More than 15 years on from Roland Emmerich’s misguided ‘reimagining’, the disappointment of Godzilla (1998) still rankles with critics and die-hard fans displeased with the 2012-director’s radical re-working of the monster’s origins.
There’s a lot of pressure, then, on Gareth Edwards to not just prove himself away from the scarcer resources and shoestring budget of his debut indie-hit Monsters, but also to appease the daikaiju faithful. Unfortunately, while parts of Edwards’ Godzilla thrill, an unexpected lack of attention to character and tone pretty much nukes this sullen reboot.
It starts out well with a taut meltdown at the Janjira nuclear power plant that kills the wife of Bryan Cranston’s American physicist Joe after he failed to avert the disaster. