Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston
Genre: Action/ Adventure/Sci-fi
After witnessing a catastrophic event at the nuclear plant of which he worked in Japan and which his wife (Juliette Binoche) died, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Cranston) is convinced the incident was not just simply a ‘natural disaster’. 15 years later, Joe returns illegally to the plant with his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) reluctantly joining him. There they discover that Brody’s supposedly crazy theories may well have some substance as they witness the emergence and escape of a giant prehistoric creature that could threaten the existence of all of mankind.
By Hollywood standards these days, it would be fair to say that one of the most famous monsters to grace the silver screen is overdue a reboot. Well, after Roland Emmerich’s daft 1998 effort that was big on set pieces and wafer thin on everything else, Gareth Edwards seemed the perfect choice for a different approach. His approach in the excellent Monsters (though perhaps partly forced due to a miniscule budget) was to focus on the human element, with the monsters just lurking in the background out of sight for most of the narrative; after all we fear most what we cannot see. Well Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein admirably attempt to focus on the human element, leaving the big set pieces and pure full on creature reveals as late as possible, with more than a little teasing along the way.
That is of course not to say that 2014s Godzilla has an art house feel; it did cost an estimated $160million (imdb) and has plenty of the genre’s Emmerichesque clunky clichés: Cheesy mini subplots involving children or families, clunky dialogue, characters whose sole purpose is to offer exposition and our main characters being in exactly the right place at exactly the right (or wrong) time. These are not complete criticisms, as I appreciate that expensive disaster films have to have these narrative elements, but with Godzilla being a film delivered with absolute seriousness throughout, I could not help but feel they undermined the drama a little. In fact, as admirable as Edwards’ efforts were, and as solid as Godzilla was, I found it ultimately very hard to be truly engaged with it or find there to be a genuine sense of real peril or tension. Ultimately, for me some of the narrative choices (no spoilers of course) rendered the narrative to be a little predictable, undermining the countless (and slightly repetitive) attempts at delivering genuine nail biting tension.
Performance-wise, the cast all do a solid job with their admittedly limited dialogue and slightly two dimensional clichéd characters. Though we do not have any bad guys, and no gung-ho heroes, and there is an attempt for most characters to be everymen (and women), this of course only stretches so far due to the nature of the beast (pun probably intended). The attempt to show all characters as well meaning but flawed is to the film’s complement and certainly helps us engage, but a better script may have enhanced this even more. Aaron Taylor-Johnson certainly looks the part of a military man (whose particular role within the army is conveniently very useful for the narrative) and does his very best with his slightly two dimensional character, while father Bryan Cranston brings necessary emotion to his role and wife Elizabeth Olsen has very little to do at all apart from look scared/confused occasionally. A permanently depressed Ken Watanabe and token posh speaking Brit Sally Hawkins are simply boffins that turn up when other character and us the audience need to have some sciencey exposition explained. However there is enough human interest to keep us just about engaged throughout, though let’s admit it: we didn’t see Godzilla for that!
With his delaying and teasing of action (one potential big set piece turns into TV news footage) Edwards will frustrate many and certainly risks taking it too far. When the set pieces do finally arrive, they do deliver with carnage that would make Micheal Bay blush. The big monster itself is wonderfully deigned from the expressional face to the stegosaurus type body. It is hard to describe the film’s final third without spoilers, but though contained within it are some interesting ideas about mankind, that seems signposted too much and so renders the climax of Godzilla a little predictable and does verge on anticlimax. However there is enough destruction and decent (if very clichéd) characters to maintain interest to make for a forgettable, but solid blockbuster experience.
In what seems an attempt to merge a serious character driven art house feel with the inevitable generic narrative trappings of having a huge budget, Edwards’ film often seems to feel like an awkward compromise, not satisfying either as much as Godzilla potentially could have done. It is never full-on engaging tension, and never popcorn flavoured fun, but still an impressive looking and watchable enough blockbuster.