This is one of the few reviews in my Godzilla-thon that is difficult to talk about, because I have already written a full review of this movie on my blog. In fact, in the case of the 2014 “Godzilla” I practically wrote three reviews of that movie already, analyzing it from nearly every perspective I could think. But I guess there is another point-of-view I could look at the other American Godzilla film from, and that’s from a distant perspective.
It has now been over three years since “Godzilla” was released. Fans have had time to analyze the movie in detail, Toho has already released another Godzilla film since then and is planning a new trilogy of animated Godzilla films, and a huge Monsterverse has been launched with “Godzilla” acting as the first movie in that series.
So, rather than retreading the same ground I already covered in my previous reviews of this movie, I’ll use this review to answer one question – How does “Godzilla” hold up?
To give a brief plot description, the film mostly follows the Brody family, in particular the father Joe (Bryan Cranston) and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Joe was the supervisor of a nuclear facility in Japan until some unexplained tremors caused the plant to be destroyed, along with his wife. Joe has spent nearly the last twenty years researching the cause of those tremors and comes to the conclusion that it was not an accident and that there are bigger players and powers at work here. Ford is a bomb defuse expert in the American military, who has just returned from active duty to spend time with his family in San Francisco. But when Joe needs Ford’s help in Japan, Ford reluctantly agrees to help him discover what exactly happened to the nuclear plant all those years ago.
What they find is a hibernating monster, codenamed M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) that feeds off nuclear energy like a parasite and can shut down all electronics with an EMP. As the monster escapes, Joe is killed and Ford is recruited by the mysterious organization Monarch to help track down the creature. One of the scientists, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) tells Ford about a force that would hunt down and kill the Muto, an ancient creature that is at the top of the food chain – Godzilla.
The general consensus for “Godzilla” seems to be that while Godzilla is on screen, the movie is amazing. But the problem is that Godzilla is on screen for all of eight minutes.
Do I agree with that consensus? Yes and no.
I do agree that when Godzilla is being shown, the film is at its absolute best, especially when it demonstrates Godzilla’s size and scope like when he tosses around battleships like they were leaves on the water or creates a tsunami when he comes out of the ocean.
One of my favorite little bits is when the Muto is in the middle of destroying the airport and everyone is screaming their heads off, but all of a sudden Godzilla’s foot steps into frame and everything goes silent. The screams stop, the explosions are silenced – everyone is in awe of the monster that just appeared out of no where. This creature deserves our attention and they give Godzilla one of the best entrances of any monster I have ever seen.
But at the same time, it is disappointing that we only get to see so much of Godzilla. One of the biggest problems I have with the movie follows that great entrance. You have the first confrontation between Godzilla and the Muto ready to go and show a huge monster brawl through Honolulu, and yet you cut away from it the moment Godzilla roars at the Muto. We don’t get to see any of the ensuing fight, just the aftermath.
There are moments where I wish we got to see more of the monsters doing their thing, instead of just the destruction they leave behind. But I do get what the movie was going for. This movie gets much better when you look at it as a thriller instead of a monster movie, where the monsters aren’t there to be action pieces, but instead as the biggest possible threat to our characters.
Think of Godzilla like the shark in “Jaws” – We don’t get to see very much of either of them, so both movies do their best to work with their limitations by building up the suspense around them. We witness their ferocity, size, and power without actually ever seeing them. So by the time they both play an active part in the movie, we already have an idea what they are capable of and know to fear them. Each second they’re out in the ocean, getting closer and closer to pouncing somewhere and doing god-knows what to a bunch of unsuspecting people. They’re not really monsters, as much as they are time bombs building the tension up every moment they’re not on screen.
In this case, the limited screen time for Godzilla works the films’ advantage. Instead of showing the monsters wrecking havoc on the world, we see it through the individuals’ point of view. We see the millions of people without power or homes in Honolulu, or the thousands of people stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge.
