They came so very…very close
I’ve never been a huge fan of these giant monster movies. I can give the original Japanese Godzilla films about 5 minutes before switching the channel, and I could have gone my entire life without seeing American attempts at the genre such as Pacific Rim, and the 1998 version of Godzilla starring the eternally irritating Matthew Broderick.
Yes Matthew…yes it is.
Despite that, when I saw the trailers for this movie, I was instantly taken aback by how amazing they looked. The first trailer in particular really grabbed me. The striking, hellish imagery as the paratroopers dropped into the decimated city, seeing the massive Godlike creature in imposing shadow on the way down. This didn’t look like a monster movie, this looked like a terrifying, grounded parable about an indestructible force of nature that wants to destroy all of humanity as we watch and retaliate, but ultimately can do nothing. It looked like something that could elevate the entire genre.
However, what we get…is a monster movie, and while I definitely still enjoyed it, there is a massive element of disappointment here. There are so many despondent little pieces of greatness in this that are just never picked up and put together.
We center on the Brody family. In 1999, we find them living in Japan with Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Sandra (Juliette Binoche) working at a nuclear power plant. When the rector explodes because of an unexplained pulse that Joe tries to warn everyone about, his wife is killed in the accident. We then flash to fifteen years later. Their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has just come back from war, enjoying his time with his Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son, when his estranged father calls him to investigate similar happenings in Japan. From there, all hell breaks loose as they discover that two previously contained monsters known as MUTOS have been accidentally released upon the world, and are trying to reproduce. However, that won’t happen on the watch of a militant alpha predator deep beneath the ocean who the government has been unsuccessfully been trying to kill for years.
He will not be stopped
He will destroy his enemies
In that plot description you might notice something peculiar. I didn’t even mention Godzilla until towards the very end. Not my fault, this film commits a similar sin.
This film is directed by Gareth Edwards, who’s only film before this was the small budget Monsters. His sensibilities as an independent director is at times this movie’s greatest strength, and equally as often, its achilles heal. Several times, Edwards has gone on record as saying he wanted to make a film akin to early Spielberg films such as Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, movies that focus on the build-up to the creature, to make the pay off all the more satisfying. That’s a type of filmmaking that we have not seen employed very often in recent years, and it works to fantastic effect in this film…sometimes. Edwards goes out of his way to hide his bag of tricks until the end of the film. This is a very wise technique in some respects. While there are a number of set pieces in the film, none but one are a true monster on monster battle. We get to really be a part of the confusion as these smaller scale humans try to deal with a force that is completely beyond them. This does do a good job of keeping the audience anxiously waiting for something, but every so often, some of the tactics use to mask the fighting can feel a little cheap. Particularly in a moment where after this massive dramatic chrischendo that reveals our main man, we cut to states away as a small child watches the battle on TV and yells nonsense to his mother, and despite all of this destruction, we rarely get a sense of pathos, or devastation.
There is FAR too much focus on the MUTOS. They drive the story so strongly that 90% of the encounters the humans have are with them. Godzilla almost seems like an afterthought in his own film, a righteous fist from the sea to make things right.
All of this human drama would count for more if the actors weren’t so bland (for the most part). Aaron Taylor-Johnson continues his streak of performances that make me wonder if he would be more comfortable plumbing instead of acting. He’s so completely non-engaging and non-decrepit, it truly feels like anyone could have played his part. Also wasted is the wonderful Elizabeth Olsen in a thankless role that just requires her to make scared faces, Ken Watanabe who spends the entire time looking bewildered and talking slowly, and David Strathairn who plays the same role he always seems to get in these blockbuster films…the guy in the control room. The only one who really brings something to this is Bryan Cranston, who delivers a devastating, pain-ridden performance as a man who is driven to the point of certainty by loss. There is no doubt in my mind that he should have been the lead, anchoring everything that’s happening in depth, but he’s sadly expelled from the proceedings about a third of the way in.
With all of that said, once we finally get to the climatic monster fight we’ve been anxiously waiting for this entire film, it delivers in spades and a half. Not only does seeing only one fight make it all the more powerful, because we have no idea what we’re going to get, unlike other films that show you everything you need to see in the first 10 minutes (Ahem’ Pacific Rim), but Gareth Edwards can flat out direct action. It’s everything you want to see. Monsters wrestling like WWE fighters, buildings toppling in their wake, brutal cheer inducing attacks, and maybe, just maybe, a little atomic breath.
Overall, while some of the techniques Edwards employs here are enjoyable, and lend themselves to a fantastic climax, it becomes clear early on that this is not the film we were promised. It’s a series of exhilarating moments between a great deal of padding, wooden acting, and a silly story that does not even halfway live up to the promise of the character. As such, it comes out to be merely a perfectly serviceable re-introduction to the character. Far from bad, but unfortunately, far from great.