Review: Godzilla

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Godzilla, a film about forces of nature outside the control of man’s grasp is vexingly packed to the brim with characters. To call it character driven, however, would be a mistake. Though these humans exhaust themselves in combating the behemoth and other deadly foes, their efforts are for naught. Godzilla’s influence on creature feature cinema over the past six decades is legendary, and yet this latest revival barely rekindles any vitality to the monster. Godzilla does have many of the correct elements in place, but its focus is alarmingly elsewhere, making the title character himself a tertiary piece of his own narrative.

In its opening credits montage, Godzilla reveals that the existence of this mammoth predator has been known in confidence since 1954, when nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean were meant to obliterate him. In 1999, a discovery in the Philippines gives humanity something more troublesome to worry about. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his associate (Sally Hawkins) are brought to examine the huge carcass of a long dead animal, buried deep underground and hundreds of yards in length. Inside of its chest cavity were two massive parasites, one of which escaped, the other still dormant. Along the coast of Japan, electrical signals far more regular than an earthquake destroy a power plant, and with it, the wife (Juliette Binoche) of American scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Crazed by grief and his suspicion of a cover up by the Japanese government, Brody stays in Japan. Fifteen years later, his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home from a military deployment to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen), only to fly to Tokyo to convince his father to give up on his crackpot theories. It’s only when father and son set out back into the supposed radiation zone that they discover the truth behind the Japanese government’s operation. When the situation escalates and the entire US western seaboard is at risk of annihilation, the reemergence of Godzilla may paradoxically be the only hope for humanity’s future.

Yes, that’s correct, Godzilla himself is very much a protagonist in this film, the only thing that might truly be able to defeat two terrifying monsters. While Godzilla’s proactive attitude is welcome, his placement as a character in the overall narrative feels shockingly arbitrary rather than organic and purposeful. There are excuses made that his existence is nature’s way of “restoring balance.” The larger issue is that Godzilla could be removed from his own film, and the narrative would still feasibly resolve. There is also an appreciable amount of holding back on a full unveiling of Godzilla, similar to how Steven Spielberg took his time in revealing his shark in Jaws. However, the non antagonistic nature of Godzilla here does not call for excluding him from most of the film. Granted, in the film’s hellacious final act, Godzilla is certainly given his moment to shine, but he rarely feels like the central character to the story.

Since Godzilla doesn’t put most of its focus on the monster, it instead chooses the human characters and their relationships in the disaster. Unfortunately, there’s such lack of individuality that it’s hard to care about anyone. It’s worth noting that none of the performances are poor, but the characters have nothing less than basic motivations, be it Ford needing to return home to his family or Serizawa advising the military against dangerous measures. Despite many instances of honestly trying for some emotional connection, all of the characters lack any real depth or moral grounding. Instead, the majority of the time they are simply mouthpieces for plot exposition as Godzilla and his foes prepare for battle.

Even if the forgettable characters take up the majority of time away from Godzilla and his foes, director Gareth Edwards is certainly capable of conjuring some impressive visuals and action. Most of the set pieces have solid tension and Edwards takes advantage of atmospherics to build them. Much like Jaws, Godzilla’s fins stand erect above the surface of the ocean, creating genuine anxiety as he barrels toward the fog enveloped Golden Gate Bridge. Edwards’ real life POV approach to the photography can be a mixed bag, but when it works, such as when the military is forced to send its forces skydiving into San Francisco, the visuals can be quite haunting. Alexandre Desplat provides perhaps his most bombastic score to date, which feels appropriate, if not particularly memorable. Of course, the visual effects effectively sell the big guy himself as well as his recycled adversaries, and his iconic roar is suitably overwhelming. If only the story gave the same respect to Godzilla as the king that he is, rather than treating him as a mere narrative contrivance to arrive at a limp thematic statement.

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~ by romancinema on May 20, 2014.

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