At a time when big-budget blockbusters are making a literal cash-flow out of leveling major American cities to the glee of audiences everywhere, one might question the necessity of a Godzilla reboot from an artistic sense (though from a commercial standpoint, the folks at Warner Brothers couldn’t be smarter). Let it be known, however, that Godzilla is a monster of a film, a force to be reckoned with regardless of the redundancy of its subject matter. Visually striking and action-packed, Godzilla might run out of steam on the narrative side of things, but it never ceases to shock and awe in a colossal fashion worthy of its namesake.
Godzilla rips off to an engaging, action-packed and somewhat surprising start. The film has billed itself as an utterly serious and dramatic take on the infamous lizard, but I highly doubt that most film-goers are prepared for the emotional sucker-punch that is the dramatic foundation for the rest of the film. We are brought into Japan (in a fashion oddly similar to Jurassic Park) where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), the American supervisor of a nuclear power plant, loses his wife in a tragic fashion during a plant accident. Fast forward fifteen years, and his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a young soldier recently returned from duty who simply wants to spend time with his young son and wife Elle (Elizabeth Olson), but is forced to go after Joe in Japan. Joe is still haunted by the tragic accident and in seeking answers, has trespassed into the quarantine zone surrounding the nuclear site. Through these events, the monstrous MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is revealed, a terrible beast which feeds off of radiation, consequently attracting its predator: Godzilla himself. Ford must make it back to his family in San Francisco to protect them while simultaneously fulfilling his duty as a U.S. soldier, aiding in the defense against these terrible pre-historic beasts.
Director Gareth Edwards paints all these events completely seriously, and the first act of the film proves remarkably engaging and evocative as a result. The dynamics between Joe, Ford and Elle are all realistic and compelling. We feel for Joe’s loss, Ford’s frustrations and Elle’s compassion. Considering the fact Godzilla is a monster film, the first act is unexpectedly character-driven. Tonally, Edwards stays mindful of the humanity of those involved, keeping the stakes high once the monsters start wreaking havoc, never once winking at the audience. These are tragic and terrifying events, and the audience is forced to respect that. Visually, the film is top-notch, and Edwards wisely keeps the monsters mostly drenched in darkness, making them all the more terrifying and convincing. Edwards’ handling of the MUTO and Godzilla often seems Spielberg-esque in the first half, playing with the audience by keeping a full glimpse just out of reach, thus increasing suspense and fear. As the military rumbles in to challenge these forces of nature, their efforts are seen as heroically futile, and true despair begins to set in as the carnage and death toll both rise.
But while tonally and cinematically Godzilla maintains its humanity, the plot loses itself after the first act. Once the monsters and military start clashing, the complex and compelling family dynamics are tossed to the wayside in favor of large-scale destruction and lizard on lizard fights. Not that this destruction isn’t exciting, exhilarating, or gripping, but the film’s greatest asset out of the gate that sets it apart from the myriad of other metropolis-leveling blockbusters is its human drama. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is an appealing everyman lead as Ford, a decent, heroic young man who is easy to root for, and the chemistry he shares with Elizabeth Olson as his selfless wife is one of the film’s shining qualities. To separate the soldier from the nurse for most of the film is a detriment to the story’s emotional weight, reducing the plot to simply a matter of trying to kill giant lizards, and Godzilla slips into rather typical blockbuster fare as a result.
This isn’t to degrade Godzilla; it still sits rather high on the blockbuster spectrum, submitting audiences to the weighty human cost of massive amounts of destruction rather than allowing them to revel in it, a decision by Edwards that should be commended. Cinematically, Godzilla is a remarkable achievement (the HALO jump sequence seen in trailers remains a highlight) and a brutal, primeval musical score by Alexandre Desplat adds gravity and scale to the proceedings. It really is a shame that Edwards couldn’t nail the small-scale drama as well as he did the large-scale conflicts, a problem made all the more frustrating by the glimpses of possibilities for genre-transcendence in the opening act. Regardless of these issues, Godzilla is definitely worth seeing in theaters for fans of large-scale action blessed to not yet be suffering from skyscraper-toppling fatigue.