A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2014 


2014, PG-13, 123 mins.


Bryan Cranston as Joe Brody  /  Elizabeth Olsen as Elle Brody  /  Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ford  /  Juliette Binoche as Ford's Mother / Stepmother  /  Sally Hawkins as Dr. Graham   /  David Strathairn as Admiral Stenz  /  Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro  /  Victor Rasuk as Tre Morales  /  Brian Markinson as Whalen  /  Al Sapienza as Huddleston  /  Patrick Sabongui as Master Sargeant Marcus Waltz  /  Yuki Mortia as Akio's Mother

Directed by Gareth Edwards  /  Written by Dave Callaham


For those of you out there – myself included – that believed that the criminally awful 1998 Roland Emmerich iteration of Toho’s iconic GODZILLA franchise was the final cinematic kick to the gonads of their fandom, along comes Gareth Edwards’ full bodied, lovingly faithful, and - for the most part - exhilaratingly crafted epic that serves as a sincere apology for past misdeeds.  


The British filmmaker’s previous film – the ultra low budget, but never looked as such – MONSTERS from 2010 was an auspicious and impeccably made science fiction film regarding misunderstood extraterrestrial beasties.  Now, with a budget roughly 160 times that of his debut feature, Edwards evokes the classic GODZILLA accoutrements of yesteryear while marrying that with disaster genre human drama.  Not all of it coalesces together smoothly, but you can definitely sense the love and admiration that Edwards has for this cherished franchise, something that was woefully lacking in the previous Hollywood GODZILLA film.


Reverence of this now 60-year-old movie property is precisely what this new GODZILLA film requires to not only appease die hard/old school fans, but to also lure new ones into the fold.  Edwards is shrewd enough here to understand that the decades-old mythology is hallowed ground for many, and rarely are there any attempts on his part to stray away from its tried and true formulas (as Emmerich’s film egregiously did).  This new version apparently takes place in the same film universe that the original 1954 Toho produced film does, and much of Edwards’ film is not so much a new fangled origin of the monster as it is a continuation of his story set in contemporary times.  One of the more controversial aspects of this version is that it stridently follows a JAWS model in terms of not really showing the title character at all well until the half way point of the film, thereby methodically building an escalating sense of uneasy suspense for his big reveal.  Fidgety and impatient moviegoers may deeply dislike this slow burn approach, but it makes for the film’s grand finale to be that much more tantalizingly awe-inspiring.




Compellingly, the film begins not in the present day, but 15 years in the past in Japan, during which time the city is experiencing some rather unusual seismic activity that could be  dangerous for a nearby nuclear power plant.  Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Crantson and Juliette Binoche) are a husband and wife physicist team that are assigned to investigate, but things go south really fast and disaster strikes, leaving Joe a widow and the plant and surrounding area around the city indefinitely quarantined.  In the subsequent years, Joe becomes obsessed with the thought that no natural force caused the accident, and his fanatical conspiratorial leanings eventually estrange him from the rest of his family...and people in general.


Flash-forward to the present and Joe has discovered some alarming new data that suggests that the same seismic phenomenon is returning to Japan to wreak havoc.  With his now-adult son Ford (a bomb disposal technician for the military, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) begrudgingly teaming up with him, the father-offspring tandem discover a gigantic insect/dinosaur-like creature at the nuclear power plant’s ground zero that is feeding off of radiation.  When the M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) frees itself and escapes, the severity of the situation reaches a boiling point for the rest of the world.  Tracking the monster (and potential other monsters) is Dr. Ishiro (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), the former of which seems to have a keen – if not more than a bit convenient – knowledge not only of the M.U.T.O., but also of another monster called Godzilla that his government knew the existence of decades ago and tried to contain it.  Theorizing – rather outlandishly – that Godzilla is an alpha predator/protector, Ishiro believes that the best course of action to save humanity is to let the monsters “fight.”  Predictably, utter pandemonium ensues when the beasts square off in San Francisco.


The central conundrum of most monster/disaster flicks is that the human element is often overshadowed, and GODZILLA is no real exception.  Edwards certainly tries - as he and his screenwriter Dave Callaham can - to fully invest in the personas that eventually bare witness to the city destroying chaos in front of them, but even they can’t seem to find a manner of making fine and appropriate use of their finely assembled international cast.  Cranston – looking semi-ridiculous in an obvious wig – is actually very strong in the few key scenes he’s in, but the rest of the cast never really follows suit.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson looks the part of a soldier, but is ultimately dully defined and lacks charisma.  The great Ashley Olson has little to do but play the worried, grieving wife role to Ford, and Ken Watanabe emerges – sometimes laughingly so – as one of those obligatory scientist characters that elicits ample expository dialogue about what the other characters – and we in the audience – should expect next.  His emotional range is limited to shock, awe, and befuddlement throughout most of the film while trying to explain to every shortsighted person around him just what the hell is going on.


Alas, we don’t see films like this for their humanity, but rather for their monster-on-monster carnage, and there’s absolutely no denying that Edwards wholeheartedly delivers on all counts.  Again, the director takes the atypical approach here of slowly building up to the climatic reveal of Godzilla himself (more or less, he looks like a faithfully rendered man-in-suit creature, albeit with extraordinary CGI upgrades) and when some of the initial battles are shown, they’re often captured on TV screens or in the distant background and, in some instances, the director cuts away from the action just as it's about to get underway.  This may have many in the audience crying a resounding foul, but it only serves to build-up a level of anticipation towards the film’s final 30 or so minutes, during which time Edwards and his visual effects artisans unleash a grand scale monster battle royal that fans have only dreamed of for years.  The whole film is, in one way, one scrupulously manufactured tease leading up to its final act, which allows, in turn, for the audience to be thoroughly ready to be appeased.  It’s as spectacularly constructed of a climax as you’re likely ever going to get from a film like this. 

The film certainly has many superlative sequences leading up to this point, though, such as a bravura set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge (the most criminally abused bridge of the movies) that shows how adept Edwards is at manufacturing edgy tension in our anticipation of hell breaking loose.  Then there’s another set on a railroad bridge in Nevada that knows how to milk audience unease with silence.  Edwards, if anything, is a director that intuitively knows his way around both instances of massive city-spanning destruction and quieter, perhaps more spin-tingling moments, the latter that most other genre filmmakers would largely ignore.  And, yeah, GODZILLA is kind of a failure on a character level (the absentee-father subplot is in on pure auto-pilot) and lacks tonal cohesion (it seems somewhat too pretentiously solemn for its own good instead of finding a healthy balance between gravity and preposterousness).  Yet, when we finally get to see the improbably gigantic title creature in all of his rampaging glory, taking names and kicking multiple M.U.T.O. ass, seemingly all nitpicky criticisms disperse away very quickly.  

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