By R. David

Viewed May 16, 2014

I suppose I am required by movie-reviewing law to make some reference to the infamously ill-fated 1998 American “Godzilla” remake in this review; so let’s get the elephant (or iguana-meets-T-Rex-shape-shifting-thingy) in the room out of the way right at the top:  It was not good.  It’s not often that pretty much everybody agrees a movie should be wiped from our collective memories;  and even less often when that film is a big-budget, would-be summer blockbuster featuring one the most iconic monsters in movie history.  Sure, remakes are botched all the time, but the degree of the botching in Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” is unprecedented.  So, when “Godzilla” emerges from the depths of the sea in this new reboot from director Gareth Edwards, the creature is returning from a 16-year slumber since he last laid waste to American shores.

Despite the reviled 1998 attempt, it is a bit surprising it has taken a studio so long to attempt rebooting Godzilla for the CGI age. But perhaps we should all take comfort in the fact that a studio waited (for once) to do something right, rather than rushing yet another generic, half-baked blockbuster into theaters based on name recognition alone.  The willingness to take risks to do right by the big guy this time around is obvious not only in the measured amount of time it’s taken to bring him back, but in giving newish, indie director Edwards (he made the low-budget, slow-burning feature, “Monsters”, which supposedly won him this gig) the reins as opposed to some blockbuster guru (ala Roland Emmerich), and greenlighting a script that keeps Godzilla himself largely off-screen for the first hour of the film.

Withholding the titular character of a movie for nearly half of its run-time would be a risky move for any film – and it will most certainly prove to be this incarnation of “Godzilla’s” most controversial sticking point for many viewers – but demonstrates both faith in the film’s story, characters and performances, as well as a commitment to making a film that is not simply a another typical monster movie.  Unfortunately, the story and characters writers Max Borenstein (screenplay) and Dave Callaham (story) have come up with is not nearly as worthy of all the build-up as they and Edwards think it is. 

The movie begins in 1999 with unexplained tremors causing the meltdown of a nuclear power plant in Japan where an American scientist, played by Brian Cranston, loses his wife (Juliet Binoche), and becomes obsessed with tracking down the cause.  Fast forward 15 years later to Cranston’s estranged, Navy lieutenant son, Ford (“Kick-Ass’” Aaron Taylor-Johnson), returning to Japan to bail out his father after his conspiracy theories land him in prison.  But it turns out dad might not be crazy when his predictions of new tremors begin coming true.  The two infiltrate a top secret facility where they discover the military conducting experiments on a giant radioactive monster.  No, not Godzilla, but MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), who is trying to bust out of the facility to rendezvous with his mate (you’d think mating wouldn’t be the only reason this thing would want to set itself free from captivity; and if it could, it would have done so long ago).  So where is “Godzilla” and how does he figure into all of this?  To tell would be a minor spoiler of sorts.  Let’s just say that the MUTOs actions spur his return.  From here the movie essentially becomes the smashy-smashy monster flick most are likely hoping for as the three creatures make their way to America.  Ford too is doing his damndest to get back home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child amidst all the havoc the monsters unleash.

You have to admire a summer tentpole monster movie that strives for plot and character depth and is not simply another exhausting, run of the mill blur of CGI action.  But the characters are simply not as compelling as the movie would like them to be, and their would-be engrossing and emotionally-exhausting plight never registers the way the movie would like it to.  The reason, I suspect, is twofold:  1) it’s all cliché.  There’s no shortage of action/disaster flicks in which the hero is racing to save and/or return to his family against the insurmountable odds of the crisis in question.  And “Godzilla” can’t find a way to make these tropes any more emotionally resonant than they usually are.  For all the tearing up going on in this movie, audiences can leave their Kleenex at home.  2) The actors do what they can – no one is bad here – but the characters too are basically nothing more than clichés; and no one finds a way to rise above the stock material they’ve been given to work with.  Not surprisingly, Cranston comes closest, but even he isn’t as enjoyable to watch as one would assume, trying to work the crazy-not-crazy mad scientist thing.  Taylor-Johnson is bland, but again, that may be more the script’s fault than his own, but regardless, he’s a less than exciting hero.  And the usually engaging Olsen is reduced to the weeping-on-the-phone wife, until she becomes the running-and-screaming wife in the climax.

Another issue here is the MUTOs.  Even if you’re okay with the fact that they essentially join the plot and other characters in delaying and diminishing the movie of its namesake, there’s still the issue of their uninspired design and the fact that they frankly aren’t very interesting, either in design or their motivations.  They look like leftover SFX specs from “Cloverfield” or “Starship Troopers”.  But they are nowhere near as entertainingly vicious as anything in “Troopers”, and where those bug-monsters had character and personality, I’m not sure if the MUTOs are actually supposed be organic creatures like Godzilla or if there’s a robotic or alien component to them.  Godzilla’s a big lizard, right?  I don’t know what they the hell the MUTOs are supposed to be.  They look like construction rebar come to life.

And if it seems like I’ve spent a lot of time talking about everything other than Godzilla in my “Godzilla” review, that’s a pretty telling critique of the film.  But, while I realize I sound pretty down on the film at this point, the portion of the film – or more accurately, the half of the film – with “Godzilla” is pretty spectacular.  Freed of the need for exposition, the script finally gets out of its own way and Edwards demonstrates what he’s truly capable of as a blockbuster filmmaker.  He starts by revealing the monster slowly, with quick glimpses, building to a roaring (literally) full reveal.  Technically speaking, this Godzilla is flawless.  You feel his enormity, and he does not change in size from scene to scene or shape-shift as the script requires (remember in the ’98 film when Godzilla was at one moment bigger than a skyscraper and the next hiding in the sewer?).  Unlike, say, “Pacific Rim” or “Transformers”, there is an obvious, genuine desire here to make this movie feel real.  In those movies, you feel every bit of the CGI wizardry, never feeling a part of the action.  They are  the technically impressive, polished cinematic equivalent of a cartoon or a kid playing with their toys.  Clearly there is an audience for that sort of thing, but what makes “Godzilla” so thrilling is Edwards’s directorial approach of staging the events with a you-are-there aesthetic.  No, it’s not one of these found-footage gimmicks, nor is it presented as some pseudo docudrama, but he shoots looking up at the beasts, in bird’s-eye views, through smoke – the paratrooper scene is sure to be one of the most thrilling, gloriously filmed action set pieces of the year.  In Godzilla, the monsters feel big and we feel small; we are not merely watching events happen to other people on a screen.

The harrowing second half of “Godzilla”, and the monster himself,  more than makes up for my misgivings with the first half  which I still admire for what it tried to pull off, even if it wasn’t entirely successful.  There’s a bit of a twist at the end of the film that is rather telling of the direction any future sequel may go in.  While some may understandably gripe that a “Godzilla” reboot should have probably focused more on Godzilla himself, it seems with the reintroductions out of the way, future installments will do just that on a monster-of-the-week basis.

3 Stars (Out of 4)