What expectations do you have for the latest attempt to make an American Godzilla movie? Are they still low after the 1998 disaster? Did recent successes like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim raise them back up? Did you really like Godzilla ’98 and are simply pissed you had to wait 16 years for a sequel? Do you just not care about things like this anymore, now that you find yourself staring into the yawning chasm that the rest this summer’s slate of movies appears to be? It matters, because what you get out of this new movie depends partly on what you bring to it.
As you well know, I was completely satisfied by Pacific Rim, which took all the best giant monster, mech, and anime tropes and made it into one glorious sensory overload. What was compelling about Godzilla to me, going in, was that it wasn’t supposed to be like that Guillermo del Toro movie at all. The early buzz was that director Gareth Edwards had designed this to be a horror movie more than anything else. I think I even heard the idea was to show what it would be like if the King of Monsters really did show up in the real world. It’s really not that.
The marketing has been pretty good at keeping the story under wraps (and just good in general, that 2001 parachuting trailer is terrific) so I won’t go into many details here. Godzilla shows up to fight creatures called MUTOs, and a soldier called Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is caught up in the destruction. So are the rest of his family, including his dad (Bryan Cranston) and his wife (Elizabeth Olsen). The only people who seem to have any idea of what’s going on are a pair of scientists, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, and the admiral they report to David Strathairn.
The biggest weakness of this movie is its choice in characters. Bryan Cranston is horribly underused, but at least he is used, which I can’t really say is the case for most of the supporting cast. Elizabeth Olsen only gets to worry about things and get scared at things, she has no agency at all. The same is true for Sally Hawkins, supposedly one of the few Godzilla experts in the world who does absolutely nothing in the entire movie. Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn have a bunch of scenes where they basically agree to just let things happen as they happen, man.
That leaves Ford as the only character to actually get out there and do something, but he’s probably the least interesting character in the movie. A straitlaced soldier everyman, Ford is designed not to be a someone the audience roots for, but rather a tour guide who can believably lead the audience through the film. He’s that guy that is always right next something really bad, who somehow keeps getting brought exactly to where the danger is despite all the odds. And all he wants to do is get to his family… Who gives a shit? I’ll take the story about the crazy scientist who holds himself responsible, or the lady who wants to kill the MUTOs because they wrecked her home town, or the guy who wants to try to have sex with Godzilla any day over this. This is the most it’s felt like a movie is a ride since, well, since I actually rode Pacific Rim in D-Box. It doesn’t work as well here.
Of course there are plenty of things that don’t make sense, which is just going to have to the case in any story about beings that are too large to every actually physically exist. It hurts the most in scenes where characters somehow can’t find the giant monster and the ridiculous path of destruction they’ve left behind or when they walk right by one of the monsters because it’s standing still in the fog. What, was it holding its breath? We have multiple senses, you know. Not just sight. You’re telling me that thing doesn’t stink? You can’t feel heat radiating off the monster that literally eats radiation? It’s not making any sounds at all?
Despite those complaints, there are more than a few thrilling scenes in Godzilla, and some of them are damn pretty too. That drop scene from the first trailer is pretty epic. As is the final showdown, featuring something I’m sure franchise fans all over the world will be excited to see. And they wreck the Bay Bridge, and I guess that’s something too.