Godzilla (2014). One of the best parts of being a Godzilla fan (and quite possibly, one of the worst) is that we are – all of us – very easy to please. As far as spectacle goes, we ask so very little of our green-scaled savior: just that he arrive, bellow his iconic, titanic roar, smack our tormentors down deep into the earth, fire an atomic blast, and peace out. Topple an empty building or two, and boom – we have a satisfying Godzilla movie. Deviate from this formula in any way, shape or fire-breathing form, and the offending filmmaker will surely incur the wrath of millions. (And lose about as much in revenues.)
Director Roland Emmerich learned the hard way – and cost Columbia Pictures a good chunk of cash in doing so – when he went and attempted to reinvent the wheel set forth by Toho Co., Ltd., capitalizing on brand name alone and leeching from the success of Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and its 1997 sequel, The Lost World: in following up his widely profitable Independence Day, Emmerich made the laughably confident and widely blasphemous decision to remodel the King of the Monsters into a sleeker, strong-jawed T-Rex type, retrofitted to have late-90s mass market appeal. (The director even decided to make our misunderstood hero a poppa, who managed to spawn a ridiculously ill-advised batch of velociraptor Godzookys.) Understandably, fans balked, audiences walked away, and the best-forgotten Matthew Broderick-starrer drifted into video store obsolescence.
Fast-forward sixteen years. The infamous kaiju’s reputation survived Emmerich’s debacle (Toho even had the grace to welcome the oft-reviled iguana into Godzilla’s hallowed canon, re-christened to the more suitably neutered “Zilla”), and even went on to star in further adventures. (Including, but not limited to, Godzilla 2000, 2002’s Godzilla Versus Mechagodzilla, and 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars.) Sixty years of monster bashing has been kind to the iconic titan, so much in fact that Hollywood has seen fit to attempt yet another American interpretation, this time with the mindfully reverent British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, whose 2010 feature-length debut Monsters fittingly earned him Legendary Pictures’ top choice as director.
Makes perfect sense to have a fanboy like Edwards on board, and what the man might lack in big budget experience, he more than compensates with his plucky audacity: when (WHEN) the film clicks, it roars, as faithful to the Japanese franchise as anything this over-written can allow. It’s fun, insane, and gorgeously put together. It’s also intensely boring. In IMAX theaters – when the film bothers with an action sequence – the ground literally shakes under your feet. And while the film plods (and plods) along with its 123 minute running time, there is a thought that nags at the viewer – be they a seasoned fan or an intrigued neophyte- that something is woefully absent from Edwards’ massively ambitious endeavor. Two guesses what that something might be.
What frustrates the most about Godzilla is how little the film bothers with its marquee star: even when Godzilla finally manages to elbow his way into his own movie, we’re nearly an entire hour into a plot that serves little more than to square the beast against two appropriately destructive nemeses. (They’re never individually named, and are instead assigned the joyless acronym MUTO.) This would all be well and good, even forgivable, if the film didn’t instead burden itself with the vastly uninteresting plight of the Brody family, tying the events of a monster slugfest somewhat to the future of this family’s stability – a plot conceit that Roland Emmerich himself might even agree is tired as fuck – until it decides to lighten its own dramatic load of bricks for the sake of the film’s own momentum. (An early Second Act death left many in the theater mystified and more than a little pissed.) The monster – when he appears – is inexplicably merciful to his would-be human adversaries, a puzzling discrepancy for any that may take the existence of Godzilla on anecdote alone: the film enticingly rewrites our own nuclear history into a means with which to destroy the monster, and then works over time never acknowledging the 1954 beef between the scaly brute and his human agitators. This narrative pacifism only serves to bring the audience’s bloodlust to a palpable simmer. It’s more effective than it has any right to be.
What’s even more frustrating is that in the midst of the intermittent skirmish there becomes only one person tasked with relating all this under-cooked exposition: Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (a bewildered Ken Watanabe), a man that always seems to know more than anyone else in the room, but is never allowed to prove it. Instead of becoming the film’s galvanizing heart and soul – a duty the character inherits by force, mind you – he offers only cagey elucidation. The rest of the cast fares about as well: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positioned for maximum brow-furrowing and jaw-clenching, but the 23-year old actor provides little more than an entity – a blank avatar upon which the viewer may project themselves. His lack of charisma undersells the character’s importance, to the point of insignificance. (Sequences of the young actor jury-rigging a nuclear warhead are laughably earnest.) Elizabeth Olsen – deserving much more than this – is predictably marginalized to the task of worried mother/intrepid hospital nurse, which is only indicative of Gareth Edwards’ squandering of his otherwise magnificent cast. Shuttling Olsen – and Bryan Cranston and Sally Hawkins and Juliette Binoche (and by the way, what is she doing here) – into the periphery of the film when it’s time to smash undermines what little narrative oomph the film gives to the human members of our foot-stomping melodrama, just as keeping the titular beast tucked far away from the proceedings in order to bolster a wobbly-kneed story arc that has no discernible climax feels very much like a kick in the teeth.
This is a summer movie that dares to tell more often than show, and while one might appreciate such restraint in our blockbusters, Gareth Edwards is too keen to play fast and loose with his intentional feints and teases. The payoff exists – a franchise is at stake here after all, yet again – and it is everything a fan of the Godzilla series could want – has wanted – for well over sixteen years. Godzilla has finally managed to plant his stubby feet onto American soil. Maybe the next film will make us believe he wants to be here.