[alert-announce] 3 out of 5 stars. The kaiju king turns 60 this year and he’s looking good! Godzilla is atmospheric and delivers some stunning sequences and decently choreographed claw-to-claw combat. But unfortunately, it also takes itself too seriously. Burdened by a certain dreariness, dull characters and a crippling need to incorporate expected tropes, I fear director Gareth Edwards may have missed the most important point of making/ watching creature features, which is to just have fun with it! [/alert-announce]
Godzilla is back and he’s bigger than ever. Endowed with a gigantic budget – an estimated US$160 million – both monster and film franchise are given an impressive makeover in terms of scale and visual fx.
Godzilla and his kaiju opponents (yes, you get THREE monsters) tower above nuclear power plants and city skyscrapers and when they fight, they leave chaos and devastation of epic proportions in their wake. Here, Edwards successfully achieves a specific effect he wanted for his Godzilla – that this monster flick should also feel like a colossal disaster film. Whenever the creature emerges from the ocean (his natural habitat), he generates tsunamis and large tidal waves which often signal his arrival.
Godzilla thus becomes a symbol of nature’s fury that’s unleashed upon a world struggling to contain it, another reminder of its awe-inspiring power. As Ken Watanabe’s character Dr Ichiro Serizawa chillingly muses at one point, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.”
This discourse on nature intertwines with one of the franchise’s main devices, which is to function as a cautionary tale against nuclear experimentation and weaponry. This keeps the story relevant without having to abandon a core element of the original Godzilla lore. It is evident that the narrative and visuals draw from two real-world nuclear disasters: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as the recent 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan’s eastern coast in 2011, which spawned fierce tsunamis and affected a nuclear power plant in Onahama city.
The film begins in the Philippines in 1999 where a gargantuan fossil and two egg-like pods are discovered in a quarry. Scientists Serizawa and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) are called in to investigate and they find that while one pod remains intact, the other has hatched and something big got out. Dun Dun Duuunnnn.
Around the same time, the Janjira Nuclear Plant near Tokyo is experiencing suspicious seismic activity, a phenomenon that worries American expat plant supervisor Joe Brody played by the magnificent Bryan Cranston. Joe sends his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and a team to check on the core for any damages but an earth shattering quake causes an explosion and Sandra and team are engulfed by radioactive steam.
The power plant collapses, everyone – including Brody’s young son Ford – is evacuated and the Janjira area is quarantined. Earthquakes were blamed for the disaster… but of course, we know better!
Fast forward 15 years to the present day, Ford has grown into Hollywood hunk Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass (2010) fame. He’s a beefy explosive ordinance disposal officer for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his lovely wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and five-year-old son Sam. It has to be said here… is anyone else feeling the heebie jeebies that Taylor-Johnson and Olsen are playing husband and wife in this movie and are portraying the Maximoff twins in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)? No? Ok, moving along then.
Not getting on as well is Joe who stays in Japan and becomes the stereotypical hermit conspiracy theorist who dedicates his days to investigating and extrapolating what actually happened at Janjira the day Sandra died. When he is arrested for trespassing into the quarantined Janjira area, Ford goes to Japan to collect him only to be suckered into accompanying Joe to the same place the very next day.
As they inspect their dilapidated former home for old data, they realise that there’s actually no radiation in the quarantined zone before getting caught by the authorities. They are taken to a secret facility to be questioned but it also happens to be the same location where a familiar-looking pod is kept and examined. The pod, which gives out intermittent electromagnetic pulses that are getting stronger, soon hatches and, needless to say, chaos ensues. I don’t want to give too much away although I suspect I may have already.
In keeping with the tradition of the most iconic creature features, Edwards puts in significant effort to build up the anticipation for the eventual big reveal. Like the notorious great white shark in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) that shows itself in the last quarter of the film, we only get to see Godzilla in his full glory at the halfway point on.
I usually like a good build up but I find the overzealous attempt here rather tiresome. Not only are we made to wait for Godzilla’s grand entrance but the earlier fights between Godzilla and his opponents (which look like Mothra from the Gojira canon) are deliberately shielded from the viewers. Just as the they are about to attack each other, the scenes cut away to television news or the camera’s POV is placed behind a door that gets shut. What a buzzkill!
But when we do eventually get into the thick of the action, it is pretty glorious. One thing you can’t deny is that Edwards has a really good eye for majestic wide shots: The panoramic view of a helicopter flying over the Philippine jungles, Godzilla and “Mothra” duking it out and leaving whole cities in shambles, and – perhaps the most thrilling sequence – airborne soldiers free-falling amid stormy clouds with red flares trailing behind them against the backdrop of titans battling to the death. These sequences are sublime and, dare I say it, pure cinema in terms of visual prowess.
It is unfortunate then that Godzilla is burdened by dull characters and an almost joy-sucking sense of gravity. Clearly, the filmmakers set out to avoid a repeat of the Roland Emmerich-directed Godzilla in 1998, which many critics and fans have mercilessly panned as being almost farcical.
Taking a cue from Christopher Nolan and his acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, Edwards and team ran in the opposite direction, shaping a Godzilla movie that is grounded in reality. But consequently may have gone too far and created a creature feature that is completely humourless and stripped of the bravura that made some of the best films from this genre like mecha vs. kaiju slugfest Pacific Rim (2013) so infectious and enjoyable.
I also find it difficult to root for the uninteresting characters who give me little to no reason to really care for them. Aside from the rare affecting one-liner, the dialogue/ writing is mediocre which is a shame considering the stellar ensemble cast they managed to snag for the project. Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn are sadly underutilised and the wasted opportunity is simply criminal!
This segues into my next point – the characters and various elements don’t seem to come together naturally so the film feels a little forced. It’s as if Edwards is highly conscious of the genre’s expected tropes – like the military, the insightful scientist, conspiracy theorist, etc – and desperately tries to include them all even if, from the looks of it, he may not necessarily have a genuine purpose for them or feel absolutely confident executing them.
Generally, Godzilla is a flawed but worthy attempt at resurrecting the franchise. It leaves me wanting more – more epic kaiju smackdowns and more inspired human characters. Now that a sequel is already being developed by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures, I can only hope that the next outing is a truly satisfying one.
Godzilla is showing in theatres now. Have you seen it? Let us know what you think below!