You can picture the meeting at Warner Brothers; several execs sat round a table. “Bleak and introspective, it worked for Batman and Superman, what else can we do?” Somehow someone at Warner Brothers manages to put bleak and introspective in the same sentence as Godzilla, a Japanese monster movie from 1954 about a giant, fire-breathing lizard that toppled buildings. Next item on the agenda: Who do we get on board as director? “How about the guy who directed Monsters?” someone pipes up. Monsters was the debut from director Gareth Edwards who, on a fraction of Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters, gave us, in my humble opinion, one of the best films of this century. Yes, it involves giant jellyfish aliens who, when wound up, chuck cars, rubble, even people, into the air, but Monsters wasn’t about the impressive special effects, it was a subtle, emotional, at times stunningly shot, character-driven thriller. Getting the man who made Monsters to direct Godzilla is massively missing the point.
Godzilla’s opening is impressive enough. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a physicist working at a Japanese nuclear power plant when an earthquake brings the whole thing crashing down, Brody barely making it out alive. Suspecting that there’s more going on than just a natural disaster, he becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. There’s a nice little twist later on when it’s revealed that gigantic dung beetle-like creatures, M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) are causing the earthquakes, not Godzilla. The M.U.T.O.s are responsible for wiping out Godzilla’s species, threatening to do the same to ours. Now Godzilla has woken up and he wants revenge.
Godzilla’s script, written by Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham and Frank Darabont, takes itself incredibly seriously. There are no one-liners, not even some nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to the Godzilla franchise. You wouldn’t complain if this was any other film, but Godzilla is all about giant monsters smacking each other over the head. What laughs you do get are unintentional; Ken Watanabe, somehow managing to stay stony faced when he yells, “Let them fight!”
Audiences don’t go to see a monster movie for multi-layered characters, they go for the action. Even for a monster movie, Godzilla’s humans are either clichéd, stereotypes, or are so stick-thin they may as well not be in the film. Bryan Cranston gets plenty to do in the opening ten minutes, but after that he spends the rest of his screen time either brooding or occasionally shouting at someone. Aaron Taylor-Johnston will probably get plenty of stick for Godzilla, with critics saying he can’t act. It’s not that he can’t act, all his character, Ford Brody, has to do is look serious, shoot things, or run for his life. There are several mentions that Ford works in bomb disposal, so that everyone keeps up, but without spoiling things, Ford’s efforts don’t make one jot of difference. Ken Watanabe plays the stereotype wise Japanese man, often sounding like master Yoda, but that’s all that’s asked of him. Elizabeth Olsen, as Ford Brody’s wife, gets a rough deal; she’s only in the film so she can run around and look scared.
Godzilla does have some impressive visuals, best of all being the soldiers sky diving into San Francisco, all happening in real time. We cut to POV shots inside the soldiers’ helmets, glimpsing a Michael Bay sunset before they fall in to a dust cloud, what’s left of the city’s streets all moody greys and blacks. Every once in a while, Gareth Edwards gives us creative, eye-catching set pieces; Monsters, but on a far bigger budget.
Saying that, considering giant monsters scrapping is what audiences are paying to see, chances are they’re going to be disappointed. It’s like the Transformers films never happened. The San Francisco Bridge was meant to be a stand-out moment, but it’s all too obvious that Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s are not part of the scene; everyone is screaming and running away from something that isn’t there. You wonder whether having the film’s climactic fight shrouded in clouds of dust was actually in the script, or if Edwards came up with this as a way to disguise the below par CGI.
Godzilla could have been a fun, no-brainer blockbuster, but the deadpan script drags it down, exposing the many flaws in its threadbare narrative. Why do the soldiers sky dive into San Francisco when they could have just walked in? If you’ve got a gigantic egg that you know is about to hatch, why do you only guard it with what looks like some flimsy-looking wire? More bizarrely, why does the film try and suggest that Godzilla and Ford Brody aren’t all that different from each other? Godzilla is set in the real world, it wants to be taken seriously, yet has massive skyscraper-size flaws in its logic. If Godzilla had been Jerry Bruckheimer, or Roland Emmerich’s baby, it would have had its tongue firmly in its cheek; you could have forgiven so many of its mistakes. Instead, for the most part, Godzilla fails on all counts, occasionally being tiresome to sit through.
A sequel has already been given the go-ahead. Hopefully someone at Warner Brothers will realise that you can’t remake a franchise that includes King Kong vs. Godzilla and expect people not to laugh.
2 out of 5