Mark Reviews Movies

Godzilla (2014)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 5/16/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 15, 2014

Godzilla is a series of fake-outs. It is equal parts fun and frustrating that what could be a simple monster film tries to keep us on our toes, and it's a little disappointing that all the teasing with expectations in the film's first half ultimately leads to a pretty familiar and rather straightforward second half.

Godzilla isn't in the film much and really not at all in the first half. Despite the initial shock of the realization, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. First of all, we think the beast—or at least its presence—is there in the film's first hour, what with retroactive continuity of the opening credits (The bomb tests of the 1950s were really attempts to destroy it, and did we really see something about a "rubber suit" being redacted above the costume designer's credit?), the destruction of the prologue, the giant tracks leading to the ocean in an early discovery, and the revelation of a giant, glowing claw-like stone at the pinnacle of the first act. The film is, after all, called Godzilla, so we expect that the buildup will inevitably lead to a notable reveal once the pieces are so neatly in place.

We would be wrong in that assumption, and one of the more enjoyably unexpected tricks of Max Borenstein's screenplay is how it pulls the rug out from under us just at the moment of our highest anticipation. We should have seen it coming, given that, until that point, the film hasn't shown much interest in the concept of prehistoric beasts that tower over just about every man-made landmark they encounter. Everything about the prologue and the first act is down-to-earth and—even more surprisingly—human.

The opening sequence focuses on an American family living in Japan. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is an engineer working at a local nuclear power plant, where his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) is also employed.

Just as the original 1954 film (not the Americanized bastardization that was released a couple of years later, mind you) used a real-life incident—a hydrogen bomb test that affected the crew of a fishing boat—as the starting point, the start of this film echoes the 2011 nuclear disaster in Ōkuma, in which an earthquake caused a series of meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. In trying to determine whether or not there's good judgment in the exploitation of this correlation, it is important to note that the original film followed through on its allegory to make a point; this one seems more interested in employing allegory as a means to create an homage to the 1954 film than in using it to comment upon the real-world counterpart. Either way, as pure melodrama, it works.

The story picks up 15 years later in the present day. Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a solider in the Army, has just returned to San Francisco to his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son (Carson Bolde) after a tour overseas. Joe is in Tokyo and has been arrested while trying to investigate the nuclear disaster site. Ford goes to bail out his dad from jail.

Perhaps the biggest surprise here is that we have an actual emotional investment in their story, which is one of terrifying trauma and unassailable loss. That this story is satisfying even with the anticipation of at least one giant monster turning up at any moment is even more impressive (Much of the credit belongs to Cranston's performance as the half-crazy and fully devastated Joe).

The rest of the major cast is an assemblage of stock characters. Ken Watanabe plays the scientist who believes Godzilla is misunderstood (Sally Hawkins is his agreeing assistant), and David Strathairn plays an admiral who oversees the less-than-genius idea of luring the monsters—yes, plural—through major metropolitan areas to the Pacific Ocean with a nuclear bomb. Everyone seems shocked that the creatures are attracted to the bomb despite the fact that it has been firmly established that they feed on nuclear energy.

The human element is still present once Godzilla arrives (carefully diving under aircraft carriers but, in the film's most harrowing scene, intentionally destroying the Golden Gate Bridge because it's in the way), but now those humans are on autopilot, with Ford joining the bomb transportation team in order to get home. The film turns its attention to monster-based destruction and, eventually, fighting. Director Gareth Edwards continues to tease us with how much of the eponymous beast we see (Even though a lot of the film takes place at night, it's not a way to hide shoddy visual effects; they are strikingly detailed) and, more importantly, how and when we see the devastation it and its enemies cause.

If the first act was grounded in its human story, the chaos that follows is seen almost exclusively from a human eye-line. Edwards' camera stays primarily on solid ground looking up at the monsters, such as a scene where gamblers in Las Vegas see the roof of a casino fall in upon them before the film cuts ahead in time to a group of firefighters who witness the end result of the destruction through what used to be the side of a building. Godzilla's first appearance comes in the midst of a tsunami (The monster may be over 400 feet tall, but it apparently has the light-footedness of a ballerina and is able to sneak up on people and other giant creatures on multiple occasions), and Edwards follows one family's rush for safety as the water floods behind them.

Yes, it's disappointing that the latter half of the film can't maintain the emotional core of the prior, but even so, Godzilla remains a human story of a more general variety. It just happens to feature giant monsters pummeling skylines and each other in the background.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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