Warning: The following review contains spoilers
There’s no denying that the creature otherwise known as Gojira has earned his place in pop culture. Whether he’s stomping the life out of Bambi or the subject of a Blue Öyster Cult song he’s a ubiquitous figure and many a childhood has been spent watching poorly dubbed versions of “Godzilla vs. [fill in the blank].” Hell, he even has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. In spite of all that, I think it is worth taking a step back and questioning whether there’s really a place for the big scaley guy in discussions of fine cinema. Think of it this way, there have to date been 29 Godzilla movies (including the first American remake in 1998) and of all those I’d only say one is actually “good,” that of course being the 1954 original. Honestly, even that original movie is kind of shaky. It certainly has a not so subtle anti-nuke message at its core, but it has pacing problems and the human characters are pretty forgettable. As such there were certain limits to how excited I was going to get about yet another attempt by Hollywood to bring Japan’s favorite monster back to America.
Appropriately, this version of Godzilla begins with a nuclear accident. Specifically it begins with the meltdown and destruction of a nuclear plant in Japan where an American scientist named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) have been working. The meltdown kills Sandra and leaves Joe devastated and looking for answers. The main action of the film begins fifteen years later, when Joe is arrested for trespassing in the Chernobyl like quarantine zone that was left in the nuclear plant’s wake. This forces his now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to leave his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) behind in San Francisco to go bail him out. Despite Ford’s frustration with his father’s conspiracy theories, he still agrees to go with his father into the quarantine zone, where they find a secret government installation being overseen by a scientist named Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) which has been studying a strange egg-like object that was found at the nuclear plant after the meltdown. Almost as soon as the father and son arrive something goes wrong, the egg-like object hatches, and a giant spider-like monster (dubbed a MUTO) emerges and begins to cross the Pacific. To make things even more interesting another giant monster also seems to appear and begin a pursuit of this MUTO. The monster in pursuit is a large reptilian creature with spikes on its back, there’s been some record of it in the past, and those who’ve been studying the records of it have come to call it “Godzilla.”
I don’t know if this was actually public knowledge before the film opened and I just missed it, but I was genuinely surprised by the fact that there were other monsters in this movie besides Godzilla himself. The inclusion of these “MUTOs” certainly helps to keep the movie from following the same formula that its 1954 and 1998 predecessors opted to go with, and for the most part I approve of their inclusion with the one reservation that they look an awful lot like the aliens in Cloverfield, Super 8, the 2009 Star Trek, and… well, they look like they were designed by J.J. Abrams. Still I like that screenwriter Max Borenstein managed to find a logical (if somewhat convoluted) reason for all three of these monsters to have been hiding for so long and to have emerged all at the same time.
What the script is less successful at doing is finding a reason to keep its main characters involved in this ordeal at pretty much every stage of its timeline. It pretty much relies on coincidence to explain why all this craziness just happened to go down as soon as Joe and Ford arrive at its ground zero, why the paths of the monster just happens to follow Ford into two separate major cities, and why Ford just happens to be exactly the military specialist that’s needed to carry out the film’s climactic missions which he just happens to be in the right place and right time to participate in. For that matter, I wasn’t all that impressed by Ford as a character. For the most part he seemed like a pretty bland character with few defining features aside from the fact that he loves his wife and is frustrated by his father. On top of that, Aaron Taylor-Johnson just doesn’t bring a whole lot to give this thin character any life. He just seems like yet another one of the bland American Apparel models that have been held up as the new breed of action hero in the last five years or so.
Of course there’s a reason why Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t on this movie’s poster, that distinction goes to the film’s title character, which is the real element that will make or break this movie. As you probably know from the posters, trailers, and Fiat commercials, the producers have opted for a fairly traditional take on the Godzilla creature design this time around. This Godzilla is tall, he’s got spikes on his back, and yes, he breaths fire. Ironically enough, the CGI used to bring him to life might actually be one of the movie’s least impressive special effects. The various explosions and moments of destruction in the movie look great, and the CGI used to render the MUTOs looked really good too (which might explain why modern blockbusters have been so enamored by this alien design), but Godzilla himself feels a little more fake than his surroundings. That complaint is of course relative, this is still a really good looking creature just maybe not quite as seamless as, say, the apes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes or the Na’vi in Avatar.
For the most part this Godzilla provides everything you could want from a big budget disaster movie in 2014. It does a great job to tickling action scenes throughout its runtime instead of getting bogged down in long sustained set-pieces and it also manages to keep a fairly serious though not overly dour tone. It also renders the idea of kaiju fighting each other in a much more dramatic and interesting way than Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. What it doesn’t do is give its audience a whole lot to chew on. The film makes some lip service to the anti-nuclear sentiment of the 1954 original, but it doesn’t really update it in any particularly novel way. The film gives some lip service to the notion of allowing nature to solve nature’s problems when Dr. Serizawa suggests that the army would be better served by simply allowing Godzilla to fight it out with the MUTOs instead of trying to fight it with conventional weapons. That logic probably makes lot of sense the old lady who swallowed the fly, but how does it apply to reality? Are we supposed to just do nothing and hope that nature provides some solution to the hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters that the MUTOs are supposed to represent? I don’t think so. No, at the end of the day this is just a silly monster movie of the kind you should probably turn your brain off in order to enjoy, albeit one that is for the most part exquisitely made. Sixty years from now I don’t think this is a movie that will have people pondering the political mindset of the time and place of its creation the way that the 1954 movie does today, but for those looking for a high quality summer blockbuster it will more than serve its purpose.
***1/2 out of Four