The spectacular trailers and advance positive reviews of Legendary's new Godzilla led me to feel guardedly optimistic that director Gareth Edwards' big-ass monster romp might be a real Godzilla movie, an effort worthy of the sixty-year-old iconic monster that I have loved beyond the bounds of reason ever since I saw the 1956 Godzilla, King of the Monsters around age four. I purposefully shied away from spoilers so I might go in with as open a mind as possible, and, on this count, I succeeded. Knowing relatively little about what I might actually be getting into, I caught Godzilla in IMAX/3D yesterday, which did provide me with an agreeably stimulating sensory experience.
It was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good.
Though I'm not revealing much of the plot here, there are some spoilers, so if you don't want 'em, don't read 'em.
Director Edwards does a lot right with the monsters. By dropping hints and offering only glimpses of the creatures before revealing them in all their glory, he capably builds suspense leading up to their appearances. The pair of Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) creatures work exceedingly well; in fact, it could be argued that they have the more substantive monster roles. Godzilla does not appear in full until about halfway through the film, and though I've heard a few complaints about this fact, I find its slow revelation effective in context. While I remain far more enamored of the traditional suitmation monsters and miniature sets that have been the mainstay of Godzilla films over the decades, the special effects work here proves to me that a CGI Godzilla can, in fact, ultimately succeed. However, the Godzilla design, while endlessly superior to the silly big iguana in Roland Emmerich's insipid 1998 Godzilla, still falls short of the Toho's best suitmation Godzillas. This one looks like a big scaly grizzly bear with dorsal fins and a long tail, and its stubby, non-functional-looking feet, which ought to be reserved for a quadrupedal creature, actually annoy the hell out of me. Not to say Godzilla as a monster isn't oftentimes visually impressive; it is, sometimes with a vengeance. Its powerful bellow, which retains at least some of the contrabass-produced rumbling-and-scraping timbre of the original Toho monster, couldn't have been more well-done.
The best aspect of the monster scenes is that, unlike many of this film's contemporaries — including Pacific Rim, a movie I generally enjoyed — they aren't all presented with jump-cuts, super-fast action, and close-ups that are so close you have no idea what you're looking at. Most of the time, you get long, lingering shots of the creatures, a stylistic touch perfectly in line with longstanding Godzilla movie tradition. In the Toho films, you always got to see plenty of monster. No ridiculous, dizzying camera work but real, honest-to-god cinematography that shows you exactly what you want to see: majestic, impressive, larger-than-life daikaiju.
In the story, Godzilla and the Muto creatures are revealed as essentially products of mother nature in her earliest days; unlike the original Japanese monster, Godzilla is not a result of nuclear testing gone horribly wrong. Though the creatures in the film thrive in a radioactive environment, none of the allegorical elements about the horrors of atomic energy that formed the heart of the original Godzilla remain here. If anything, nuclear weaponry is retained as the last hold-out of hope for the American military. This downplaying of a once-crucial tenet has more in common with the Heisei-era (1984–1995) Godzilla films, in which nuclear power is generally reduced to a convenient catalyst for monster appearances (most egregiously in 1991's Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah).
Alexandre Desplat's musical score for Godzilla complements the visuals well enough, and there are a few motifs that effectively underscore the emotions conveyed in any given scene. A brief portion of György Ligeti's "Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo-Soprano," originally made famous in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, provides a dark, ethereal backdrop to a dramatic scene in which a Special Forces team makes a HALO drop into San Francisco to recover a nuclear bomb scavenged by the Muto creatures. However, as with most contemporary film scores, Desplat's incorporates few memorable themes or full-fledged compositions that go beyond controlled cacophony — certainly nothing like Akira Ifukube's original classic monster themes or Michiru Oshima's rousing, distinctive scores to several of Toho's Millennium-era Godzilla movies. At the risk of portraying myself as the consummate old fart... I so miss the good old days of movie scores, when they were truly music, not just staccato blasts of orchestral noise to punctuate the action on the screen at any given time.
The real test of a daikaiju picture... or most any picture... is whether the story holds up. Do the actors portray characters you can relate to on some level? Do the moviemakers create a world you can believe in? Do you want to believe in it? In Godzilla, the human drama runs perilously thin. None of the actors — even the capable Bryan Cranston as nuclear engineer Joe Brody (who meets his demise much sooner than I might have expected) and distinguished Ken Watanabe as scientist Ichiro Serizawa — manage to overcome the inherent flatness of their characters. Juliette Binoche is wasted Brody's wife, who meets her demise within minutes of her introduction. Brody's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a likable enough heroic character, and he actually gets to do some stuff, rather than stand around watching the action, but even he is at the mercy of a script that takes us down too many familiar boulevards. In fact, most of the timeworn disaster movie conventions can be found here: the devoted scientist whose warnings of dire events on the horizon go unheeded; an element of strife between family members (in this case between Brody and Ford, who believes his father has just gone over the deep end); the young child separated from his parents and the inevitable quest for a reunion. It's by-the-numbers people plot, and while it beats the hell out of the 1998 Godzilla and even some of the later Toho Godzilla movies, particularly those from the Heisei era, it falls distressingly flat in a movie where every resource was in place to make the drama riveting from top to bottom. Shinichi Sekizawa and Kaoru Mabuchi, two of the premier screenwriters of the original Godzilla series, offered plenty of lessons in great monster stories. No one seems to have noticed.
In the end, Godzilla succeeds on many levels, particularly in the spectacle department, yet, despite its clear aspirations, from a dramatic standpoint, it is neither moving nor engrossing. It offers no real thematic depth, especially compared to many of the early Toho Godzilla films, which, even at their simplest, addressed real human issues, such as unchecked use of atomic weaponry; rampant human greed; the need for people to respect each other and view even those with whom they differ as brothers; the dangers of spreading toxic pollution over the face of Mother Earth. Gareth Edwards may be a true fan of everything Godzilla stands for, and he clearly sets out to entertain audiences, at which, on many counts, he clearly succeeds — yet he also stops right there. Coming up so thematically empty is a disservice to audiences, not to mention the legacy of one of the longest-lived icons in cinematic history.
I kind of liked this Godzilla. But I surely didn't love it. I may be completely wrong — I rather hope so — but I have a feeling the Godzilla to love exists only in the past.