This new Godzilla film is much like the eponymous monster itself: huge, loud and largely bereft of personality, save for a few moments. The plot is more or less what you expect and I shall recap it in the style of Bryan Cranston’s character Joe Brody. “There was an explosion and the PEOPLE IN CHARGE have been covering it up. There was this EMP Pulse…Something else caused that explosion. (dramatic whisper) Something not natural. And I have to find out because (starts sobbing) my wife was killed because I SENT HER DOWN THERE!” Meanwhile Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) sticks his chin out and does a troubled stare while looking far more like an Army edition Ken Doll than he ever did as Kick-Ass. Of course the cat is out of the proverbial bag in terms of plot even if you haven’t seen the film and the MUTOs (irradiated praying mantises) are the villains whilst Godzilla acts as a sort of primordial wild card to defeat or, cue another dramatic whisper this time from Dr. Serizawa (Ken Wantanabe) “restore the natural order”. But of course the Americans, epitomised by ever-taciturn David Strathairn, are getting trigger happy with some nuclear weapons, beacause Godzilla is hardly the most reliable of creatures.
Godzilla is a huge step up in production and budget for director Gareth Edwards, but a step back in quality after his micro-budget marvel Monsters (2010). Gone is the low-key, naturalistic acting and humid atmosphere of that film, which portrayed its characters, story and even monsters in a very realistic manner, and in its place is a melodramatic, globe-trotting and rather silly fantasy. One suspects the inexperienced Edwards felt a little intimidated by his famous actors and let them chew the scenery. Indeed the terrific cast of Cranston, Wantanabe, Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins is an impressive line up. Yet the performances just never compel; these human characters don’t have enough life to compete with the spectacular monsters. Taylor-Johnson basically plays Captain America and becomes the lone survivor of cataclysmic destruction three times in this film thus stretching credulity too much. Wantanabe gives by far the best performance, due to the fact he acts in such a restrained way that when he finally shows emotion at the end it’s moving.
As awe-inspiring as he(?) looks and sounds, Godzilla also at times seems to be acting in a way that seems far too contrived in order to suit the demands of the plot. At times the big monster seems almost polite and gentle towards the humans with little explanation. And what does he eat? However the film is at its best when Godzilla is on the screen (which isn’t all that much) as it creates rollercoaster-like set pieces of Lovecraftian apocalypse, with the whole world being shaken to its foundations. Edwards is good at generating this dread, with excellent POV shots giving true weight to how helpless the humans are comparison to the monsters. He also includes lovely homages, both visual and aural, to such sci-fi classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as an appreciation for Japanese cinema and culture.
Godzilla is a spectacular film in certain ways, and the giant creature himself is justifiably is true icon in the annals of cinema. Even amongst audiences who have probably seen little of previous Gojira films, there is a real affection to the creature that was palpable in the screening I attended which means it is easy to exempt a film featuring him of certain flaws. Not everyone loves this new version of Godzilla however, with many Japanese people complaining the monster is too fat, which is probably due to the fact he leaves Japan for America. It’s easy to share some of this disappointment, albeit due to different reasons than those Japanese body fascists, as the film never quite did justice to its magnificent trailer.
Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Cert 12A.