IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 123 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1999, scientists Ishiro Serizawa and Vivienne Graham are called to a quarry in the Philippines where a colossal skeleton and two egg-shaped pods have been discovered. Shortly after realizing one of the pods has hatched, the Janjira Nuclear Plant near Tokyo, Japan suffers an explosion and radiation leak. Plant supervisor Joe Brody loses his wife in the accident, which is attributed to an earthquake and results in the evacuation and quarantine of the Janjira area. Fifteen years later, Joe’s son Ford is a US Navy bomb disposal officer in living in San Francisco. When Joe is arrested for trespassing in the quarantined area, Ford travels to Japan to assist him and the two set out to discover the true cause of the catastrophe. When they discover no signs of radiation in Janjira, they are arrested and taken to a secret facility built within the power plant’s ruins, a facility built around a massive chrysalis similar to the one seen in the Philippines…
As I sit down to write what will no doubt be an overlong review, I still can’t entirely process the fact that I’ve just seen a Godzilla film on the big screen, something that I had not done prior to seeing this new movie [of course lucky Americans, or maybe not too lucky as it was a below-par entry, got to see Godzilla 2000 in cinemas]. As you will no doubt have guessed if you’ve been visiting this website for a long time and noticed, even if you haven’t read, my reviews of all the films in the Godzilla series which began in 1954, I’m as big a fan of the King Of The Monsters as there can be, though I certainly think that some of the entries in the series are far inferior to others and the 1998 American version, which I made myself sit through for a second time because I felt I had to review it, is barely worth mentioning and certainly shouldn’t be considered a Godzilla film. This 2014 film most definitely should be considered a Godzilla film, because it’s no disgrace to the monster’s legacy and really shows that its director Gareth Edwards, whom Warner Bros. took a big chance on by pretty much letting him do what he wanted , respects it. Therefore, it would be virtually impossible for me to actively dislike Godzilla even if it turned out to actually quite a problematic film. In fact, that is the case with it. It does a lot right and, in showing us that a decent Godzilla film can be made outside Japan, makes up for Roland Emmerich’s turd, but it also does a fair few things wrong, so in the end you end up with a film that is definately praise-worthy but also at times frustrating and somewhat awkward.
In truth, Edwards had a bloody difficult job on his hands even if you forget the 1998 film. He had to make appealing to the general movie-going public a character who is still sadly regarded as a goofy camp figure. In doing this, he rightly felt he had to go serious, something which a few ignorant critics are saying is unfitting for Godzilla, but which is actually how the franchise began and occasionally revived itself. While doing this, he still had to deliver some of the excitement and fun expected. He also set out to make a film that is more character-based, and it is here where his film has come in for much of its serious criticism, with many complaints that Godzilla just isn’t in the film long enough. Actually, he’s not in the 1954 Godzilla that much either, and certain later entries like Invasion Of Astro Monster and Godzilla Vs Hedorah have him feature even less and sometimes focus more on the other creatures[s]. If a monster is handled well and there’s plenty of tension, then it doesn’t matter that much if he’s often absent from the screen. Godzilla isn’t shown fully in Godzilla until about two thirds of the way through and because of the lengthy wait, the reveal, seen after a shot of his legs, is all the more thrilling.
Godzilla has a terrific first third, and for a while I was seriously thinking that here we may have a film to seriously rival the best of the Toho movies. The grainy montage of bomb tests [and actually there’s a shot of Godzilla in here too] that takes place during the titles, if reminiscent of the one beginning the 1998 Godzilla, sets an appropriately grim mood and along with Alexandre Desplat’s title music, which begins with an ominous almost 70’s-John Barry motif which segues into frantic Danny Elfman-style writing, begins the film very well. The opening nuclear explosion is superbly done and shows that Edwards, whose only film prior to this was the micro budgeted Monsters, has a real knack for staging action. The goodbye between Joe and his wife before she’s killed is rather upsetting and we really care despite having only just met the two. There is a real sense of foreboding in the first 40 or so minutes of the film, and the scene of the first ‘Muto’ [Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism] escaping from its cocoon is very intense.
