It’s been ten years since we last saw a new Godzilla film. That’s the longest gap the franchise has ever experienced, topping the nine year gap after Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975). Expectations were high for the American film to follow. Rock solid marketing for Godzilla (2014) placed expectations even higher. The acting pedigree involved and interviews stating that the cast should treat this like an Oscar aimed “pet project” told us we had a totally different beast than what the blockbuster genre was used to. Ultimately, though, what we got was a bait and switch. Something that was sure to disappoint some moviegoers due to those expectations, but one that also succeeds on the grounds of the film it actually is, even if that is closer to the blockbuster genre we are familiar with after all.
For the plot, engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) works at the Janjira nuclear power plant in Kanto, Japan. The area is experiencing rising tremors following a discovery of a large cavern in the Philippines that revealed large bones and parasite-like formations. Joe and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) go to investigate. As the quakes get worse they decide to shutdown. The precaution is for naught as a reactor leak happens anyway, killing Sandra and others at the plant.
Fifteen years later, their son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning to his family in San Francisco following a stint deactivating bombs for the military. The reunion with Ford’s wife and son is cut short as his father is arrested in Japan. Ford travels to discover his father was trespassing in Kanto’s quarantine zone. Joe has become obsessed with finding more on the Janjira incident and learning the truth, much to his son’s dismay. Although reluctant after just getting him out of jail, Ford is convinced to go with his father to the quarantine area. There they discover a large facility erected on top of the old power plant site as one of the parasite-like creatures had burrowed and attached to it back in 1999. The entity has been slowly sucking the energy from it ever since. After continued tremors and hearing Joe’s frantic pleas, scientist Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) decides to blast the entity with electricity to kill it, even at the cost of future research. The electricity fails, though, and a creature called Muto breaks free and starts attacking.
The story itself, in contrast to marketing, is a bait and switch. It presents the central focus as being the devastation, Godzilla and Bryan Cranston. Let’s hit each point, starting with the devastation which is the one point that is dead on. This movie plays out more like a disaster movie than a traditional kaiju film. People have said the same of The Return of Godzilla (1984), which was released when disaster films like Magnitude 7.9 (1980) were still red hot, but the two can’t even compare in terms of their focus. The strength of this production is it places you into the shoes of the central character, Ford. His occupation puts him close to the action and scenes like the Muto looking up at him from under the bridge are tense. It’s also a little heart wrenching to see Godzilla’s arrival in Hawaii, with the resulting tsunami and causalities striking a little too close to the still recent earthquake in Japan. All of that aside, the film works to capture the tragedy of the event and give a new angle to a long running franchise.
Now lets tackle Godzilla. This is an aspect I knew the film was going to get heat for. The marketing presents Godzilla as a true threat to humanity. In truth, this is the most benevolent Godzilla seen on the big screen since the 1970’s, similar to the Heisei Gamera. This has turned off some general moviegoers, but isn’t new territory for Godzilla fans. What is displeasing both, though, is the lack of focus on Godzilla himself. The movie is really more about the Muto than the King of the Monsters, who were obscured in the trailers for the most part. Given how fans were ruffled over the lack of the nuclear menace in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), this was going to miff a few.
Finally, lets get to Bryan Cranston, whose character is actually the most interesting in the film. Regretfully, he dies early in the movie during the first Muto attack. Its shocking, but lacks the emotional impact to merit losing the most developed character up to this stage. The tragedy is the movie is missing a compelling central character because of it for the rest of the duration. Ford is in many ways a blank slate. We know his motives, to return to San Francisco and later protect the city since his wife is still inside. However, what we don’t know is what makes him tick. No quarks and very little personality. The same can be said of his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), although given her lack of screen time that’s understandable. Watanabe’s Ichiro Serizawa is also a slight miss. I love Watanabe’s performance, but his character develops the theory that Godzilla will restore balance and gets hanged on this plot point. He doesn’t really contribute much toward the end aside from a passive aggressive anti-nuke stance against one of the general’s that fails to resonate. Oddly, for all the talk of this being a “thinking man’s” blockbuster, the result is 40 minutes of great, character driven story that transitions into a roller coaster blockbuster for the second half complete with a climatic kaiju battle its been teasing since the half way point…
…and it works. There are things the film could have done better. At the end of the day, though, the first 40 minutes suck you in for the characters, while the second has you riveted at the well done special effect set pieces. Every blockbuster these days has impressive special effects, though, and what sets Godzilla apart is the cinematography by Academy Award nominated Seamus McGarvey. He did a good job on Marvel’s The Avengers, but is really on top of his game here. The camera angles really place you in the middle of the action, and the creativity breathes new life into the genre. You really get a sense of mass and the notion of these monsters tearing up our modern world. From views inside office buildings to window framed shots of Godzilla from the skyscrapers, McGarvey does top notch work.
The pacing is also superb and the performances good enough to measure up, and occasionally excellent. Cranston saying farewell to his wife is a touching sequence, buoyed by an amazing performance by him and Binoche. The musical score by Academy Award nominated composer Alexandre Desplat delivers a fine if not very memorable score as well. I lamented a bit about it on the Watertower CD review I did, but seen as part of the movie it’s a much better experience. While I am disappointed at the lack of signifying themes, the “main title” plays for the credits and also once during the Muto attack, it fits with the material and heightens the energy on the climactic final battle.
In all, I left the first screening with a huge grin on my mouth. Still, first screenings can be a biasing experience. I left the US premiere of Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003) amped up, and only had my view of the film downshifted after reading tons of negative reactions and seeing the film again. That experience in mind, I made it an effort to see the 2014 Godzilla film twice before crafting a review. My second viewing was more normal, no clapping at the end or cheering during the first atomic ray. My perspective on the movie didn’t change. It’s not the end all Godzilla film many hoped it might be, but as a blockbuster it’s an enjoyable experience.
Now, to make this review a little different from the ones already on the site, I’m going to also tackle the 3D aspect of the production as well. At this point, I have seen the movie twice in theaters: once in 2D, once in 3D. I have watched quite a few movies in the 3D format, both good and bad transfers. Godzilla looks solid in 3D. Segments like the opening credits, where the titles lift above the images in the background, really benefit from it. The title screen, where the ashes seem to venture out into the audience, is also a neat effect. The movie tends to depend more on depth of field, though, than stuff that pops out of the frame. In that regard, there are a couple of cool segments like the aerial crane view of the Muto when it first breaks out. This gives a great since of height that enhances the scene. All that said, is the 3D good enough where its worth an extra $3 or so on the ticket price? Probably not, although its the definitive way to enjoy the movie regardless and is to date the only theatrical Godzilla movie shot in 3D.
Overall, this is one of the best Godzilla films. It’s not going to top Godzilla (1954), but belongs up there with Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964) and Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001). My score for the movie is slightly borderline right now, between a 3.5 star and a 4 star. I thought a second viewing might tip it down, but felt the 4 star rating was narrowly justified. Frankly speaking, as a genre entry its toward the top of the heap and has one thought on my mind: bring on Godzilla 2!