When I sat down in the theater, pumped to watch the first new Godzilla film in 10 years, it truly felt like a cathartic experience. For a fan who had never gotten the chance to watch the King of Monsters on the silver screen, this was my chance to experience the towering beast in his full glory. But more than that, it was a chance for the west to right the wrongs of the abomination that was Tristar’s Godzilla (1998). Would Legendary learn from Tristar’s mistakes? Or would they deceive fans into believing they were getting another film entirely?
Legendary’s Godzilla had all the makings of a great film. The film was directed by Gareth Edwards, who had done impressive work on 2010’s Monsters given the modest budget. He felt like a natural fit to helm this giant monster film. The outstanding cinematography was handled by Seamus McGarvey, most notable for his work on The Avengers. Add in some strong casting choices including Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, and things were looking solid. Coming off of my high from Pacific Rim, Godzilla was supposed to be the next chapter in western Kaiju cinematic history.
The goosebumps I felt when watching the teaser trailer. The glimpse of destruction, Godzilla’s majestic roar at the end. That HALO Jump. It was all incredible. As more trailers came out, they were all deceitfully cut to highlight Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe’s scenes. I truly went into the film believing these actors would play a much larger role than they did. As I sat in that theater, it was then that I realized I had been duped by Legendary.
The film starts strong, exploring the origins of the beasts. We are introduced to Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) as he discovers the remains of a colossal monster in the Philippines. Meanwhile, in Japan, Nuclear physicist Joseph Brody is supervising a damage check in the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant. He sends his wife and a team of technicians to investigate when tragedy strikes.
One of the few highlights of the film, Cranston delivers an emotional performance as he has to leave his wife behind to die in the crumbling reactor. The film had accomplished no simple feat one thing; Getting me to actually care about the human characters in a Godzilla film. I was genuinely intrigued to learn more about Joe.
And then the film decides the best course of action is to kill off the only interesting character forty minutes in. I was livid. It felt like a bait-and-switch. The trailers sold me on Cranston. There was no emotional weight to his death because the person it affects more is about as interesting as watching paint dry. It isn’t hard to see now why Cranston’s performance was featured so prominently in the trailers. Once the film shifts focus onto Joe’s son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, yeah, the guy who played Kick-ass) it becomes this lethargic mess.
It all comes crumbling down. The film spent so long developing Joe, and decides that by extension we should automatically care about his son? No, it doesn’t work that way. You see, Ford is the typical US military man. There is nothing stand out about his personality that would make you want to watch him in any other scene outside of getting stomped by Godzilla. Had Aaron Taylor-Johnsons not phoned-in his performance, maybe Ford’s story could have been salvageable. Better yet, why not give the reigns to Watanabe, as surely his character plays an important role in this film… Right?
Well, it turns out Serizawa is utterly useless. Watanabe is given little to say, and even less to do. Given his namesake, you’d expect more from the character. The original Dr. Serizawa from Godzilla (1954) was a troubled man who had to deal with an inner conflict between unleashing a weapon of mass destruction on to the world or letting Godzilla continue his rampage. He ultimately decides to use his oxygen destroyer at the cost of his own life, taking his secrets to the grave.
But Watanabe’s Serizawa has no such development and simply concedes to the kaiju, stating “Let them fight”. Scientist in a Godzilla film should demonstrate the ingenuity of mankind, not to just give up and let the monsters wreak havoc. Watanabe was grossly underutilized and deserved more.
One of the weakest aspects of Legendary’s Godzilla is just how much time is spent with the military. The thing is, no one gives a damn about the military in a Godzilla film! They are a means of demonstrating just how unstoppable Godzilla is. The most we should ever see of the military is the crucial scene found in all Godzilla films: they mildly annoy Godzilla with a barrage of missiles and bombs, only to be wrecked by his atomic breath. As the film continues to place its misguided faith just how interesting the military and Ford Brody are, so does my mind-numbing boredom begin to sink in.
Now, you might be wondering why a review of Godzilla has yet to mention any of the King of Monster’s scenes. And that’s because there is a total of 14 or 15 minutes of Godzilla in this 2-hour film! Hell, the first monster we get a glimpse at isn’t even the titular character. Instead, we are introduced to a series newcomer, the MUTO. It takes an entire hour before we get a clear shot of Godzilla.
For how frustrating of an experience it had been so far, that moment when Godzilla was revealed… I felt a shiver go down my back. I’m now on the edge of my seat. Godzilla slowly approached the MUTO, letting out a satisfying roar. This is it. It’s happening! The moment I’ve waited for 10 years is finally here! And then it cuts immediately to Ford’s son sleeping. That ladies and gentleman, is how you take viewers from pure ecstasy to blinding rage in a single cut.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. In some sort of sadistic act, the filmmakers continue to tease these towering monsters. It is infuriating as a fan who has patiently waited 10 years for Godzilla’s return. So much of the destruction is caused off screen. You’d think with giant CGI monsters it would be a simpler task than having to construct giant miniature cities, just to destroy them. You know something is inherently wrong with the film when the MUTO get’s more screen time than Godzilla.
At least there are plenty of shots of Godzilla’s foot. Because that’s what they put on the posters, right?
The worst offender, however, is that once they deliver on said fight, it’s so bloody dark you can barely make anything out! If you’re going to make us wait an hour and forty minutes, the least they could do is turn up the brightness. Now mind you, it’s a pretty decent fight. The finishing blow had everyone cheering in the theater. But I can’t overlook the tedious journey it took to get there.
An actual frame from the Final battle. What…what the hell am I looking at?!
Had the story focused on Cranston as he uncovers the mysteries surrounding the Janjira meltdown and the death of his wife, all while teaming up with Serizawa to figure out a way to stop the beasts, they could have had a riveting plot lead by outstanding actors. Why the filmmakers decided to put such faith in Aaron Taylor-Johnsons ability to carry the film is beyond me.
I respect Legendary for trying to stick close to the Godzilla formula: an underwhelming human story mixed in with sweet Kaiju destruction. The fact that Godzilla actually resembles his Japanese counterpart already puts this way ahead of Tristar’s pathetic effort. It’s not all bad though. For all my complaints, it’s a beautifully shot film, with some impressive special effects. Cranston’s performance carries the early parts of the film, with Watanabe doing a commendable job given the material he had to work with. It’s worth a watch, but like so many other Godzilla films before it, you have to get past all of its tedium before you can enjoy some Kaiju on Kaiju action. Legendary’s Godzilla might not have lived up to my expectations, but at least Godzilla didn’t look like a god damn T-rex.
The original studio behind Godzilla, Toho, would not sit idly by while westerners created an entire cinematic universe based off the King of Monsters. And so, they set off to awaken the beast from his twelve-year Japanese slumber. Join me in part 2, as we delve into Shin Godzilla (2016). Who will reign supreme in this giant monster all-out attack?