Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 8, 2014)
Every once in a while, a movie emerges that appears to kill a franchise. In the US, 1998’s Godzilla had the potential to become that film. Although it didn’t affect the series in its native Japan, the underachieving Roland Emmerich flick left such a negative vibe that it threatened to keep American audiences from any further big-budget Godzilla efforts.
After 16 years, the character gets another shot via 2014’s Godzilla. We open in Japan circa 1999, where we meet scientists Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). Along with young son Ford (CJ Adams), they live near the nuclear power plant where they work – until an event causes massive problems and kills Sandra.
15 years later, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) serves in the US Navy as a bomb disposal expert. He lives in Northern California with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and four-year-old son Sam (Carson Bolde). Ford needs to head back to Japan to bail out his dad, as Joe gets thrown in the pokey when he snoops around the quarantined nuclear plant site.
When Ford arrives, he learns that the plant went kaput due to something other than a meltdown. It turns out that a monster referred to as a “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” (MUTO) caused the destruction, and the creature returns for more fun – and to spawn, as we also see the awakening of a female MUTO in Nevada.
The MUTOs feed on nuclear energy, so it becomes rather tough to stop them. How will the authorities take care of the MUTOs? Potentially through the help of Godzilla, an ancient, enormous creature who slumbers in the ocean. We follow attempts to handle the MUTOs and the destruction that follows along the way.
What if they made a Godzilla movie and forgot to include the title character? The result would look much like the 2014 Godzilla, as it goes long stretches without much evidence of our large friend. We see much of the MUTOs but the lead monster doesn’t get a whole lot to do, especially not until the end – and even then he plays a smaller role than I would expect.
Perhaps the filmmakers prefer the “less is more” model and feel that sporadic uses of Godzilla give his appearances greater impact. Maybe they were correct in that regard, as the shots of Godzilla do pack a pretty good punch. A visually attractive film, the movie depicts its creatures well and gives them a power they lack in most films of this sort.
Still, I can’t help but feel Godzilla would prove more entertaining with more Godzilla. I do like the MUTOs, but in a way, their frequent appearances frustrate me more than anything else, as they just remind me that we don’t see much of the main attraction.
At least the MUTOs ensure that the movie doesn’t focus almost solely on the boring human characters. In Godzilla movies, the people exist mostly to motivate battles/action and also to give us theoretical emotion, as we’re supposed to worry about what will happen to them. (We usually don’t, but we’re meant to care.)
Are the humans in Godzilla a serious weakness? No, but they’re pretty forgettable. Best-known as the lead in Kick-Ass, Taylor-Johnson beefs up for his role but he doesn’t manage to deliver much emotion along the way. He acts as the movie’s theoretical hero but usually just fees like a distraction from the title character.
At least Taylor-Johnson gets something to do, which is more than I can say for most of his co-stars. An able actress, Olsen receives little screen-time and not much of a character arc; it perplexes me that the producers cast someone with her talent in a borderline throwaway role. The same goes for Binoche, who dies before the viewer makes a dent in his bag of popcorn.
Saddled with one of the worst wigs in movie history, Cranston overacts a storm as Joe. Apparently inspired by a mix of Charlton Heston’s loudest/hammiest performances, Cranston goes way over the top and creates a distracting presence.
And seriously, what’s up with that hair? Did they spend so much on computer graphics that they only had $4 left for Cranston’s wig? If so, they overpaid for it by a good $3.98; I could create a more natural hairpiece out of fur trimmed off my Yorkie poodle.
As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla fares quite well in the visual realm, as director Gareth Edwards creates a striking impression that always looks terrific. Unfortunately, he doesn’t manage to do much with the story, and he wears an active Spielberg influence on his sleeve.
Boy, does Godzilla look/feel like a Spielberg flick a lot of the time! Is it a coincidence that the leads get the last name “Brody”? I don’t think so, and the allusions don’t stop there. The flick also demonstrates obvious connections to Close Encounters and Jurassic Park, and Edwards just loves the Spielberg-style slow-zooms to faces that stare agape in wonder. Occasionally the Spielberg elements feel less like influence/homage and more like rip-off.
Godzilla lacks one element found in Jurassic Park and other Spielberg films, though: a real sense of action. Honestly, Godzilla is less an “action film” and more of a “destruction film”, by which I mean we often see the results of the monsters’ behavior but we don’t watch the actual mayhem.
This can feel like a cheat. We do get a fair amount of action toward the end, but we see too little along the way. It becomes a consistent disappointment when we observe a path of destruction but not the cause.
The 1998 Godzilla got a lot of criticism, and it deserved some of those negative reactions. However, I thought it worked well when it focused on action. Say what one wants about Emmerich, but he could bring excitement, and I felt his Godzilla delivered those goods.
Edwards can’t do the same, especially since Godzilla himself gets so little to do. The 2014 Godzilla does look great, and it flares to life at times, but the end result disappoints. I don’t view the film as a bad one, but it doesn’t satisfy on a consistent or frequent basis.