Ask yourself this question: Why do we go to see Kaiju movies? Is it to dwell on the human drama and suffering that people go through in the wake of the cataclysmic destruction? Or is it to experience forces of nature embodied in brobdingnagian beasts colliding in the oppositional purity of good versus evil? It is a question that I wish I could ask Gareth Edwards. Because regardless of which answer one adheres to, his efforts in GODZILLA fail to satisfy either desire as it tries confusingly to satisfy both.
This is not to say that both answers are not mutually exclusive. Though I prefer the kind of monster movies that fueled my childhood excitement of seeing beings that were cinematically larger than life, I would have been equally thrilled in witnessing a grave parable on man’s destructive folly (such as the original GODZILLA in 1954) or the humbling and indifferent power of nature (in the spirit of Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA). Such a somber tone was what I was expecting when the first Godzilla footage was leaked with Oppenheimer’s words. Subsequent trailers featuring Lygeti’s “Lux Aeterna” only reinforced my expectations.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
The film initially plays out that way with interlaced clips of atomic tests from the past. It introduces a nuclear disaster at the turn of the 21st century, which breaks the lives of the Brodys, an American family in Japan. Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are the father and mother; scientists who are hit directly by catastrophe, claiming the life of the latter and driving the former’s guilt-ridden obsession to find out what caused the tragedy in the present day. As long kept secrets come to the fore, their now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) continues his father’s fight.
These initial scenes of human drama are done splendidly, perhaps better than they have any right to be, with Bryan Cranston serving as the emotional anchor of our investment. His loss and dogged pursuit carries us through the long plot points building suspense for the film’s otherworldly sights. But once it gets there, the movie doesn’t work out as intended.
The creature that caused Joe’s misfortune, as well as most of the devastation later in the film, is revealed not to be GODZILLA, but that of a competing winged beast (M.U.T.O.) which feeds on atomic radiation. It is at this point where scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) presents Godzilla to us as a stabilising force. A good guy that flies in the face of everything it was advertised to be. I then thought that the movie would take a more awe-inspiring adventurous spirit as Godzilla sequels had done in the past. No worries, I thought.
But as the movie played on, it was hard to place in which direction Gareth Edwards wanted to go. The film’s structure dictates a battle between opposing entities on a godly scale, but its interest in them is fleeting. Glorious shots of Godzilla and its adversaries are held but momentarily, often cutting far away to side conflicts or scenes of distressed survivors amid ruin, just as I wanted more. These shifting contrasts frustrated me. Did it want to leave me in wonder, or to ponder an apocalyptic aftermath?
The film does have some breathtaking sights to behold. A MUTO’s assault at a Honolulu airport is held in a stunning panoramic shot. Godzilla’s forays through the bay of San Francisco is terrifically conceived. And I absolutely loved the sight of a massive electrical charge searing from its tail through its spine all the way to its firestorm breath. But these sequences are few and far between many puzzling decisions.
He films TV screens displaying overlooking sequences instead of displaying them directly. He decides to muffle the effect of sound through POV shots within containment suits or gas masks. He at times decides to use a handheld perspective that though not as nauseating as Michael Bay’s shaky cam gimmicks, is still distracting. He lacks a sense of confident climactic pacing, the kind that was evident in Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Although few directors have del Toro’s immense directorial gifts, the comparison is unavoidable (I couldn’t ignore it).
Even Godzilla’s new design bugs me. In terms of size, detail and physicality, it is very impressive. But let’s face it, he looks fat, ineffectively conveying power and fear. His M.U.T.O. foes are ungainly, appearing anything but organic. Once again compared to del Toro’s inspired and naturalistic designs in PACIFIC RIM, they come across as somewhat wanting.
The film’s story is unremarkable, completely predictable as it triggers memories of other familiar blockbusters, including the last Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla in 1998. But it is written in the most thoughtful and intelligent way possible. There is no one winking at any coincidence or reference. No catch phrases or clichéd deliveries. What is strange though is how the film’s earth-shaking disasters feel largely disconnected from the larger world which the film inhabits. The Philippines, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco are all invoked, but they feel distant and muted. The stakes are apparent, but they don’t feel as all-encompassing as they should be.
It is also a pity that aside from Bryan Cranston’s character, there is no other role that is given the same depth and importance (not that there is much to begin with). Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe all do very well with their serviceable roles. Mr. Watanabe’s requirements saddened me the most, as he served to spout lines and express looks of stunned realisation in scene after scene. The film is littered with these faces of agape disbelief that it becomes annoying. Hardly any character transitions completely into decisive action.
It is hard to justify why such immense talent was needed for these roles in a film that doesn’t have the structure or nerve to go down the poignant road it is clearly more interested in. Its title character is supposed to be the heart of this film, but it has no vigour in pursuing its spectacle or symbolism.
Roger Ebert liked to tell the story of William Randolph Hearst telling Richard Harding Davis (in Davis’s coverage of the Johnstown flood), “Forget flood. Interview God.” It’s too bad that Gareth Edwards just keeps on covering the flood, forgetting about his GODZILLA.