Review: GODZILLA Is King Of The Monsters Once More

James Marsh, Asian Editor
British director Gareth Edwards makes his Hollywood debut in jaw-dropping style, bringing Godzilla back to the big screen in a grand scale action adventure that is pitched perfectly between obligatory disaster drama and indulgently delightful monster mash.

2014 marks the 60th anniversary since Toho Studios first unleashed Godzilla onto the big screen. Hondo Ishiro's film is a surprisingly bleak and mournful allegory of Atomic Age fears that was largely butchered ahead of international release, only to have recently been restored to its former glory. In the six decades since, the King of the Monsters has evolved from a mindless force of destruction into more of a guardian figure, defending (for the most part) Tokyo from a rogues gallery of marauding giant beasts - or kaiju - both alien, mutated and indigenous in nature. 

After the disastrous efforts of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to translate Japan's greatest (or at least largest) export into a Hollywood-friendly property, Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures have been entrusted with the task this time out, and the results are exponentially better. Max Borenstein's intelligent and respectful script understands the expectations of Godzilla fans, while doing its best to introduce the concept to audiences perhaps unfamiliar with the notion of giant monsters doing something other than simply destroying everything in their path. That said, the script is not slavishly enchained to its roots, creating a new origin story that remains coherent while also steering the film's overall message in a slightly new direction.

In 1999, a mining project in the Philippines collapses when a large underground cavern is discovered, housing the fossilised remains of a giant, unidentifiable creature, as well as similarly unregistered cocoons - one of which is still intact. Shortly thereafter, nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliet Binoche) pick up strange seismic readings at their power plant in Janjira, Japan. Their attempts to shut down the plant fail, and Sandra is killed as the structure collapses.

15 years later, young Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), now a bomb disposal expert with the US Navy, receives a call that his estranged father has been arrested in Japan, attempting to break into the still-quarantined Janjira plant. Leaving his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son behind, Ford heads to Japan, only for both Brody men to soon find themselves in custody at Janjia. Joe's rantings attract the attentions of Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), who seems to hold the key to what is really going on. But before they can join forces, all hell breaks loose at the plant.

While on paper it might have seemed an incredibly ballsy, perhaps even misguided, move on Warners' part to put 35-year-old Gareth Edwards in charge of a US$160 million summer tentpole release, as to-date he has only directed one other film. You only need look at 2010's Monsters, however, to know that the Godzilla franchise is in incredibly safe hands. While this time out, Edwards has been forced to relinquish control of the film's cinematography, editing and visual effects - all of which he handled pretty much single-handedly in addition to directing his debut - there remain many similarities between the two films, both in narrative structure and execution.

For the first hour of Godzilla, we see very little of the monsters themselves - and yes that's monsters plural - but Edwards does a great job of setting the scene, laying the breadcrumbs and ratcheting up the tension until he lets things rip in the second half. This was very much the situation in Monsters too, where - for budgetary reasons more than anything else - Edwards was unable to show his giant cephalopod aliens running amok, but would have his characters arrive after the fact, to survey and process the devastation. In Godzilla, we are always one step behind the carnage, or barricaded too far away to get a good look at what is going on. It's a risky approach, especially when Borenstein's script shows such a disinterest in developing any multi-faceted characters, but under Edwards' assured guidance it comes off brilliantly.

Thankfully, when all is revealed, and the King of the Monsters arrives in Hawaii, it proves an incredible sight to behold. Godzilla is a cinematic icon every bit as recognisable and intimidating as King Kong or even Frankenstein's monster. He is the reason audiences have bought their tickets and have been sat with baited breath for an hour, and Edwards' monster has size, weight, and most importantly personality, which was so sorely lacking in the previous English-language outing. This is the other great strength in Monsters that Edwards transfers across to this film - his creatures have character, he makes us believe they are living, breathing entities with a purpose, rather than simply marauding mindless mounds of meaningless muscle. It's one of the biggest failings of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, but proves one of Godzilla's greatest triumphs.

More than anything, audiences want to see Godzilla in action, which doesn't mean terrorising innocent bystanders or knocking over buildings - those things are merely window dressing for the main event. As the film's only memorable line of dialogue so eloquently states: "Let them fight". There are bigger things at stake than what we puny humans can comprehend. We are far from the most important things on the planet. Godzilla knows this, and as much as anything else, the film is about us learning and understanding that our planet was here long before we were and will outlive us all. Godzilla is not the threat, he is the solution. There are other beasties out there, giant bug-like creatures dubbed by the military M.U.T.O. - Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms - that can emit an electromagnetic pulse large enough to disable an entire city or army and feed on radiation and nuclear weapons. In other words something we have no way of defeating. At times like this, we need a friend. A big one.

As in any cinematic incarnation of Godzilla, it's the monsters that take centre stage and the human characters are at best of secondary significance. While Borenstein's script lovingly stages epic encounters between towering creatures of mass destruction - set to a triumphant score by Alexandre Desplat - those standing idly by are developed far less successfully. Aaron Taylor-Johnson has yet to prove he has any kind of range, and does little to advance that notion here. Ford Brody is a beefcake grunt haunted by a traumatic childhood, but ATJ's performance seems to begin and end with how wide his eyes are open. Brody has no personality to speak of, regardless of whether he's reuniting with his family or facing certain death by giant monsters. He's not so much a charisma vacuum as simply part of the furniture.

Sadly, other far more talented thespians are also buried under the rubble of Godzilla's carnage. Elizabeth Olsen does a fine job of staring tearfully at TVs or collapsing buildings, but that's pretty much where her job description ends. Similarly, Sally Hawkins, as Watanabe's dutiful sidekick, steps in to give backstory and exposition about Godzilla's origins from time to time, but otherwise stands and nods as her boss looks increasingly concerned. Filling out the female cast is Juliet Binoche, who manages to create a more emotionally powerful and believable relationship with Bryan Cranston in their two brief scenes together than anyone else in the film. Almost as punishment, she is dispatched the moment her quality acting is recognised.

This leaves Cranston and Watanabe to carry the film's dramatic weight on their more than capable shoulders, a task they handle diligently despite also having precious little scope to work with on the page. Joe Brody starts off strong but gets increasingly hysterical as his character is painted more and more like an obsessive madman. Conversely, Watanabe's Dr. Serizawa is always the smartest man in the room, knows exactly what these creatures are and how they are going to act, so simply furrows his brow when he's not pontificating on Godzilla's true role in all our destinies.

But to criticise Godzilla for having poor characterisation would be to miss the point of the film. The title tells us who our hero is and who we should be rooting for, and thankfully this time out the filmmakers know that too. While Emmerich's version tried to do everything in its power to distance itself from the original character, inexplicably taking dead aim at Spielberg's Jurassic Park films instead, Edwards completely understands the towering legacy of Godzilla and his numerous adversaries, and lovingly embraces it all. The only reason to invoke Spielberg's dinosaur film in this discussion at all is to strip it of its crown. Edwards' Godzilla is not only a safe bet as the best summer blockbuster of 2014, it's the best monster movie since Jurassic Park. Where it stands in the 60-year pantheon of Godzilla lore, however, is something for us all to fight about, preferably laying waste to a large city in the process. 
Around the Internet:
  • AMAZING Film, best Godzilla movie to date and easily one of the best monster movies. Especially in IMAX it was a fantastic ride. I am a huge fan of Monsters, and Edwards did a brilliant job with the money upgrade. Classic build up, great score, fantastic effects, great monster designs, cool story. Just the kids casting sucks completely, but that's a minor thing.

    Great review of a great film!

