Godzilla (2014)

★★★

Godzilla (2014) PosterDirector: Gareth Edwards

Release Date: May 15th, 2014 (UK); May 16th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe

On a scale respectively topped and tailed by Gareth Edwards’ Monsters and Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, the former’s reincarnation of the latter beast is perched around the middle. In other words, Godzilla 2014 is something of a disappointment. Not a bad film, far from it. In fact its technical aspects are better than many a modern blockbuster has to offer. Edwards’ contemporary version of the giant kaiju is both reminiscent and magnificent, and it bellows a rumbling roar that’ll have your popcorn flying and Coke Zero spilling. The problem isn’t when he’s on screen, but when he’s not. The director’s intentions are clear and commendable: to gather tension in preparation for that first monster reveal. But while said anxieties are simmering the characters must carry the torch and they, unfortunately, are burned by a deficiency in multi-dimension.

Having attempted to destroy the creature known as Godzilla half a century ago with the aid of nuclear weaponry, civilisation now faces another threat in the form of Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTO). Physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) believes that a 1999 earthquake in Janjira, Japan is actually a government cover-up rather than a natural disaster, shielding from view the mistakes of humankind. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) heads out to Japan after hearing of his father’s arrest and witnesses first-hand the validity of Joe’s argument in the form of a creature wreaking havoc on everything in its path.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Godzilla is a game of two halves. The first hones in on the people involved and their actions, whereas the second explodes into a big-budget blockbuster bonanza. For a long time we don’t see Godzilla, instead teased only by murmurings and the occasional fin shot. In the monster’s place are a number of characters set to fulfil a variety of uninspired roles and, sadly, none of them really matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ford isn’t a compelling lead and it’s not just him either. Ford is our latch, the constant human presence who we are supposed to invest in: he has the loyalty chops as a US Navy officer, whilst his young family denotes a common identity and demands empathy. But we’ve seen it all before. There’s nothing particularly special about him, nor anyone else. Ford’s wife is a nurse and she spends her limited screen time frantically pushing hospital gurneys and panicking over the phone.

It doesn’t help that those portraying these inconsequential characters are a talented bunch, their talents frustratingly wasted to all intents and purposes. Elizabeth Olsen, the aforementioned wife, is fairly fresh off of exceptional work in the likes of Martha Marcy May Marlene, but here she’s diminished to nothing more than husband-fodder. Bryan Cranston plays Ford’s father and probably delivers the best performance as his character’s flesh is allowed to grow, but even he struggles to be memorable. It’s less of a shame than a surprise really, given Edwards’ track record when it comes to delivering engaging presences on-screen. Perhaps we’ve become attuned to gorging our way through masses of CGI and rip-roaring action when blockbuster season hits and in that sense, well-rounded human beings aren’t necessarily top of the menu. However, given the nature of this narrative in particular — one that endeavours to build before letting loose — audience captivation must begin with the characters as they are the primary load carriers.

The story itself is customary and therefore doesn’t offer much in the way of support to its participants. We watch an awful lot of Tab A into Slot B shenanigans — there’s to-ing and fro-ing aplenty — but again, we’re only really here to see gargantuan beasts collide. Right? On occasion the film does delve into the semantics of its historical monstrous figure and in those moments Edwards is in control. The opening sequence sets an ominous tone as the theory of natural selection is enshrined by images of nuclear testing and bolstered by a booming sound. Not long after, Japan’s misfortune sees it become the site of both natural and human-made catastrophe; we view both a volcano and a nuclear power plant as they loom forebodingly over family homes and a local school. Somewhere amongst the raft of uninteresting characters and impressive effects is a serious satirical backbone that denounces the domineering attitude of humanity. (“The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.”) Edwards brings a semblance of dignity and respect to the nuclear-nature fable, two traits totally lost throughout the franchise’s 1998 meltdown, and this version would benefit further from purveying greater impetus in this regard.

The director’s obvious admiration is also wholly captured in Godzilla’s visual manifestation. The reptile is a mishmash of classic and modern, wearing a familiar scaly attire that has been furnished by digital implants to make the creature look as grotesquely fearsome as ever (and, thankfully, as un-tyrannosaurus rex-like as possible). The reptile itself is going through post-Emmerich debilitation syndrome and Edwards successfully paves the way for phase one of recovery. The filmmaker who now infamously created his previous outing whilst curtailed by a minute budget of only $500,000, is eager to unleash the grander financial backing afforded to him here and to the Brit’s credit, he absolutely makes the most out of the cash available. From an early mine visual through to the final showdown, no skyscraper is left standing and each demolition job is almost as fun as the last. The ghostly infestations of urban decimation seen in Monsters are carried into this outing, destroyed landscapes as disconcerting as they are imposing. The film is also capped off by one of the year’s best scenes: a HALO jump that is both haunted by eerie hums and utterly scintillating in execution.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is an odd concoction. His decision to reveal the monster later in the game is a good idea. A great one in fact. But the minutes subsequently left action-depraved must then be filled by goings-on that are even more engaging, and the characters offered are simply unable to comply. Perhaps high expectations are to blame but, more than anything else, Godzilla is an opportunity missed.

