Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla is a darker, visually stunning version of the classic movie monster despite its issues
With Kong: Skull Island out today, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to go back and review the first movie in the Legendary MonsterVerse, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Now, hopes weren’t exactly high following the trainwreck that was the 1998 film. However, with Edwards in the director’s chair, a little hope was restored. His first film, Monsters, showed a lot of restraint as the main characters navigated a post-apocalyptic world riddled with giant octopi — it’s much better than it sounds. However, when he does get to those action set pieces, he directs them gracefully and with sweeping camerawork. It was a refreshing break from the chaos we usually see in this genre. I’m looking at you Cloverfield. The world may be in chaos, but that doesn’t mean the filmmaking needs to be. While his work in Godzilla isn’t exactly as inspiring, it still cements itself as a solid summer blockbuster — perhaps one of the better ones — despite its clear flaws.
The Godzilla universe is rooted in camp. From the iconic rubber suits from the 1954 version to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film with its — well, I’m not completely sure how to describe it. However, Edwards infuses this take with a darker tone that surprisingly suits it despite the fact that it’s about a 350-foot reptile. Unlike previous Godzilla movies, the 2014 version is actually concerned with plot and its lore, not just the action sequences. This time, Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, the lead engineer of a Japanese nuclear plant until it went into meltdown due to mysterious seismic activity. Years later, he gets arrested trying to return to the site to retrieve files to help him figure out what caused the meltdown. His son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an explosive disposal officer for the Navy, goes to Japan to bail him out. Eventually, his father convinces him to help him break back into the quarantine zone. They are soon captured and brought to a secret facility where Project Monarch, led by Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), are analyzing a mysterious structure at the site of the nuclear plant. After several power failures, a giant moth-like creature dubbed MUTO — Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism — is released and is making its way to San Francisco. As he joins the military task force that is looking to stop the monster, Ford learns that in 1954 several nuclear bomb tests being conducted were actually an attempt to kill Godzilla or at least contain him. However, he has awakened with the release of the MUTO. As Dr. Serizawa says, “let them fight.” And fight they do.
Unlike earlier Kaiju films, including 2013’s Pacific Rim, Godzilla revels in the moments between the all-out carnage of the monster-versus-monster battles that defines it. However, that is the reason the bloodthirsty monster movie fanboys detest this movie. They are the people who waged the question, “is there enough Godzilla in Godzilla?” Well, in my opinion, there is just enough. The battle sequences are fantastic and thriller and enough to save the desire for monster awesomeness that some will crave. But then there are moments of pure visual genius that outshine them. Specifically, there’s the highly publicized paratrooper sequence where flares create an incredible effect against the smokey backdrop of a destroyed San Francisco. Then, there’s a moment where we watch on with bated breath as a monster passes beneath a railroad bridge where some of our characters are hiding. There’s some incredible cinema tucked away in there.
Screenwriter Max Borenstein makes it a point to humanize the movie by using characters that aren’t defined by the usual genre rules. However, as impressive as the cast is, the movie makes little use of them. The wonderful Oscar winner Juliette Binoche gets strong material that amounts to less than three minutes while Cranston barely gets to flesh out his character. Oscar nominees Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe are simply there to react to what’s happening while Elizabeth Olsen‘s role as Elle Brody becomes a plot device. Unfortunately, the only actor who gets any material to work with is Aaron Taylor-Johnson whose performance comes off as stiff and emotionless. There are cute attempts to make us care about the characters that simply fall flat and often push the film into cliche territory. Considering the movie is as well-constructed as it is, it’s easy to let that go and allow its visual brilliance to make up for it. In particular, the monster’s first clash in Honolulu and their final, epic showdown in San Francisco are among the best scenes in a monster movie in years.
It’s clear that Edwards felt the pressure of the studio system in this movie. It often lets tip when a shot or line was put in because the studio thought it would make it more marketable — he certainly figured out how to balance the two with Rogue One. Like that movie, Godzilla is visually dazzling enough to remind you why Legendary chose Edwards to revive the franchise. While it has its problems — the most severe of which is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance — you can forgive it because, well, it’s Godzilla fighting another giant monster. What more can you ask for?