  • Buddy

    Wow, couldn't disagree more. Edwards is completely lost as to how to manage such a massive budget and obviously has no say when pathetic execs come to him for the changes they want made. Gareth is like a 16 year old wannabe race car driver; while he's had one 3rd place finish in a race, some idiot out there decides to give him a Ferrari and a grid spot at an F1 race, you don't have to be rocket scientist to know he's going to get obliterated. That's why their are steps from rookie seasons to the big leagues in practically every career path out there. Webb is another fine case in point of how independent directors cannot handle massive tent-pole franchises. Even Neil Blokmamp has suffered from not knowing what to do when budgets and execs quadruple after a successful, smaller first film. These guys all have major talent and I have no problem taking a chance with any of them for movies like this, but if you're going to do that, at least pair them up with a great, veteran producer to help guide their way. I can go on and on about the missteps this movie made, but I'll refrain and let everyone else point them out. Massive disappointment.

  • Douglas Roy

    Like one reviewer noted, it should've been titled, WAITING FOR GODZILLA.

  • Erik Harshman

    I believe the screenwriter's name is "Borenstein"... not "Borstein"... Just saying...

  • marshy00

    Good catch, cheers!

  • Rage72

    I was very disappointed in this movie. I enjoyed the initial setup, building characters, plot being established etc, but the payoff was just not there. Don't get me wrong, I loved the look of Godzilla, but to me, to put it bluntly, I thought he was weak and he got is ass kicked by the two Mutos! If it wasn't for a certain explosion, Godzilla would have been killed by those Mutos...and then to make matters worse, Godzilla passes out! Really? Peter Jackson's King Kong basically wiped the floor against 3 T-Rexs, which was an excellent fight, but Godzilla's fight against the Mutos was just flat out boring! even the fights in Pacific Rim were much better IMO. If Peter Jackson's King Kong was the size of one of the Mutos, Godzilla would be killed!

  • Gary Wong K.L.

    I didn't like this movie so much too, comparing it to Pacific Rim. Every time I thought something great is going to happen next it stopped just right there and follow up by some really boring scenes.It did not bring out anything special and lack of fun and emotional impact.

  • Spoilers everywhere

  • marshy00

    It's got big monsters in it. Shhhhhh, don't tell anyone.

    But seriously, there's nothing in my review that isn't evident in the trailers.

  • how bout the death of x character,,,,, oh now the characters dead, I was expecting a human to rodan transformations

    and the comment section too, beware

  • marshy00

    If you mean Binoche, it happens 10mins into the film. It's fair game.

  • no it's not... the killing of someone with prestige is surprising....

    just my 2 cents

  • Gopal Natarajan

    Sure hope you didn't watch any of the trailers, then.

  • I watch the teaser, trailer 1 and 2

  • Ard Vijn

    I loved it considerably less than you did, James. While the shots of Godzilla doing awesome things are, well, awesome, they are few and far between in a film of over two hours. For most of the battles I thought of the old boxing cat-call "Come on, people came to see a fight, not a dance," the beasts happy-slapping each other without any noticeable impact or scratch.

    Also, any gravitas shoehorned in about nuclear power and the Hiroshima bomb is a bit negated by the monsters' origins not having anything to do with all that. "Nature will restore the balance" is repeated over and over again. What, by sending an even bigger monster? Weird definition of balance (and what balance is this supposed to be anyway?). Silly bullshit, very much at odds with the scenes in which the film actually manages to be as serious as it aims to be.

    And I've never seen Strathairn and Watanabe be quite as bad as they are here. Brrrr...

    But kudos to Gareth for all the money shots that do instill awe. It's just too bad that the film managed to suspend my disbelief in all the right places, only to lose me again in all the wrong ones.

  • marshy00

    Sorry to hear that, Ard. I loved it, really got pulled into the slow burn build up, and felt the climactic battles were entirely satisfying.

  • GetFiquette

    Disappointing. Loved the first half of the movie, but the other monsters where just lame. Zilla looked like an over bolted tadpole. No sense of fun, action wasn't very exciting, got lost with the bomb plot?. Was nothing on Pacific Rim. Still, hope to does well and we get more of him on the big screen. Guess I'm just a fan of the Jap movies.

  • Buddy

    Couldn't agree more. Pacific Rim did everything Godzilla should have done.

  • Rage72

    I totally agree.

  • James Coll

    I hope you're right James. Now to wait for Kermode.

  • Stuart Muller

    GOJIRAAA!!!

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