One of the best shots of the whole movie is a tracking shot of a field filled with cars stuck on a highway trying to get out of town, only to reveal a crashed airplane in the middle of the field. We see emergency crews trying to get to the airplane, but there’s so much traffic that it seems impossible to get there. We see cars going off on the grass to get away from the other vehicles. Each car tells a different story about how people react to these fantastic yet dangerous situations.
Even when following single people there are some tense and heart-pounding scenes here. The one where Ford is trapped on the wooden bridge with a flaming train behind him and a pregnant monster in front is filmed and paced perfectly. Or the halo jump from high above downtown San Francisco with the creepy “2001: A Space Odyssey” music playing, as they descend right on top of the monsters. When this movie wants to be suspenseful, it excels at it.
But the biggest compliment I can give this movie is also one of its greatest weaknesses. All of those tense and thrilling sequences mean very little if you don’t care about the safety and well-being of the characters involved. Would the opening sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” be as exciting or suspenseful if we didn’t know anything about Indiana Jones? Or if Harrison Ford’s acting wasn’t as compelling or emotional? No, then we would feel nothing when Indy was chased by that giant boulder.
And here lies the main problem with “Godzilla” – outside of Bryan Cranston’s performance, the acting sucks. Everyone always has these emotionless blank faces to all the other-worldly things going on like they just got out of bed and don’t care about anything until they get their coffee. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is especially bland, because he’s around during nearly every monster sequence and always has this neutral facial expression that drives me crazy. He’s been so desensitized to all this that he cannot emote properly. I understand that he’s a solider who has seen combat and violence, but if you’re being out-acted by a computer image then something is wrong here.
Bryan Cranston is the only actor in this movie that seems to give a damn, since he takes an active role in searching a government concealed mystery and will not stop until he gets the answers he came for. He is a man driven by grief, sadness, and regret, and will not settle until he finds the truth. Cranston’s acting reflects this, especially when he starts yelling about what Monarch is covering up at the nuclear plant. I cared about his fight to find out what rightfully deserved and had been denied for nearly 20 years.
Which is why it’s all the more confusing when they kill him off halfway through the movie. The only interesting character in the whole film, and he’s dead before Godzilla even shows up. He doesn’t even get enough time to react to news that a monster was the cause of the plant’s destruction, just an accidental death in the middle of the opening rampage from the Muto. And then we get stuck is his boring-as-dirt son.
Why couldn’t it have been the other way around, where Ford died in the initial attack and then we follow Joe around for the rest of the movie? That would have made this movie amazing. If we weren’t being entertained by the presence of monsters or the destruction and carnage they bring, we’d be getting a powerful performance from Bryan Cranston, especially in the second half when he’d be grief-stricken from losing his son.
Anyway, it is difficult for me to say that I hate this movie when there are so many amazingly tense and suspenseful moments throughout, but I see why people would leave the theater feeling disappointed. Personally, I don’t think the problem is there weren’t enough scenes with Godzilla. I think there was just enough of Godzilla to keep his sense of scale and awe throughout the entire film. I think the problem is that there wasn’t enough good acting to keep the human scenes as interesting as the monster scenes.
The reason “Jaws” works from start to finish is because the acting from its leads compliments to thriller-atmosphere and makes you want to see if our heroes will make it out alive. While “Godzilla” is like “Jaws” in many respects, the difference between the two is the compelling acting that doesn’t deliver when it needed to. It doesn’t provide the emotional punch and impact that it deserved when you see Godzilla and the Mutos battling in downtown San Francisco. Those scenes come and go and I feel next to nothing about them. It isn’t until Godzilla finally busts out his atomic breath and starts being a badass that things get interesting again.
So does “Godzilla” hold up? The monster scenes absolutely hold up still, showcasing some brilliant camera work and pacing, and most of the scenes with Bryan Cranston are good due to his acting. Everything else in the movie is pretty forgettable because you don’t give a damn about any other characters. This makes “Godzilla” a tough yet satisfying experience for me.