Turning a cheesy Japanese monster movie into a serious, solemn American blockbuster is no easy task, yet director Gareth Edwards has done just that. Perhaps even more difficult is actually taking it seriously, despite all intentions to the contrary. Edwards’ Godzilla is still as laughable as its predecessors, to the point when you wonder if a little self-awareness wouldn’t help make the proceedings at least a little more cheery.
Godzilla begins promising enough – after losing a loved one in a nuclear plant meltdown, a scientist (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with discovering the source of the accident. There’s some depth here involving the nuclear element, and in turn the monsters, acting as metaphors for burying demons’ past. Annoyingly, the film also takes its good old time building up to the first appearance of the title monster, as if we didn’t already know what we’re in for. “There’s wave patterns in the water, this is not an earthquake!” shouts Cranston’s character. Yes, we know, there’s a giant, silly-looking dinosaur out there. Just get to it already. Meanwhile, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal guy, tries to get him to bury the past and return to the reality. But the past, as he soon discovers, is out there, and it will soon break free. And his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) may soon be caught in the crossfire of a big monster duel.
I’ll preface this review by saying fans will likely be pleased with this new Godzilla, which seems to have been designed primarily for them. The 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed remake was poorly received by fans for, among several other reasons, being too American, and the monster too lizard-like. This new beast not only has a huge foot in the creature’s Japanese origins (literally), but also looks far more like the classic Toho monster.
Still, I’ll be the buzzkill and say I believe Godzilla is best left a relic of the past. Following a lengthy first act, the film quickly devolves into unintentional hilarity, abandoning its pathos for lots of pseudo-scientific dialogue, awed reaction shots at giant CGI monsters, and large landmarks being eaten or destroyed. Everyone, director and actors, are taking this material so very seriously; if this is meant to be a reflection of the “real world,” as so many movies try to be post-The Dark Knight, is there not one person out there in Godzilla who thinks, “wow, I know people are dying and all, but…god damn, this is silly.”
The monster itself looks just as silly as the old Toho suit; the audience at my screening couldn’t help but giggle the entire time. I couldn’t blame them. Try keeping it together when Godzilla is swimming dramatically, swaying left and right, only his spikes visible above the water’s surface, all with a giant army of helicopters and battleships in hot pursuit.
Hollywood still struggles treating larger-than-life creatures like Godzilla as full-fledged characters in the narrative, and so the monster is portrayed more like a force of nature than an actual player in the story. That leaves the script to come up with a compelling human element, which takes center stage in the remake, yet bores after long. The humans will debate for a while, then finally Godzilla and another monster start to square off…before the movie abruptly cuts back to the humans. As much as I’m bored by these proceedings altogether, I’ll say at least a few more monster fights would’ve proven at least stupidly entertaining.
Among these humans is Ken Wantanabe, playing the stereotypical wise old Japanese scientist, who studies the creatures and concludes that Godzilla is there to restore balance and protect humanity, not destroy it. “Let them fight,” he tells a U.S. General. It’s just too bad that kind of cheese isn’t embraced more fully. Even more depressing is that this is a line of dialogue that survived drafts passed around to writing greats like Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins).
Serious monster movies are difficult to pull off in the 21st century. Peter Jackson’s King Kong found a great balance between action and drama. I think a lot of these Kaiju movies miss that balance. Unlike Kong, I’m constantly questioning the reality of my surroundings, unable to take such inherently silly material seriously. Some self-awareness would do this reborn franchise good, otherwise my stance remains unchanged from that of last year’s similarly-Kaiju Pacific Rim – I’d rather play than watch.
All the same, I would love to see these guys try to grim-up Mecha-Godzilla.