When the original Godzilla was produced in 1954, it was conceived less as a traditional monster movie and more of a reflection of the paranoia in Japanese society regarding nuclear weapons and nuclear fallouts, something still ingrained in the public consciousness following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Many sequels followed, each less resembling of the original’s mission statement- and the less said about the debut Hollywood edition to the franchise, the better. Director Gareth Edwards’ reboot, the first Godzilla movie in a decade, doesn’t work as well as it should, but it at least attempts to recreate the social paranoia so ingrained in Ishirō Honda’s original work.
Opening in 1999, two scientists in the Philippines (played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, whose dialogue consists entirely of explaining the plot to the audience) discover a giant skeleton and two eggs – one of which has already hatched. This leads to a radiation leak at a nuclear plant on the outskirts of Tokyo, which results in one of the few emotionally involving scenes in the film- Bryan Cranston’s plant supervisor realising he’s unable to save the lives if his wife and colleagues, and just helplessly watches them in their dying moments. Fifteen years later, Cranston is determined to prove that this event wasn’t caused by an earthquake, as the government insists, and his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) reluctantly comes to Japan to get to the bottom of the matter. If it isn’t apparent from the above synopsis, a main flaw in the film is the sheer abundance of plot, all of which is forgotten about once the monsters arrive and collectively lose their shit.
With the exception of the last half-hour, in which the inter-monster battles get too silly for their own good (fire-breathing has always been a part of the Godzilla folklore, but seems out of place here), the high-points of the film are the action sequences. Recently, blockbuster films tend to make quick edits during scenes, so you can’t feel the full impact of the action; Gareth Edwards here uses long takes, which helps make the set-pieces stand out, and even managed to help me get invested in the human characters’ attempts at survival (all the more impressive considering how uninteresting they appear during any dialogue scenes). In no particular order, highlights include a tsunami sequence which focuses on a dog untethering itself from a lamp-post, a sequence on a deserted train-track and Las Vegas being completely annihilated. Moments of visceral action are difficult to write coherently about, especially when they’re done well; you can’t replicate the sheer thrill of watching giant monsters ripping down the tacky Las Vegas Eiffel tower rip-off in words. It’s also successful in keeping Godzilla away from the action for the majority of the running time; sadly, this makes you wonder why they bothered to call the film Godzilla at all, what with more focus on the other Kaiju creations.
Sadly, these moments are outweighed by the considerable flaws. The film is in a constant conflict in regards to the overall tone; the dark tone (which is to be expected in a post Dark Knight blockbuster landscape) is soon forgotten about when the inter-monster battles begin, and it becomes too silly for its own good. In comparison, Guillermo Del Toro’s tribute to the Japanese Kaiju monster movies, Pacific Rim, achieved a campy sense of fun, whilst still making the characters and the threat of the monsters worth investing in. Also, the attempts to connect the monsters’ origin to the Hiroshima bombing has mixed results; successful in staying true to the original folklore, but clumsy in execution.
Edwards made an impressive debut with his micro-budget sci-fi drama Monsters, and makes a mostly successful leap to big-budget action. It’s just a shame Godzilla doesn’t live up to its full potential.