3 out of 4 stars
Western culture succeeds so often with big budget action/disaster films, it seems impossible to believe that its track record with adaptations of a simple Japanese tale of a giant angry reptile could be so poor.
Fortunately our fire-breathing hero has been left in more than capable hands this time around and we finally have a “Godzilla” film that gives us reason to shudder every single time we hear that chill-inducing roar. Thanks to superb direction and production values as well as high-caliber performances from its star-studded ensemble, Godzilla moves past its over-encumbered story to become a creature feature worth watching in theaters this summer.
Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has obsessively searched for fifteen years for an answer to a cataclysmic earthquake in Tokyo that destroyed his life. With the help of his skeptical son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy lieutenant, he discovers evidence of ancient creatures that have been living deep in the earth for millennia, creatures being studied by scientists Daisuke Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins). After the creatures come to the surface and begin to lay waste to major cities around the globe, the race is on to unlock the secret to humanity’s salvation, which may lie in an equally ancient reptilian predator dubbed “Godzilla”.
Director Gareth Edwards proved himself with his low-budget monster movie Monsters years ago, so this step into big budget monster territory shows much shrewdness from Godzilla’s producing team. Edwards’s attention to detail is particularly impressive, finding points of interest in every shot that remind us that something big is on the horizon. He creates incredibly vivid, painting-like pictures with director of photography Seamus McGarvey (Atonement and Anna Karenina); shots taken at dusk are particularly stunning, making incredible use of light and shadow. A scene where a team of soldiers jumps out of an airplane into a desolate San Francisco has been expertly captured using distance and perspective intuitively.
Godzilla’s art direction has been handled quite well, particularly in wreckage scenes. A quarantined area of Tokyo has been vividly drawn out and structured right down to the smallest debris in a family’s house. And the wonderful composer Alexandre Desplat (Argo and The King’s Speech) ingeniously recaptures the pulse pounding rhythms of classic “Godzilla” with grand orchestrations featuring strong, percussive downbeats.
The editing falls into a few pitfalls here and there, occasionally making the audience wonder “How did that creature suddenly end up on the other side of that building?”, but nothing entirely embarrassing. And the visual effects department’s sharp attention to texture and movement sells these monsters from start to finish.
The film’s only big issue is its lack of … well … Godzilla. Screenwriter Max Borenstein seems deadset on selling us this tired story of humanity’s solidarity in the face of disaster. This portion of the film runs way too long and never seems to follow consistent lines of logic (I know, I used the word “logic” talking about a “Godzilla” movie).
And Edwards puts his skills with slow-burn suspense to good use, but this trick acts as a double-edged sword. The suspense of waiting for monsters to finally jump onto the screen keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for so long, they eventually find themselves spending the first two acts just asking “So where IS our big scaly hero?”
The superfluity of the human story becomes all too clear once we do see our creatures, as this last act of carnage and chaos provides an undeniable sense of awe as well as the most entertainment that has not yet been achieved throughout the course of the film.
A lack of character development has been wisely offset by sharp casting all around, with strong performances distracting from the meandering screenplay long enough to enjoy some delicious scenery chewing. Bryan Cranston gives a typically solid performance, instilling a sense of haunted woe into his character. Ken Watanabe does so much with so little, creating every angle to his character with his expressive face and very few lines. As Ford Brody’s wife, Elisabeth Olsen gives an emotionally wrought and beautifully organic performance with equally little screen time.
Now Aaron Taylor-Johnson has proven that he can carry a film with his star turn in Kick-Ass, but his success then came from his charming awkwardness. Here he has been asked to act as a stalwart juggernaut of a military hero, a character that he frankly just cannot sell.
It’s Godzilla, guys. We didn’t come to ponder the deeper motivations of a radioactive komodo dragon. We want to see monster fights and city-wide destruction.
Do we get what we came for?
Could we have used a bit more of it?
But putting aside the slow start, we must appreciate the skill and thought that has been put into this, possibly the most successful western adaptation of Godzilla to date.
For another take on Godzilla check out Baltimore Post-Examiner review.
Mark McCarver was born and raised in Houston, Texas and has been involved in theater and film since he was a kid. He spent the past few years acting and directing across Texas before moving to Washington, DC in the fall of 2012 to get a taste of the East Coast’s entertainment industry. Mark holds a BA in Drama from Trinity University and trained at the Syracuse University – London Drama Program and Shakespeare’s Globe. He is a company member with Half Mad Theatre in Washington.