The origins of Godzilla are as amusingly far-fetched as you would expect from a Toho film, but also employ a nice twist on the monster’s origins in the 1954 Godzilla. Even without things like a major character called Ishiro Serizawa [after the director of most of the early Godzilla films Ishiro Honda and the heroic scientist of the first oneDaisuke Serizawa], not to mention a reference to Mothra [one of Godzilla’s major Japanese foes], it’s clear that Edwards and his writers respect Godzilla [though cutting out the cameo of original series star Akira Takarada left a bad taste in my mouth] without feeling the need to recycle too much, though there are definite echoes of Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, one of the best entries from the Millennium [the third series of Godzilla films] series, and even the odd bit which recreates shots from the 1998 Godzilla but only to better them. The work of a certain Steven Spielberg is a clear influence, and that’s not just with certain plot devices like a Close Encounters Of The Third Kind-style quarantined area which turns out to not have the radiation it is supposed to. Much of the film looks and feels like Spielberg’s remake of The War Of The Worlds, Edwards even showing much of his action in a similar manner – from the point of view of onlookers, being shown on a screen, or happening mostly off-screen.
This of course is consistent with the less-is-more approach adopted by Edwards in Monsters, which Godzilla definately shares some DNA with. However, while this works for some of the early scenes, it soon gets a little tiresome. The thing is, this is a Godzilla film for goodness sake, so when, for example, a Muto lays waste to Las Vegas, we want to SEE it properly, NOT just a few black and white news shots on a TV. We see lots of shots of devastation, but not much of the actual destroying [though there is a rather good tsumani]. There’s a major set-piece scene on and around the Golden Gate Bridge, yet after it has occured the bridge remains standing! Much like Emmerich [though I don’t much like mentioning the two filmmakers in the same sentence], Edwards also won’t give us a huge full-on Godzilla city smashing sequence. He and his scriptwriter Max Borenstein would rather concentrate on Aaron Taylor-Johnson and a bunch of other soldiers [the absence of a full military force in this movie is bizarre] following the monsters around, though they do have a superbly shot skydiving setpiece. Johnson actually isn’t as bad as some have said but doesn’t really have a character to play.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with concentrating on the humans if they’re interesting and well characterised – hell, every time I watch Jaws there are a couple of times where I wish the whole film could be about those three guys in the boat – but Godzilla doesn’t have those merits. Bryan Cranston is really good but just isn’t in the film for long enough, while Ken Watanabe just exists to spout exposition. and when buildings begin to crumble there just aren’t enough humans to care about, yet the film paradoxically cuts away from the good stuff far too often, most notably just when you think you’re about to see the monsters fighting. At least the final battle is very exciting, though despite a truly cool Godzilla death move, it’s not as amazing as all that, and the de-saturated colour, which does work for the most part, makes the scene visually dull and unappealing –it’s just greys and blacks. Apart from the CGI the climax isn’t anything than any Godzilla fan hasn’t seen before, and Toho films managed this kind of thing on a far smaller budget, even if this Godzilla sometimes seems compromised by its budget and has a director not entirely succeeding in working around it.
Bar the odd shot where something doesn’t look like it’s there, the many special effects generally come up trumps. Despite my love for the ‘suitmation’ technique, I wholeheartedly say that Godzilla looks fantastic in his new CG incarnation and fully convinces as a living, breathing creature. In no way is he like the usual type of CGI animal have where they seem to have no muscles or bone and are just big liquid masses moving around. Especially impressive is when Godzilla’s breathing. The design, which looks mostly inspired by the 1994 one [the suit often changed from film to film] with touches of the 1954 one and real reptiles [plus apparently gills, though I couldn’t see them] has been criticised by some Japanese fans, and Godzilla is rather fat with what also looks like half his snout missing, but what they aimed for here was as realistic a design as possible, and said design, aided by the incredible of detail, certainly works in that respect. I certainly prefer it to all but one of the Toho designs since 1975. The Mutos are more your generic American-style movie monsters, though as well as echoing the creatures in Super-8 and Cloverfield they do seem to have touches of the Japanese Gyaos. They are scary enough but also a little sympathetic. As for Godzilla, I feel the trailers were a bit misleading, because instead of the ‘unstoppable force of nature’ Godzilla you get in some films, we actually have, for the most part, the friendlier, even cuddlier Godzilla most popular in the 70’s.
Borenstein’s script, while uneven, does nicely link things in the film with real events like the Thailand tsunami, which means that this Godzilla retains a little of the topical nature of the 1954 film, even if in the end it has little of that film’s allegorical power, while the music score by Alexandre Desplat is often very exciting [I was so worried they’d use Hans Zimmer or one of his million clones], if lacking memorable themes like many scores these days. Overall Godzilla manages to be slightly greater than the sum of its parts and its success at the box office ought to be a joy for every true Godzilla fan. Yes, it has quite a few problems, but one feels that it could merely be a warm up for a second film. Come on, Edwards, give us what we really want and show us what you can really do.