“GODZILLA” (2014) Review (✫✫1/2)

Should have been called “Mutos” if you ask me. 

There are two questions that always come into my head every time I watch a reboot: Is it different from the original, and is it necessary? The answer to both is usually no, it isn’t. Why would it be? Most studios just cash in on the name of their franchise and re-brand it, rather than coming up with an original take of their story, breathing life and energy into a franchise that has since been left stale. Perfect example: did anyone find Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla to be even remotely tolerable?

With this new version of Godzilla, I can say that it at least succeeded as a reboot in that it is different from the original. Whether that is a good different is something I’m still struggling with. I feel like I’m one of the helpless human beings running away from all the giant monster ruckus going on in the middle of Japan: I’m in the middle of a disarray of loud noise and violence, and while I’m fascinated by what is going on, I’m ultimately distraught because these giant monsters are destroying the things that I love.

Directed by Gareth Edwards, the writer/director behind 2010’s Monsters, Godzilla stars Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ford, a lieutenant who just came back from his service in the Navy. His wife and child (portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) are more than eager to have their family whole again, and couldn’t be happier to see him when he finally comes home.

Only one problem: Ford’s father, Joe (Bryan Cranston) just got arrested in Japan for intrusion on private property. You see, about fifteen years ago, poor Joe was dutifully working as an engineer for a power plant in Japan. After scanning some strange readings off of the richter scale, he witnesses the death of his wife as the power plant quickly collapses before him.

Everyone around Joe believes that what he witnessed was a massive earthquake, including his son Ford. Joe doesn’t believe that it was an accident, and thinks there’s something much more sinister afoot than what everyone thinks. As Joe and his son continue to investigate the evidence he’s collected, they begin to become more aware of a giant conspiracy that the Japanese governments are working to hide, and soon, they come into contact with the biggest and most dangerous secret of all: a giant monster, the king of all beasts nicknamed “Godzilla”.

Looking back at this film, I am reminded by not how much I enjoyed this movie, but how much Peter Jackson’s King Kong got right as a remake. When reboots are done right, they are like King Kong: they are smart, clever, well-structured stories that are exciting, involving, and pay delicate homages to the source material. When they go wrong, they are like Emmerich’s Godzilla: explosions of CGI and visual effects garbage that go in every direction except for to the point.

With this new Godzilla, it takes steps to be a unique monster-sized reboot, but whether it reached the top of the staircase is another thing to be decided. I liked a lot of things about this movie. Edwards does a good job balancing the destruction with the human interest. Godzilla himself is a sight to see. The fights between him and these Cloverfield-like monsters called “Mutos” are a thing of classic Godzilla fandom. And Bryan Cranston was a clear emotional standout in the movie, giving a invested performance that was more than what the movie deserved.

One my biggest gripes with the movie is this: Godzilla isn’t in it. Or at least, not as much as I would like him to be. When you watch monster movies like King Kong or Jurassic Park, you get an overwhelming sensation of the scope and size of the creature’s presence, of the ground shaking when they take a step, or their shadows lurking over you as they quietly stalk their prey. I’m frustrated not by Godzilla’s physical appearance, but rather how infrequently he appears during the movie. The Godzilla movie has a total run time of 123 minutes, and where is he during the most of it? Swimming around in an ocean, spikes popping out, chasing monsters smaller than him that he could have easily killed 30 minutes ago.

Granted, I know what Edwards was trying to accomplish here. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Cranston compared the film to Steven Spielberg’s 1970 classic film Jaws, in that it doesn’t immediately show the monster, but its tension and presence could always be felt in it.

There, however, is one big reason why that doesn’t work with this movie. The shark in Jaws is a 300-foot shark lurking and sneaking through it’s quiet habitat in the waters. Godzilla is a 9,000 ton monster stomping his way through cities. I don’t think subtlety is supposed to be part of its nature.

As far as it’s lead goes, Taylor-Johnson is stock, a plain and uninteresting cutout of a soldier whose character is so one-note that he might as well be a cowbell instrument. For Pete’s sake, if you’re going to go to use the Hollywood hero archetype, can you at least get someone who is good at it? I could easily see someone like Tom Cruise or Jude Law in Taylor-Johnson’s role and succeed just as much at doing it. In fact, I almost prefer it. His emotions aren’t subtle, he doesn’t do a good job at expression, and at times he recites lines so casually that we could possibly be fooled into thinking that he was reading off of a cue card.

I went back and forth on whether or not I liked this movie, juggling around the things in my head that I did and didn’t like in the film. Ultimately though, if I’m having this hard of a time understanding what the movie was supposed to be, then usually so did the film itself. Godzilla is a decent reboot, restarting the franchise with a modern twist that I know many film aficionados will appreciate, but it should have been more. More as in better acting. More as in better handling, and more as in more of the freaking monster, period. Either way, the movie didn’t leave its mark on me, and when I talk to fans of the franchise since it’s debut, they too indicate that they prefer the original over the reboot. Hey, at least Godzilla had more screen time.

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