Godzilla - ATJ

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros.

Godzilla (1998)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: May 20th, 1998 (US); July 17th, 1998 (UK)

Genre: Action; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Jean Reno, Hank Azaria

Remakes of classic films are often shunned before the celluloid film reel is placed in the projector (or, more likely these days, before the digital on-switch is pressed). When it was announced that a reboot of the Evil Dead franchise was in the works, fans of the scintillating original were probably more unappreciative than they were excited — although Sam Raimi’s involvement most likely eased the pain for many. Ensuring their favourite film’s legacy is not put at risk is at the forefront of a lot of cinema lovers minds, and so it should be. In return, this amps up the pressure placed upon the shoulders of directors who are at the helm of remakes, particularly in the eyes of the fans.

When May of 2014 comes along and Gareth Edwards’ recreation of Godzilla hits cinema screens across the globe, he will need not worry too much about living up to the expectations set by his predecessor. Unfortunately, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla misses the mark on just about every level.

Godzilla follows Niko Tatopoulos, a scientist whose work in Russia is interrupted when he is recruited by the American government to analyse the origins of a giant mutated lizard, and help find a way to stop it from wreaking havoc in New York. That is it — the whole film is essentially Godzilla clumsily stomping its way through the streets of Manhattan. There is absolutely no time at all set aside for any dramatic tension to build (the monster appears on land not long after the film begins) and this means the majority of the film is very anticlimactic. For example, when historic buildings are being decimated later on in proceedings, there is no element of shock or outrage because dozens of such buildings have already been left lying in ruin over an hour beforehand. This is an enormous problem that the film never manages to overcome, and as a result Godzilla is ultimately a tedious, repetitive watch throughout.

Of course, Godzilla‘s desperate need for a slither of drama is not the only nuance missing and in dire demand — there is also the need for a semblance of plot (that is, other than a giant monster swinging its tail into bricks and metal for almost two and a half hours). The audience is told early on that the origins of the monster Godzilla is connected with radioactive, nuclear testing in French Polynesia, where an iguana nest is exposed. This opens up a multitude of opportunities for the filmmakers to install social or political issues into the film, and use the abnormal, human creation of Godzilla as a metaphor for humanity’s (and, in particular, the western world’s) disregard for the consequences of their power struggles. Adding elements such as this to the film would invigorate it, generating greater depth and giving the audience something to think about during the events. Instead, the viewer is subject to a messy, uncoordinated plot, where the ‘bad guy’ (Godzilla) does not really evoke that sense of fear or tyranny that a monster should, and the ‘good guy’ (Matthew Broderick) spends the entire time running aimlessly around New York not doing anything in particular.

The lack of continuity throughout the film is a cause for concern as characters end up being perceived in ways they are not meant to be. There is a scene where reporter and former love interest of Tatopoulos, Audrey Timmonds (played by Maria Pitillo), meets Tatopoulos for the first time since they split up many years before. After holding Tatopoulos in a bad light for him still feeling angry towards her after she walked out on him all those years prior, Timmonds decides to steal Tatopoulos’ secret tapes and (lo-and-behold) they somehow end up on the national news. This not only makes Timmonds, a character who the audience are supposed to be rooting for, look dastardly, but it also shows the main protagonist and ‘hero’, Tatopoulos, as nothing more than a gullible fool. In terms of the acting in the film, it relents from being satisfactory and therefore is in keeping with the rest of the offering. Matthew Broderick is a shell of the charismatic, funny and reliable lead he was in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The humour is also off-key and bland, so much so that the normally on-point comedic timing of Hank Azaria cannot aid goings-on.

Harking back to the lack of sense or continuity involved in Godzilla, at one point during the outing the giant lizard sinks a navy submarine before the screen cuts back to a navy general who is informed by one of his subordinates that the submarine has been destroyed. This particular scene is placed in the film in order to encourage the audience to feel great sympathy towards the now deceased officers who were on board the ship. However, rather than successfully creating a sombre atmosphere, it only highlights that the monster Godzilla has already spent an hour rampaging through streets filled with people, yet there has been no mention of the obvious and unfortunate consequences of this.  Perhaps the seemingly customary deaths of average civilians does not need addressing, and this would almost certainly be the case in any other disaster film. Unfortunately, Godzilla is lacking so much in any form of substance that when conventional features such as civilian deaths occur and are not highlighted, it is at least something for the — probably now bored — viewer to focus on. Also, apparently this gigantic, bellowing monster can successfully sneak underground and even hide in buildings. Who knew? James Bond could learn a thing or two about stealth from Godzilla.

A big-budget re-imagining of the classic 1954 Japanese monster film, Roland Emmerich’s take on Godzilla is one which fails to deliver in almost every department. From a non-existent story to nonsensical plot points to unconvincing acting, the film is ultimately devoid of that sense of dread and imminent danger which every successful, encapsulating monster film should boast.

Next time, can we keep Madison Square Garden and just take our chances?