Instead of titillating, Godzilla leaves nothing to the imagination, making Luke Ostler & Simon Evans wishing they’d installed a dimmer switch…
Godzilla lurches onto this summer’s screens in classic monster movie fashion, and as always the whole world knows about it. What they might not know is that this is British director Duncan Edwards’ ‘difficult second film’ following the low-budget but critically acclaimed Monsters. In one sense Edwards seems a natural choice as director of this most monster of movies; after all, there are monsters in Monsters. But look a little closer and the decision is not such a natural one, because there were actually very few monsters in Monsters. The shining success of that film was to be found in the believable and enjoyable relationship that developed between the lead (human) characters. Godzilla, on the other hand, is far less concerned with character than it is with special effects piled on top of special effects. And yes, we’ll stop saying monsters for a bit if you promise to read on.
So here we go with the customary outline of the first third of the plot. Or we would, but in this case the viewer might feel a little insulted if we presume they’ve never heard of mighty lizard king Godzilla or seen one of his vast library of silver screen adaptations. Furthermore, it would waste our time to write it and your time to read it (note to self: stop writing this paragraph). Yes, this is a Godzilla film and no, there isn’t anything revolutionary in the set-up or narrative that warrants explanation.
The cast seems to have been hand-picked from the most recent who’s who of US film and television; Brit Aaron Taylor Johnson of Nowhere Boy and Kiss-Ass fame is our commando type, a leading man born to save the world at all costs. Elizabeth Olsen, who burst onto the scene with the acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene and has put in some solid shifts since, plays Taylor-Johnson’s girlfriend. The really big draw here, though, is Bryan Cranston, currently the biggest name in television thanks to Breaking Bad, while a plethora of familiar faces fill out the supporting roles. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Inception) turns up as a Japanese scientist furrowing his brow at the military machine and presumably wondering how America got hold of the Godzilla copyright. David Strathairn of Good Night and Good Luck shows up as the ubiquitous buzzcutted soldier in charge of the American world police-style counter-monster initiative. Sally Hawkins, most recently seen in Blue Jasmine, is disarmingly straight-faced as another expert military adviser, and let’s not forget the omnipresent Juliette Binoche appearing as Cranston’s wife in a role so brief you wonder if she got paid. Despite this weighty cast, it’s a disappointment not to see Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, the two stars of Monsters, feature in the picture.
In the interests of awarding credit where it’s due, visually this is a decent effort. The selection of behemoths on display convince as living creatures and the destruction wrought on the unsuspecting world looks plausible, if inconsequential. One stand-out scene shows our hero and his fellow commandos sky-diving into the twilight and through the clouds to parachute almost suicidally into the epicentre of an urban monster battle. It’s a thrilling sequence in 2D (the version we saw), so in 3D should be akin to a theme park ride.
The performances range from well-intentioned to just plain poor. The ill-fated relationship between Cranston and Binoche opens the film and at least comes across as a credible coupling. Don’t expect any Walter White-style gravitas, however; in his role as not-quite-mad scientist, Cranston manages to make it seem like Hal from Malcolm in the Middle is trying to save the world, with nearly all the hilarity that implies. But it’s the hopeless Taylor-Johnson who wipes out completely; no trace now remains of the young star who bottled the essence of John Lennon in Nowhere Boy and broke the superhero mould with Kick-Ass. He’s clearly spent six months in the gym preparing for this strong-man role and as a result now looks more akin to a stumpy Arnold Schwarzenegger than he does a Beatle, but far more of a problem is his complete lack of engagement in the role. The same aloof facial expression remains etched granite-like on Taylor-Johnson’s features throughout, only occasionally giving way to minor motion as some incomprehensible pseudo-scientific jargon is rattled out. Compounding the problem is an unforgiving script that contrives again and again to place our hero at the focal point of any and all military offensives against Godzilla and co, and this after just a single scene with his young family. As a consequence he fails to engage with any of the other characters, leaving the film with a stunting emotional vacuum at its heart.
If possible the aesthetically luminous Olsen is served even less in the way of scriptual scraps to feed off. Her role as a nurse serving in areas devastated by monster mayhem requires her to make unrealistic decisions about which, with her love interest absent, it’s hard to believe she really cares or even gives a second thought. Olsen, unlike her phoned-in co-star, at least tries to dig out a performance, but the raw materials for her to act around are sadly absent. The remaining supporting roles are pointless to a point, with Strathairn’s general underused and Hawkins completely miscast. Watanabe should surely know better than his clichéd, mannered performance.
Apologies for going full circle with this review, but it’s when compared to Edwards’ first feature that the failure of Godzilla becomes blindingly apparent. Monsters’ opening scene sees the unlikely leading pair meet for the first time, and the relationship builds throughout the running time to an emotional climax that rivals the great endings of cinema history. In Godzilla our hero and heroine, whose relationship is established before the events of the story, are split apart early in proceedings and stay that way until the predictable conclusion. As a result, it’s a finale devoid of any emotional clout.
Another tell, less obvious but no less significant, arrives in the form of a minor sequence midway through the movie where a child is accidentally separated from his parents on the Japanese metro system, whereupon Taylor-Johnson takes it upon himself to protect the child until he can be reunited with his family. A brief action sequence later and reunification is promptly achieved. Plot-wise this scene carries no significance and could easily have been consigned to the cutting-room floor with little effect on the narrative, but it’s the single moment in the film where we actually feel a connection with the figures on screen. This serves to highlight Godzilla’s primary shortcoming; it is completely lacking in humanity. For a monster movie, that’s a fatal flaw, since a monster is only made monstrous through our eyes.
We’ve started saying monsters again, but to conclude: In Monsters the story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the protagonists, so when they catch a fleeting glimpse of beastly carnage on a television the viewer is as keen to partake of that glimpse as the characters are. Edwards tries the same trick in Godzilla, but the scraps of footage are rendered pointless, since we’ve already had a view of the monsters from a military control room as well as close-up brawling beasts from Taylor-Johnson’s privileged proximity. Instead of titillating Godzilla leaves nothing to the imagination, making us wish we’d installed a dimmer switch.
Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Written by: Max Borenstein
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston
Released: 2014 / Genre: Action/Adventure/Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB