If you were to poll 100 audience members walking into a theater Friday night to see Godzilla, I doubt a single one of them would cite “the emotional catharsis of a reunited family” as the thing they were most looking forward to witnessing. In fact, scratch that 100 figure—make it 1,000. Make it 10,000. You know what you want to see in Godzilla. Producers at Legendary Pictures must know what you want to see in Godzilla. I don’t need to say it, because you already know. So why must we focus with such gusto on The Adventures of the Uninteresting People?
Godzilla is a film about delayed gratification, the promise of a titanic spectacle that eventually does arrive, if just barely. At times it’s cheekily clever in its subversion of the audience’s expectations for a summer blockbuster, and one might almost accuse it of cinematic trolling, setting you up again and again with the promise of an eventual monster brawl payoff before a short delivery and conclusion. It back-loads every bit of your eventual opinion of the flick into the final 30 minutes, but what is the audience supposed to make of the 90 minutes that precede it? Those 90 minutes are a problem.
Rarely has a summer blockbuster dangled a powerhouse actor as bait like Godzilla does with Bryan Cranston. Playing Joe Brody, a nuclear physicist who loses his wife in a kaiju-related “natural disaster,” he’s the film’s early emotional core and plot-driver as a man obsessively searching for the truth. Go back and watch some of the trailers: His narration is central to every one. When he stares into the eyes of his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and proclaims his determination, the film feels like it suddenly has dramatic electricity for the first and only time. Unfortunately, that’s also when the rug is pulled out from under your feet, and Cranston is utterly disposed of from the film’s plot. By the end of the film, the audience has forgotten he ever existed.
What we’re left with is Taylor-Johnson, the film’s actual star, presumably chosen because the main tasks required of this character were “running” and “jumping” rather than “acting” or “emoting.” Elizabeth Olsen also appears as his wife, but she doesn’t have a single thing that might be considered a recognizable character trait, other than a presumable desire to not be eaten by monsters. Together with their 5-year-old son, they form a family of American stock characters. If Taylor-Johnson were replaced midway through the film by Sam Worthington, it’s hard to believe anyone would notice or care.
The plot, meanwhile is inane—and here this is actually a positive. Its weapons-grade stupidity is a credit to writer Max Borenstein, who actually seems to understand that the appeal of Godzilla isn’t rooted in family dynamics but pulpy science fiction ridiculousness. The two monsters that Godzilla finally does battle with in the third act, the MUTOS, are rather wonderful creations that evoke a few of the lesser-known monsters from the Godzilla universe, primarily Orga and Megaguirus. The fact that these EMP-generating beasts physically feed on radiation, literally digesting it as a foodstuff, is wonderful nonsense that goes beyond anything that even the Japanese films ever dreamed up. It actually feels like we’re having fun and checking our expectations for reality at the door.
Those bits of goofy exposition, in addition to the eventual monster battles, are when Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is at its best. The film wants to have all this heft and gravity, but it’s about huge monsters fighting each other. The plot is, for all intents and purposes, practically identical to any Asylum film featuring a combination of the words “Mega Shark,” “Crocosaurus” or “Gatoroid,” except with much, much better effects. So why try to put on airs? Pacific Rim knew quite well what it was, but Godzilla is hurt by its own reluctance to give in to fan service.
The reason for the tonal conflict is that Edwards’ Godzilla can’t decide which Godzilla flicks it wants to channel. Most of the time, it desperately seeks the gravitas of the 1954 original, but it also wants to satisfy a summer movie audience hungry for the over-the-top monster action of the subsequent sequels. It’s practically impossible to do both at once, but every moment where it swings in favor of the latter makes it more enjoyable as a whole.
None of its flaws quite manage to kill the fun of watching Godzilla, because, for all of the poor choices made in terms of screen time, the big guy himself still manages to be an awe-inspiring character in spite of the movie’s best efforts to the contrary. For the great majority of the film, we only ever see him through the perspective of humans, which has the twofold effect of amplifying his majesty while reducing his characterization. It isn’t until near the end, not coincidentally when we start to see him from a non-fixed perspective, that he develops a real character of his own and we start to care, just in time.
Ideally, what this means is that the pieces have been put in place for a sequel that embraces the good in this Godzilla. Edwards has already stated that he would like to make a sequel in the vein of the classic Destroy all Monsters, which would minimize the disinteresting human exposition and expand the kaiju-related action to truly epic proportions. It may be the equivalent of a geek’s pipe dream, but for plenty of audience members that would be a dream come true.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
Release Date: Friday, May 16