D glasses adhered to my face. I came to see a 3D Godzilla, not a 3D former “Breaking Bad” star!
When that glorious moment does come, and Godzilla finally makes his grand entrance, visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel (The Amazing Spider-Man) and his creative team show that they have put the film’s massive budget to good use. No daikaiju has ever looked so real. The King of Monsters is stripped away from all of its B-Movie former self and is officially brought to life. Primal ferocity oozes out of each and every CGI created scale.
Godzilla’s rivals (known as MUTO or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are just as sleek. Part alien, part dinosaur, and all together frightening, these MUTO are the true bad guys in the film. They’re the ones that want to destroy the world just because they can, while Godzilla — filling in for Mother Nature — wants to restore the natural order. Humans, as always, can’t just stand and watch as their cities are turned into oversized WWE wrestling rings. Nope. They have to start messing things up by bringing in a bomb that could potentially destroy all of San Francisco.
The majority of this action is seen through Ford’s perspective as he makes his way from Japan to California to reunite with his family. Taylor-Johnson, who has beefed up to an almost unrecognizable size since last year’s “Kick-Ass 2,” is engaging in the role. With so much characterization and a beautiful wife and baby boy at home, it’s hard not to root for him to make it back to the Bay Area and reunite with his family.
As for the other two top billed actors, Bryan Cranston is fiery as Ford’s conspiracy theorist of a father, and Olsen — well, she does a great job working with what she’s given which are mainly reaction scenes and the occasional crying “I miss my husband” meltdown.
There is no doubt that 2014’s “Godzilla” is better than its 1998 predecessor by leaps and bounds, yet there is still something missing. Whether it was the decision to place all of the major battle scenes at night instead of allowing Godzilla to let out one of his mighty roars during the day, or the general lack of any monster mayhem for the first sixty minutes of the film, I couldn’t help but feel a little unimpressed by the undisputed King of the Monsters. Without ever really explaining where it was hiding for all these years and disappearing just as fast at the end of the film, Godzilla shows up and leaves more like a disorderly guest at a dinner party than mankind’s savior against the MUTO. Maybe an added fight scene or two against the MUTO could’ve rectified the problem. Maybe a little less focus on those human specks way down there on street level could’ve helped as well.
Godzilla has always had the uncanny ability to unleash the inner child in us all. I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze this concept, but I will say that my inner kid was screaming, “Let them fight! Let them fight!” throughout the whole movie. Hopefully, next time Gareth Edwards will listen to his inner child a little bit better and provide a creature-feature with more action and less unnecessary melodrama.
By David Morris
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence