How Nature points out the folly of man.
--Blue Oyster Cult, Godzilla.
Let me start by saying this: Legendary, you missed a big opportunity by not sneaking this song among the various other Godzilla references you peppered throughout this movie. Don't even go telling me it would be too on-the-nose after the Mothra shout-out.
This is a review I sat on for a bit since I didn't get to the film in theaters until it was several weeks into its run, and at that point, the review seemed somewhat past its prime. However, now that the film is having it's home release, I figure these thoughts are still valid.
I'll admit I was pretty skeptical of when this was first announced. It wasn't even just because of the infamous Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie, because I still haven't bothered with that one. Nor was it a matter of thinking the Japanese films are inherently superior, because anyone who thinks that needs to watch Godzilla's Revenge. I was just really unsure on how to feel about the approach being employed here. Everything in the marketing made it sound like this film was going to be a 'back to basics' approach to the brand, and I mean all the way back. Godzilla was going to go back to being the living embodiment of the destructive powers humanity had unearthed. On one hand, I was intrigued to see a callback to this. On the other, it's one that feels a little disingenuous to be coming at from this side of the Pacific- but that's a whole other matter. Plus, the fact this was then entrusted to the hands of a director who had only one feature film under his belt at the time had me hesitant.
So begins another morning commute for Godzilla...
With all of this in mind, I went into the film with my expectations reasonably tethered. I went in wanting to like it and be fair to it, but also not expecting the scaly, nuclear Second Coming.
So how did it do?
Depends on what aspect of it you look at, really.
As an overall movie, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla is a very mixed bag- when it's good, it's actually a blast to watch, but when it misses, it's very hard to forgive. Especially when the miss elements so thoroughly outnumber the hits.
Fortunately, one of the areas where they succeed is the one area everyone's paying to see- the monster fights in this are great stuff. In fact, they're one of the big reasons I'm glad I finally did go ahead with seeing this one on the big screen. My only complaint about the monster action- and I know I'm not alone in this-is that there's not enough of it. Which, don't get me wrong, is actually somewhat par for the course of a Godzilla movie, but it's still hard not to feel disappointed here.
Still, they make the most of their screentime here. Even though these monsters aren't the classic people in suits, they still genuinely feel solid and throw their weight around while fighting. These are knock-down, drag-out monster brawls, and I genuinely hope that with the success of the film, the sequel will actually deliver more. On top of all of this, it culminates in arguably the most rewarding part of the movie. After an entire movie of just slugging it out, Godzilla makes with one of his fan favorite moves-yes, the famous nuclear death breath, and oh GOD is it worth the wait.
"WHICH ONE OF YOU CALLED ME FAT?!"
The one other point I'll give the monsters (because much as I'd love to make this all about them, they're not the majority of this film) is the designs. These are a HUGE improvement over the infamous '98 makeover. Yes, I know everyone's joked about the more heavy-set Godzilla, but honestly, once I got to seeing it more in action, it grew on me pretty fast. On top of this, his antagonists- the nuclear creatures codenamed Mutos - grew a lot on me once I saw them in action. Their look is distinctive, and surprisingly, the film even gives them some degree of personality, such as when they reunite in the middle of a city. For being creatures that look to be giant mutated insects, they have a moment of bizarre affection between them that provides a nice little touch.
Also, I'll concede that, sticking with the suits, this would have been a tricky design to make work.
Okay, much as I hate to do this, I'm gonna walk away from the monsters here. I can't put this part off any longer. As awesome as the monsters are, the rest of this movie runs from either "just okay" to "weak."
Again, I'll grant Godzilla movies- the first aside- aren't really known for having a strong human cast. It's just part of the formula, and I can accept that. The problem is, these go past unremarkable to outright painful to watch at points. The biggest offender here being Aaron Taylor-Johnson, or as I will refer to his character from here on out, Corporal Kick-Ass. The supporting cast in this movie actually have some interesting traits to them - most notably Bryan Cranston as CKA's conspiracy-minded father and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as a pair of scientists following the various nuclear monsters. They feel like they at least have concepts behind them, which makes me wish we got to see more of them. By comparison, CKA's character is a placeholder. He has no discernible personality, and his background is largely there to set up Cranston. Otherwise he's there to be a laundry list of action hero cliches, complete with the family that consists of an utterly wasted Elisabeth Olsen to worry about.
I could keep going on this, but if I just let the floodgates flow, we could be here for a LONG time. This was frustrating for me. I know Godzilla movies aren't about rich characterization for the humans, but this crew at least had the potential to be interesting. Rather than seize that potential, all the characters who could have worked are thrown into the backseat for the human equivalent of drywall.
Meanwhile, the script and direction are between the two poles here. There are some great moments - many of the monster scenes, and an early sequence where Cranston talks CKA into joining him in revisiting their old home in Japan- an eerily evacuated area that evokes Fukushima fears as well as flashes of the movie Stalker. In fact, much of the first half hour is actually pretty effective at building up suspense of what's coming. At the same time, when it's just people and not monsters or mystery, the movie fumbles pretty hard. Most of the overall direction didn't bug me too much, but there are a few on-the-nose moments that prove irritating in just how 'Eh? Eh?' they can get- a tea kettle going off in the middle of an argument between CKA and Cranston being the most grating example.
I will say one of the weaknesses in the film's script also leads into probably its funniest joke: the fact the US Navy backed this movie in the hopes that it would be their 'look good' blockbuster. One big problem here: where films like Transformers and Top Gun worked by making their respective branch of the armed services look good, Godzilla's depiction of the Navy is almost comically inept. One of the big themes the movie plays with about Godzilla is the idea of his role as a sort of balancing act for nature: when creatures from the past arise, he is there to put them back down. As such, the movie is counting on him to do the heavy lifting, meaning the Navy has to learn the hard way to sit back and let the lizard do its work. What this means for them? That they spend the bulk of this movie trying, failing, and just making things worse while Ken Watanabe repeatedly admonishes them to just trust the giant nuclear lizard. In the end, their most successful decision is to stand back and let Godzilla work.
As you can guess from the review, this was a really all over the place movie for me. For as much as I've unloaded on it here, I wouldn't consider it a bad movie. In fact, I am glad I saw this one back in theaters. Despite that, I'd also consider it one of the more flawed blockbusters of the Summer season. It's got enough pluses to keep it from being a genuinely bad movie, but also enough shortcomings to keep it from being one of the best.
I will also admit to some personal disappointment regarding the earlier mentioned promotion of this movie. As I said before, they were really trying to play this up as a return to the classic Godzilla. Gone were the days of his being the Incredible Hulk with scales and firebreath, this was the vicious harbinger of mankind's punishment that the big G first came into the world as. What we instead got was a very polished version of a 'Godzilla VS *' movie. It was still fun, and I did appreciate the attempts to at least clarify "He may be fighting our enemies, but he's not our friend" but the fact is -- that still wasn't what they were promising. Don't make the sales pitch if you don't plan to deliver, Edwards.
Alongside this, I decided to rank the characters in this film from most to least potential to be an interesting protagonist:
aaaaaaand Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Sorry kids, gotta call 'em like I see 'em.
Sorry kids, gotta call 'em like I see 'em.
Still, if nothing else, it helped prove that the west has the capabilities to make a fun giant monster movie, and that there is a market for it. Even with all its problems, I will be keeping an eye out for the sequel when the time comes.
...you know, for as skeptical as I was of this movie, I'd like to say I behaved myself pretty well under the circumstances. Went a bit longer than I planned, but hey.
More entries to come soon, guys.