Film Review: “Godzilla” — Gareth Edwards (2014)

Spanish_Godzilla_2014_PosterRating: 5.5 / 10

Here it comes, right? The moment where the movie reviewer (and bear in mind, that’s all I am — some dude reviewing a movie, not a ‘film critic’ by any means) tries to bolster their credibility by rattling off a list of like-minded films that they’ve seen and loved and analyzed and bored people at parties to death with their endless prattling about said subject matter, and honestly who really gives a shit? Because no matter how many kaiju flicks you’ve ingested throughout your lifetime — or none at all, if that’s your rub — it doesn’t alter the realization that the 2014 Godzilla movie is a pretty sizable dud.

Not to say that I feel as abandoned as Vesta descending Latmos Hill, but I’m actually surprised by mostly positive reviews this film is getting. Surely these reviewers hadn’t watched the same two hours of tedium I had. And to be fair, I came into the movie with some pretty high expectations. Without reservation, I really enjoy most kaiju movies I’ve seen, warts and all. And believe you me, they are warty beyond measure; when it comes to logic, pace, characterization, narrative clarity, and even the slightest hint of verisimilitude, kaiju flicks should be sharing a single glass eye with its two haggish other sisters in a cave somewhere. THAT was a Clash of the Titans sub-reference, and I’m moderately pleased with it.

Well if I can start with a positive, it seems that director Gareth Edwards wasn’t interested in a massively overloaded CGI borefest.¬†Instead of the bombastic overkill of the failed 1998 Godzilla flick that disappointed audiences everywhere, the new film takes many of its cues from the “classic” Godzilla movies. It’s a slow build, a growing sense of foreboding and suspense, to the point where we don’t even see the titular character until well into the movie (I didn’t time it, but I’d say it’s a good 45-50 minutes or so). The movie is primarily concerned with the human element way down on the ground. The monsters (plural) are the milieu, not the focus.

With all that established, it’s then a shame that the characters can’t even be called one-dimensional, because that’s still being entirely too kind. You really can’t complain about the human elements because there weren’t any. Save for the great Bryan Cranston, who made so much out of a smaller supporting role that he remained the only character who seemed remotely alive, most other characters were paradigms of nondescript, empty suit, ho-hum blandness. Aaron Taylor Johnson was the lead role, a 20-something Naval bomb expert, and he was entirely dead-behind-the-eyes terrible. There was no character to his performance, no quirk, no personality, nuance, NOTHING memorable about him. I couldn’t even remember his character’s name after the movie. His impact upon the plot was almost entirely minimal, spending much of the movie of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, squinting aimlessly at the proceedings, a cinematic yawn so profound that we haven’t seen the likes of which since Winona Ryder’s late 90s/early 00s performances. Elizabeth Olsen was placed in the thankless position of being the shrieking wife/mom at the other end of the phone for most of the movie. She brought a bit of fire and grit to her performance, but her part wasn’t just woefully underwritten, it was practically transparent. Ken Watanabe is an accomplished actor and screen presence, but he spends most of the movie with his mouth hanging open in various stages of shock/awe/woe, dispensing Eastern-tinged philosophical/scientific advice as needed to hapless Western authorities.

I’m glad that the filmmakers wanted to spend so much time with these characters to at least give the illusion that there’s more going on here than just monsters blowing stuff up, but they were either poorly written, unmemorable in their portrayals, or shameless central-casting caricatures that in the end no one cares on whit what the humans are doing. EVER. Because by all means, this movie certainly isn’t very interested.

The natural knee-jerk response to this complaint is that the human characters/elements were ALWAYS thin and underwritten in Godzilla/Monster movies, to which I scream “HORSEFEATHERS!!” Try to imagine Jaws becoming as massively popular and enduring as it is without the memorable, well-rounded and well-scripted performances by Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss. The original, still-classic, still magnificent King Kong from 1933 had more impressive characterizations in Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong. Hell, even Jurassic Park featured memorable standouts from the likes of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Sam Neil, those two kids… you see what I’m getting at. The characters in Godzilla were ephemeral. Vapor. Three seconds out of the theater you’ll hardly remember they existed.

To use the excuse “What do you expect? It’s a Godzilla movie!!” is basically acknowledging the movie’s moments of ineptitude and then casually dismissing or accepting them. It’d be like accepting every crappy pre-X-Men or pre-Blade superhero flick by saying “What do you expect? It’s a comic book movie!!” — in other words, absolving the filmmakers for doing nothing to improve or evolve beyond the formulaic mediocrity that’s to be expected of them.

So then, is the movie any fun, despite its shortcomings? Well sure it is. The title character looks, moves, and sounds great (whenever he’s onscreen — we’re talking maybe 10 minutes throughout the entire flick). The MUTOs are impressively designed as well. I’m glad that the filmmakers went for a clear, clean, streamlined but memorable design for the supernatural creatures, as opposed to the too-busy, amorphous look that was the movement du jour lately (see Cloverfield, for instance). There are great moments of fun, suspense, and overall scale that makes the film a visual wonder and a visceral treat. Mostly. That said, there are a few WTF moments that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Whose brilliant idea was it to have Godzilla’s huge introductory reveal ruined by cutting to an obnoxious kid half-asleep on the couch watching a monster fight play out on the news (which we barely got snippets of, as it played out in the background), then cutting back to the action once the fight was completed and the monsters were gone? REALLY? So much for your momentum, guys.

Gozdilla still has a lot going for it, but the movie does very little to elevate itself beyond mediocrity. Kaiju, monster movie, and action-adventure fans will really love about a good 25 minutes of the movie, and maybe be a little more forgiving of the rest. Or maybe they won’t. The epic monster clash at the end was exciting and well staged, but by then it felt much too little and far too late to elevate this movie beyond disposable entertainment. Godzilla remains a hollow, empty spectacle despite the movie’s efforts to keep the audience engaged beyond the visceral thrill.

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