By Matthew McKibben | May 15, 2014
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story)
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, Godzilla
The line between a classic summer movie and a really, really good one is pretty thin, usually coming down to a series of small missteps or one major glaring weakness that prevents a good movie from becoming a great one. Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla almost makes it to the rarified air inhabited by the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park and Star Wars, but the acting and dialogue keep it from doing so.
Edwards is clearly a Steven Spielberg fan. I know this not because I’ve read it in an interview or seen any promotional materials that have mentioned the great bearded one, but from the first frame of Godzilla to the last, I immediately felt like I was watching a circa-1995 Steven Spielberg movie. The way the shots are framed (by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), even something as simple as a helicopter flying over the Philippines, immediately calls to mind the Spielberg that made Jurassic Park. But even beyond the cinematography of certain shots, Edwards is smart enough to know that you shouldn’t reinvent the wheel with this kind of movie. Spielberg made the template, Edwards fills in the blanks.
Edwards knows how to build suspense from one scene to the next and understands that the slow-burn method of storytelling is needed for a movie that will inevitably have Godzilla facing off against other giant creatures in downtown San Francisco. This movie isn’t Jaws, but like that movie, you only see enough of the giant creatures to whet your appetite; so you’re not full by the time the main course arrives. If this movie had started off like a Michael Bay movie, you’d have the giant monsters fighting from the get-go, and by the time they were duking it out in the Bay Area, you’d be bored and ready for your ears to stop bleeding. But Edwards is not always successful in employing the slow-burn. There are times when it seems like something massive is about to happen, but Edwards opts to show the action on a television monitor or cuts away to a different scene altogether. This directorial teasing can be a little off-putting at times — I kept wanting to shout “JUST SHOW THE DAMN THING ALREADY!”
Make no mistake about it, once the spectacle does hit, you’ll be glad that Edwards employed that technique; you will eventually see all that you’ve ever wanted to see in a movie like this and then some. This movie pulls no punches, showing exactly what it would look like if monsters of this nature squared off against one another in a massive urban environment. I’ve often contemplated doing an Onion.com style piece where you have various skyscrapers surrendering to mankind on the decks of an aircraft ala the Japanese unconditional surrender in World War II. “We give up!” Movies with falling buildings is a (disturbing?) new trend in Hollywood (Transformers Dark of the Moon, Man of Steel, The Avengers, etc), but this movie puts the others to shame. When the lights finally came back on in San Francisco, I was surprised to still see any buildings still standing.
Godzilla and the giant MUTOs that he squares off with are sights to behold. This is some of the best creature design I’ve seen in a long, long time and the various special effects and sound design companies that worked on the film are worthy of high praise. The final third of this movie is basically one prolonged monster fight and the goods are delivered. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that this is the plates-glowing, fire-breathing, iconic-roaring Godzilla that I grew up with, but on a scale that puts all other variations I’ve seen to shame. I’m going to go ahead and call it, too: this movie has the greatest monster kill scene of all time. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll be laughing and clapping along with the rest of the audience when you see it go down.
If the movie has one glaring weakness, it comes via the lead actors. The movie starts off all well and good with a tense situation finding Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody (an obvious reference to Chief Brody from Jaws) attempting to save his wife from an apparent nuclear meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. Based on all of the trailers that have been released, you’d think that Cranston was the lead of this movie. You’ll probably be shocked at how little he’s actually in the movie, though, and I think the movie suffers because of that. In the little time he’s in the movie, Cranston gives the movie much of its heart and soul.
When the movie turns into a race against time with Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) trying to make it home to San Francisco to save his son and wife Elle (a reference to Ellen Brody from Jaws) the acting begins to suffer quite a bit. At that point, the acting falls into two categories: military situation rooms where people come up with attack plans and scenes where people run away from massive CGI creatures, just off screen. Because of that, the movie loses quite a bit of its heart. Don’t get me wrong, expressing terror and running away from massive beings that obviously aren’t on the sound-stage with the actors is a skill that must be harder than it looks. But, by this point in the movie, despite the weakness of the acting, the sheer awe of the spectacle Edwards is putting on screen is enough to carry the movie through it’s destructive climax.
Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa does well with what he has, but his lines are pretty corny and heavy-handed. The corny works, though, because cornily delivered dialogue about man vs nature and the heavy-handedness of nuclear weaponry is a staple of Godzilla movies, and I like to think that Watanabe knowingly brought that 60-year lineage of monster movie dialogue with him to this movie.
I’ve heard and read many complaints about how Alexandre Desplat’s score was too “on the money” and obvious, however it worked for me. The score is more of a functional score than one where you leave singing particular themes. For a movie like this, it works.
It probably will make little difference if you see this movie in 3-D or 2-D, but do not, I repeat, DO NOT see this movie at a theater with a substandard sound system. This movie is meant to be experienced. Godzilla is the king of the monsters and Godzilla is the king of the monster movie.