3 ½ stars
In a word: Controlled.
GODZILLA is directed by Gareth Edwards, a first-rate up-and-coming talent behind the camera who wrote and directed the brilliant 2010 indie sci-fi Monsters. Taking the director of a superbly quiet movie like Monsters to be the guiding hand of the extravagant and sweeping action of a Godzilla film could’ve resulted in something rather lackluster and incompetent, but thankfully Godzilla is mostly a roaring success.
In this modern day reboot of Godzilla, the story spans a few different time periods as we’re teased regarding some sort of monstrous entity rampaging through the world. The United States test atomic bombs in the 1950s, and half a decade later two scientists (Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) investigate a strange discovery in the Philippines and disaster strikes Japan. Jumping to 2014, United States Navy bomb disposal officer (EOD) Lieutenant Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in San Francisco only to be called away to Japan where his father Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) has been arrested for trespassing on an old plant site. Joe is in search of the truth of what happened fifteen years ago, and this search will lead them into the center of a wide scale government cover-up going back decades.
This is where the movie really gets going, but Edwards’ deliberate direction ensures the film never plays all its cards too soon and that the film remains enthralling throughout. It’s not quite the slow burn that Monsters was; however it is just as expertly paced.
Edwards’ handling of the action is excellent, bringing a strong sense of artful elegance and poise to a blockbuster landscape that features far too many bombastic action films like Transformers and Man of Steel. He takes cues from Spielberg, not Bay. The action never runs too long, maintains coherency and above all else is only present as much as is necessary or relevant. I personally enjoyed a neat trick that involved cutting from an action sequence to it being watched on the news. It’s nothing new, but so many other movies forget that there are other ways to show spectacular action without overloading on it. GODZILLA knows how to do it just right.
It’s a shame then that the characters the audience is forced to spend so much time with are so unforgivably dull. Bryan Cranston’s performance as Joe is definitely the standout, but even then the character is a walking cliché lacking any depth and development. At least Cranston gives it his all. The same can’t be said for Taylor-Johnson, who as the lead hero is intolerably flat. It doesn’t help that the character is underwritten and emotionless, but Taylor-Johnson is so uncharismatic that it just makes things worse. Elisabeth Olsen isn’t given much to do with her role, so the casting mistake there is to give such a minor and flat role to such an incredible actress. There’s something wrong if Olsen can’t make a character work. Watanabe is solid, but hardly memorable.
To be perfectly honest, it’s a struggle to even remember the characters. When I recall the film and think of lead character Lieutenant Ford Brody, I simply think of the military. There was no personal investment in the character; he was really just a face for the military role in the story. Watanabe’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa stands for the scientists and research, and Olsen’s Elle Brody stands for civilians. I get it, the film wants these characters to represent groups of people that have a significant stake in the crisis, but when the characters are this one-note it doesn’t make for an entertaining film or engrossing story.
The chemistry stands at a grand total of zero for Ford and his wife. They only have a few short scenes to make the audience care about their relationship enough to want Brody to return home safely from Japan, but alas there is not a shred of believability to their relationship that’ll do so. Maybe they’ll be better suited as brother and sister in The Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Thankfully, outside the characters, everything works. As I touched on earlier, the action-sequences are outstanding and the story is beautifully paced. Credit to Edwards’ for his direction but also to Max Borenstein for a screenplay that may feature some questionable dialogue but definitely maps out a more than decent blueprint for the narrative to follow.
The special effects are nothing short of amazing. Godzilla and the M.U.T.Os are as complicated and realistic as they need to be, without looking too cartoonish in quality, too uninspired or too incomprehensible in design. Care has been taken in this part, and to that I’m sure audiences say thank you.
If GODZILLA had better characters, this could’ve been a classic. Thankfully, the assured direction and bold visual presence distract enough (but not entirely) from the flaws and keep GODZILLA as a satisfying but not quite amazing blockbuster monster movie.
GODZILLA was released across cinemas in Australia on May 15th. It may still be showing at some cinemas, so catch it before it departs!
REVIEWER: David Thomas Williams.