We generally tend to think blockbuster monster flicks aren’t going to be very good, and yet we always seem to expect a lot out of them. Well, the latest Hollywood rendition of the legendary Japanese lizard, Godzilla, was one of the my most anticipated movies of 2014, and I’m glad to report that it’s freaking awesome. It shits all over the 1998 Roland Emerich version (which was not as bad as historically remembered anyway) and is superior to last year’s Pacific Rim. While it’s far from perfect, it more than lives up to the hype and demonstrates that monster movies can be good after all.
I haven’t seen any of the Japanese versions of Godzilla, but from what I understand, this version pays homage to the origins of the creature, born from the Japan’s collective consciousness in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Cleverly, story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein take that and fuses it with the more recent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to create a narrative that touches on both the past and the present.
It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers (and trust me, there is a plot, and there are surprises for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese franchise), but essentially the story focuses on the family of Kick-Ass (an unrecognisable, insanely buffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US soldier in the mould of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker (in that he diffuses bombs) and his wife (played by the non-anorexic Olsen sister, Elizabeth) and their young son. Kick-Ass grew up in Japan, where his parents Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche worked as supervisors of a nuclear power plant until an “accident” turned their lives upside down, and Cranston is still trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it 15 years on. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (who was so brilliant in Blue Jasmine) play a couple of scientists who have been researching Godzilla for decades.
British director Gareth Evans was a natural choice for Godzilla. He was a the helm of the successful 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters, which I personally thought was a little overrated but did an excellent job of bringing forth the human elements of the story along with excellent special effects (not surprising as he started out his career in visual effects). Monsters was made on a shoestring US$500,000, whereas for Godzilla Edwards had US$160 million to play around with. Usually indie directors struggle when transitioning to big-budget blockbusters, but to Edwards’ credit he ensured that Godzilla had a compelling, emotional human story to tell, without forgetting that it is still ultimately a monster flick where everyone wants to see a lot of carnage and devastation.
Speaking of Godzilla’s “human” story, kudos must go to Heisenberg, or Tim Whatley, or whatever you want to call him. He stole every scene he’s in and was the epicenter of the film’s emotional core. The characters weren’t exactly well-written, but I cared about them and the story when he was on screen, and it was his absence later on that caused the me to stop caring about the humans (in particular Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s relationship). It’s not that they were bad — to the contrary, actually — but they paled in comparison to Cranston’s now-mythical acting prowess and presence.
Fortunately, me losing interest in the human story coincided with Godzilla’s “in all his glory” appearance on the IMAX screen, which rendered everything else secondary. If you want to see Godzilla do what he does best, and that’s smashing shit up, then I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The sheer scale of the action was jaw dropping enough, but Edwards also infused the scenes with intelligence and creativity. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find and just enjoy the ride. (I’d pass on the 3D though — once again a complete waste of time and money)
How do the monster scenes compare to Pacific Rim? Favourably, in my opinion. Pacific Rim was more about live-action anime-style eye candy designed to provide a lot of euphoric “cool” and “yeah” moments, whereas Godzilla was more “grounded in reality”, so to speak. In contrast to the energetic vibrancy of Pacific Rim’s bright colour schemes, Godzilla is almost entirely grey and misty, but it matches the sombre and mysterious tone well.
What sets Godzilla apart from Pacific Rim and most other big Hollywood monster movies, however, is that Godzilla himself is a character rather than just an ugly prop wreaking havoc for no discernible cause. There is a purpose for Godzilla’s existence and a reason behind his actions, and I anticipate that a lot of people will be surprised by how the big fella is portrayed.
I don’t agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the film, which include that Godzilla is too fat. He’s not fat. He’s just big-boned. I also believe, contrary to some claims, that Godzilla received sufficient screen time. I actually think Edwards arranged it perfectly, giving us enough glimpses early on to whet our appetites, building up the suspense throughout the second act, and finally giving Godzilla to us unencumbered — free from blurriness, rapid cuts and obstructions — in the climax. It’s not how much time he has on screen anyway; it’s what you do with him when he’s there, and Godzilla had ample opportunity to demonstrate why the film was named after him.
Having said that, I do have some other criticisms of my own. First, while the overall pace of the film is good, there were times when the momentum sagged because Edwards was trying too hard to establish the characters. It was more or less the same problem I had with Monsters, but to a lesser extent. Secondly, apart from Kick-Ass and Heisenberg, no other human character actually does anything in the entire film. Olsen, for instance, was just the anxious wife who spends all her time doing little other than being really worried about her husband. Watanabe and Hawkins just sat around and observed, pretty much, and by the end I had forgotten that they were even in the film at all. The problem is not as egregious as it sounds because if I had a choice between resolving these characters’ stories and watching Godzilla doing Godzilla things, I’d always choose the latter. And my guess is that Edwards, upon realising that the film should not be much longer than 2 hours (it’s 123 minutes), went in the same direction.
Despite its flaws, Godzilla is frighteningly close to everything I could have hoped for. An intelligent premise that pays homage to the original and contemporary events, an all-star cast powered by the almighty Bryan Cranston, passable characters and dialogue, and most of all, riveting, eye-popping monster action with impeccable special effects. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.
4 stars out of 5