Godzilla

Posted: May 28, 2014 in Film reviews

Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe.

In 1999 a mining cave-in in the Philippines reveals a huge underground cavern, and the remains of a giant prehistoric creature, along with two eggs, one of which it appears something has hatched from. Simultaneously a nuclear reactor in Janjira, Japan experiences violent earth tremors. The supervisor Joe Brody (Cranston) sends his wife and a team to check on the reactor, but further tremors cause an explosion that threatens to send the reactor into meltdown, and Joe has to seal his wife the other others in to save the surrounding populace, including their young son, Ford. The area around Janjira is evacuated and becomes a quarantined zone.

Flash forward fifteen years and Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is now a bomb disposal expert working for the US Navy. He’s just returned from a tour of duty to spend time with his wife and young son when he gets a call from japan. His father has been arrested trying to break into the Janjira quarantine zone and Joe flies out to Japan to bail him out.

Joe has become obsessed by a conspiracy theory that the Janjira disaster wasn’t caused by earth tremors, and despite his misgivings Ford agrees to go into the quarantine zone with his father. They arrive just as further earth tremors occur, only they aren’t earth tremors, they’re the birth pains of a giant creature dubbed a Muto (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). After causing havoc the Muto heads out to sea, and towards America’s west coast, but in pursuit are not only the American navy, but another prehistoric creature, an alpha predator the scientists have named Godzilla…

Do you own a cat? It’s ok if you don’t because my metaphor will still make sense. All you need to do is pop to your local supermarket and pick up a sachet of chicken flavoured cat food. You don’t have to buy it, just look at the list of ingredients where you’ll see something like the following.

Chicken- 4%

Godzilla is a bit like that. The sachet says Godzilla on the front but in actuality the big lizard’s not in the film very much.

Now this isn’t unusual when it comes to monster movies, very often the makers will want to conceal the creature for as long as possible, either to ramp up tension, or because their visual effect (or man in a suit) is a bit cheap. Unfortunately in Godzilla’s case his absence doesn’t so much ramp up tension as drain it all away. The fact that he looks fantastic just makes the whole thing even more frustrating.

It almost wouldn’t matter if we had something other than the Mutos and Godzilla to focus on, but the human characters in the film are so bland and uninteresting that it’s hard to care. Cranston might over emote a tad, but at least he emotes, which is more than most of the people here do, and you have to query any film that hires the likes of Cranston, Taylor-Johnson, Watanabe, Juliet Binoche and Sally Hawkins (plus Elizabeth Olsen who I’m reliably informed is a good young actress) but then either gives them scant screen time, wafer thin characterisation, or a combination of the two.

Cranston has the best role, one he can get his teeth into, but he also has less screen time than Godzilla. Watanabe has gravitas but he’s really only here so that the film has someone on Godzilla’s side. Binoche probably filmed her scenes in an afternoon and Hawkins is wasted and seems to only be there to hold Watanabe’s clipboard or something.

Olsen, as Ford’s wife, is effectively pointless apart from (along with their son) giving Ford something to get home to and providing some mild peril. Other than this she’s a doctor (or maybe a nurse it’s never made clear) but even this isn’t relevant to the plot in any way.

The biggest disappointment is Taylor-Johnson though, who probably has more screen time than anyone, yet still manages to feel superfluous at times. It doesn’t help that he’s playing a monosyllabic solider, or that for the most part he just bumbles along in the monsters’ wake with increasingly contrived engagement with the story. But compared to most everyone else he does at least have some personality, all we get otherwise is generic civilians, who mainly run and scream or generic soldiers who die horribly.

Actually that’s a lie. They don’t die horribly. In fact for the most part I’m pretty sure they don’t even die onscreen. Which is another problem; it’s a pretty bloodless film. I’m not asking to see piles of corpses everywhere, but given the amount of property damage Godzilla and the Mutos create, tens of thousands of people, at least, must have bought the farm, but you’d barely know it. In the hands of another director, a Whedon or a Cameron, or even Paul WS Anderson, this again wouldn’t matter so much, they’d keep the pace going, inject some humour, or at least some actual peril, sadly Edwards either can’t, or won’t do this. Some kids are in danger on a bridge, but only for a moment, a small child slides down a train on his way to his doom, no it’s ok…people clearly die, but no one ever seems to be in danger, it’s an odd dichotomy and it makes for a boring film.

I saw Gareth Edwards’ Monsters at the cinema a few years ago, and whilst I lauded its scale to budget ratio it was, frankly, dull as ditch water. Characters just wandered along, stuff happened, and the big monsters were just background wallpaper. What Godzilla proves is that, even with a budget, Edwards’ art-house sensibilities and static direction won’t change, and I fear for the Star Wars spin off he’s going to make. Yes some shots of Godzilla are amazing, but it takes more than a few moody, smoke tinged shots of giant lizard and a few snippets of monster fisticuffs to make for a great monster movie.

And this is even before we get to how ludicrous various elements are. Joe gets arrested in the quarantine zone, yet the very next day goes back again and, in fact, gets further inside than he ever has before. Atom bombs explode seemingly a few hundred yards out to sea without causing any kind of environmental damage. Ford is told all about Godzilla and the Mutos, then allowed to leave despite the fact that the military are still trying to keep the whole matter hushed up, never mind lauding Godzilla as a hero despite the fact he’s sunk multiple warships and destroyed half of downtown San Francisco. It’s akin to saying “Thank God that tsunami saved us from the forest fire.”

Not enough Godzilla, not enough excitement, not enough drama, not enough humanity. Too silly to be taken seriously, and too serious to be any fun at all.

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