There has been a quite incredible amount of hype surrounding Gareth Edwards’ reboot of the classic movie monster, Godzilla, as fans of one of Japan’s most famous exports seek to banish the memories of Roland Emmerich’s ill-judged 1998 incarnation and embrace a darker and more faithful imagining of the giant monster. For many, the promise of seeing Godzilla lay waste to humanity is more than enough to justify the price of admission, and Edwards has managed to deliver some genuinely impressive spectacle when it comes to the sheer level of destruction the titular beast is capable of. It’s a shame, then, that both the potential of both the monstrous action and elements of human drama are completely wasted by the time the credits roll, making Godzilla without any question the biggest cinematic disappointment of the year so far.
Godzilla starts promisingly; scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is working at a Japanese nuclear power plant alongside his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the stage is set for things to go very wrong indeed. Strange fluctuations and foreboding patterns begin to appear on Joe’s computer, prompting a mass evacuation of the plant as it becomes apparent that something may well have been woken up, his beloved Sandra agonizingly missing out on survival in what is the film’s only scene with any genuine emotional weight. Cranston is sensational, dominating the screen and throwing out every line as though he’s still filming the final season of Breaking Bad, and it’s he who expertly steers the film through its opening 40 minutes of intrigue and impending disaster before passing the mantle on to on-screen son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a character who’s about as interesting as one of Walter White’s chemistry classes.
It’s incredibly frustrating more than anything that Edwards, who received such high praise for his independent directorial debut in 2010’s Monsters, proceeds to dedicate so much screen time to Ford and an ensemble of similarly uninteresting personnel. Wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) is given little to do, and as such it’s impossible to feel attached to her, or her husband, or her son, all of whom are placed in the middle of perilous situations over the course of the film but never really feel in danger. Taylor-Johnson’s character is a bomb disposal expert in the military and is given little more to do than hold a stone face and occasionally shout very loudly, whilst Olsen has to constantly look worried and do a bit of exasperated crying, desperately trying to convince the audience that she and her family are worth caring about, but nobody would put the energy into batting an eyelid should any of them been acquainted with the bottom of Godzilla’s foot. It’s startling how the danger thrust upon Cranston and Binoche carries so much more heft than anything faced by Ford after the film’s jump into the modern day.
The rest of the cast make up the US military and uninspired scientists, with Dr Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) occasionally dropping in to provide a smidge of hastily delivered exposition in order to clear up what’s actually going on, and why we might care. Such lines are actually rather necessary because, in all honesty, it’s difficult to put a finger on what actually happens in Godzilla. Once Cranston is cruelly snatched away, it really does feel as though nobody involved in the production, and certainly nobody in the audience, really knows what’s happening – you’re just left waiting for the inevitable showdown between Godzilla and a couple of giant moths.
Incredibly, it’s these huge radiated moths that prove to be humanity’s main problem; rather than seeing a great deal of Godzilla’s destructive potential, we’re treated to scene after scene of these moths battering into numerous landmarks across Honolulu, Las Vegas, and, eventually, San Francisco. Inevitably the Golden Gate bridge undergoes some reconstructive surgery, before Godzilla and the so-called MUTO eventually proceed to obliterate what seems like every skyscraper in the area, much as Superman and General Zod did in last year’s similarly mindlessly destructive Man of Steel. It all looks impressive enough, and fans will be delighted to see one of Godzilla’s signature moves return to the fore for one especially crowd pleasing shot, but with no human lives on the line worth caring about it’s difficult to be particularly invested in it all. It is, at best, like watching someone else play a particularly impressive video game boss fight, in that it looks pretty cool, but you’re unlikely to actually care about the outcome.
None of the action feels consequential; one of the film’s most visually striking shots sees a group of troops perform a HALO jump into the rubble that remains of San Francisco, but what appeared in the trailers to be a sequence that would invoke some degree of tension and dread instead manages to invoke neither. Much like the showdown between the monsters of the piece, the HALO jump looks impressive, but is ultimately meaningless. Even the characters themselves don’t seem all that invested in what’s going on once the monsters really start to wreak havoc, and no more is this apparent than in the aftermath of San Francisco’s decimation. It feels as though these characters were made to be stomped on, these buildings were made to be knocked down; there’s seemingly nothing on the line, so why should the audience care about what happens?
Hype and expectation can be dangerous things, and Godzilla proves it. Much of the anticipation surrounding the film’s release has been fueled by a marketing campaign promising a dark, thought provoking, and apocalyptic take on the beloved Godzilla formula. Instead, not only does this Godzilla leave the audience feeling totally detached from what unfolds, it also fails to deliver a consistently satisfying appearance from the main monster itself.
Godzilla opens in a way that promises to deliver so much more than what it ultimately turns out to be, and its admittedly impressive visuals do nothing to prevent it from being a tedious, dull, and utterly soulless destruction derby that lacks any sense of direction, any sense of consequence, and any sense of fun.