by Philip Price
Admittedly, I have never been a fan or seen much of the supposed entertainment value in what a giant lizard fighting other monsters brings to the table other than spectacle, but for some reason Hollywood feels a need to keep going back to this well to the point it seems they have something they really want to unearth, but can't put their finger on.
I was only eleven years old when Roland Emmerich's version of the King of the Monsters hit the screen and for the most part I enjoyed that one with my easy to mesmerize mentality. It has been a long while since I've re-visited that take and was never able to get into the string of films featuring the creature produced by the Toho Co. What has always evaded me is where audiences find substance in this idea that watching a mythological monster, sometimes played up as the lesser of two threats, has anything more to say other than it looks pretty awesome when he fights these creatures, but only if we know the city's they are destroying in the wake of their battles to determine who resides at the top of the food chain are completely abandoned. Otherwise, we just feel bad for the countless lives being lost in one seemingly small motion of this monster rather than being able to enjoy the majesty of what is taking place before us. Coming around to director Gareth Edwards take on the monster though, Godzilla, the marketing did something unexpected and actually had me fairly excited to see what this new film might bring to the table and if the studios may finally have been able to press that button or unearth that value they so desperately are searching for with this property. I guess, if I were to say anything in this introduction without giving specifics away it would be that Edwards has given over to the more serious undertones that were the point of origin for the character in the first place. With that, he has crafted a film as much about the story and the impact of the fact Godzilla exists rather than simply producing a film that goes exactly where your instincts want to take you. That the film subverts the obvious ideas and goes in a completely different direction assured me that audiences don't really know what they want when it comes to a Godzilla movie, but would no doubt be satisfied with monster-fighting on an epic scale. While Edwards Godzilla is not the exceptional piece of popcorn entertainment I was hoping for, he still delivers on many levels.
We open with one of many impressive sweeping shots that places us in the Philippines in 1999 as we meet Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his fellow scientist Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) as they are brought to the site of where the earth has begun to cave in, but with evidence that something caused this, something human eyes had never seen. We see the outline of a massive skeletal structure with two egg-shaped pods, one of which is now empty, and we can only imagine what this thing is or where it might have gone as the camera pans out and we see a massive trail that has been cut through the forested area of the Philippines and out into the ocean. Cutting to the coast of Japan at the Janjira Nuclear Plant near Tokyo, we meet Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) who is a nuclear technician and in the wake of what feels like an earthquake sends his wife and co-worker Sandra (Juliette Binoche) with a team to check on things. But whatever is causing the tremors around the plant isn't waiting and quickly causes a meltdown within the plant leaving Joe a widow and their son, Ford, without a mother. The entire area around Janjira becomes quarantined including where the Brody's lived and it isn't until fifteen years later when we catch up with Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is now an explosive ordinance disposal technician in the United States Navy, that we learn Joe has become obsessed with conspiracy theories around what happened that day and determined to get back into the area where his families old house sits and where his wife died. Ford has grown up and grown distant from his father, creating his own family with wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde), but when Joe is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area Ford promptly returns to his father’s side only to be wrangled back in to wanting to believe his father and the justification he needs in resolving what was the cause of his mother’s death. It creates a personal connection to the catastrophe and when Ford reluctantly joins his dad in returning to the site of their old home in the shadows of the nuclear plant they get more than they bargained for, realizing that while there is a lack of nuclear radiation in the air a serious operation has been set-up in the remains of the plant run by Dr. Serizawa. What it contains isn't exactly what I expected and while that is refreshing, the outcome never feels as if it rises to the ideas it intended.
First and foremeost, let me say that while I have never been an avid fan of Godzilla I was curious as to how the makers might approach a new incarnation of the monster tale and how they might make it appealing to modern audiences who like to find their fiction rooted in a brutal reality while keeping in step with the traditions that the Toho films stood for and carried out because that seemed to be the main detractor with Emmerich's version. I was weary of the reasoning to even make another Godzilla film, but when the trailers began appearing months ago there was an immediate aura around the scope and visual storytelling that spelled whispers this could be something truly special. The cast certainly hinted at as much, why else would real, credible actors like Cranston, Hawkins, Binoche (in what is truly a bit part), Watanabe and David Strathairn sign up for a summer blockbuster when they typically prefer to reside in smaller, more subtle pieces of work that allow them to feel more at ease with their artistic conscience than the paycheck they would earn simply on the basis of personal financial advancement. There must have been something about the script that lured them in or something they saw in the eyes of director Edwards that captured their imagination like no other tentpole they'd been pitched recently, right?
You would think so, and I certainly had hopes all of this would turn out to be true but the funny thing about Godzilla is not the fact it is very reserved in showing its titular monster or its overall subdued tone, but instead it is the way in which the human elements of the movie, the meat of the movie in fact, are not very interesting or compelling. We should care about these people, we should feel as if we are in their shoes, but when you bring in the big guns early and then revert the weight of a giant film such as this to the shoulders of someone such as Taylor-Johnson (who doesn't seem all that sure of what to play here) you get a lead character that is neither interesting or charming enough for us to care about what role he plays in combating these massive unidentified organisms. We hardly get to know Elle or Sam before Ford is whisked away on his journey and we only return to them periodically in segments that feel more shoehorned than actually necessary in advancing the story. Because there is no real connection (in fact there is an odd disconnect between Taylor-Johnson and Olsen) between these two there is no investment in the audience rooting for them to be re-united.
The good news is that Edwards is a visual storyteller with a hand that is able to paint lush, striking images that convey as much if not more than the lead character. To be fair, both Watanabe and Strathairn do what they can with their supporting roles that seem to give little more than archetypes to work with, but Watanabe with his quiet wonder and reserved nature infuses some of the more iconic lines and Spielbergian camera movements with a real sense of substance that are too few and far between to actually count as character development.
Let's be honest though, when you go to see a Godzilla movie you aren't going for things like character development and though this film is told strictly from the perspective of humans and relies heavily on their plan to resolve the issue of monsters fighting in and destroying their cities it is the visual poetry of seeing these monsters come to life that serves as reason enough for people to buy tickets. This, as I began earlier, is where Edwards flourishes and his money shots that are littered throughout the film truly inspire. There were no less than four times throughout the course of the film that a smile spread across my face not from some dialogue exchange or piece of acting, but due simply to the way in which a certain shot was framed and the emotion and impact of what it was showing invoked from within me, a child-like glee if you will. It was very much an enigmatic experience where I realized that what I was seeing was truly affecting yet I had little to nothing to tie it to or even any reason as to why I should feel affected by it because in the realm of the film I was watching it was implied for characters I didn't care much about.
It could be said that Ford and his soldiers represent the front lines and that as audience members we are supposed to feel like the ones our main characters are protecting here, but there is never an impending sense of doom or inherent fear when we see Godzilla rise from the sea, but instead we are simply thankful to get another glimpse at the monster we all came to watch that honestly, almost feels shafted in his own film. I am not necessarily complaining about how little we do actually see the main monster because I thought that balance was fine and left just the right amount of mystery to him and didn't spoil our appetite, but in doing that one needs something just as interesting to balance it with. The human aspect of the story that writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham came up with just didn't suffice. Godzilla is a solid action film and a fine enough summer extravaganza flick, but for all the majestic shots and truly impressive effects work there is ultimately little that leaves an impression on us.