Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
The only questions that really matter when grading a giant-monster movie are: are the monsters awesome? Are they on screen enough? For both, the new “Godzilla” succeeds. Unfortunately, it fails pretty much every other question of competence for movies in general, so unless a win on the monster front is enough to make it worth seeing for you, you’re probably better off giving this a miss.
The plot is fairly standard: there are monsters, they rampage around destroying things, there’s a big fight between the monsters (in this case, it’s Godzilla vs. a pair of creatures that are supposed to be parasitical towards Godzilla-type-monsters but are the same size he is). To give us something to do while we wait for it to be monsters-fighting-time, there’s a storyline about a nuclear engineer (Bryan Cranston) whose wife (Juliette Binoche in what is effectively a walk-on role) is killed in the initial monster event. He becomes obsessed with finding out the truth, while his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) joins the military and tries to leave his past behind.
There’s some stuff about a secret international group that studies Godzilla (apparently headed by Ken Watanabe’s character), government cover-ups, and so on, but once things get rolling, the primary human conflict is between Watanabe’s scientist and the admiral (David Strathairn) heading up the effort to get rid of the monsters. We also get to follow Taylor-Johnson trying to get to his wife and kid, who are (of course!) right in the monsters’ path.
The human storylines are largely filler, which is pretty much what you’d expect. It’s frustrating to see a talented actor like Ken Watanabe stuck in a role with very little dialogue and scenes that mostly consist of him staring at things in amazement or horror, but you don’t go to a monster movie for complex emotional storytelling or compelling character development.
What really matters is: are the monsters awesome? For this, “Godzilla” definitely delivers. From the early appearances where we mostly get to see the aftermath of the creatures’ passing, to the climactic city-destroying throw-down, the special effects are fantastic. Godzilla is appropriately massive, his tread shaking the ground and his movements slow, precise, and almost elegant. The other creatures, which are more insectoid than dinosaurish, were clearly designed with a great deal of care, and they make a good opponent for everyone’s favorite movie monster.
There are a number of scenes where the monsters seem way too interested in the lives/existence of the human protagonists, which is a bit disappointing. It makes the creatures somehow less scary to have them noticing and caring about individual humans who are more or less cockroach-sized compared to them. Also, any attempt to make sense of what is going on (why are the monsters the same size as Godzilla if they’re parasites? Why did Godzilla show up to fight them, anyway? Why do the huge naval ships sail so closely to Godzilla when he swims if it puts them in the way when he changes course? Is the army really stupid enough to use nukes on creatures that feed on nuclear power? Etc.) is futile. This is not a film whose events stand up to any sort of scrutiny.
“Godzilla” is a movie designed to be watched as an escape from the heat of summer, an opportunity to relax your brain and just be amazed by the spectacle of enormous monsters destroying things. If that’s your cup of tea, grab some popcorn and take a seat. Otherwise, stay far away.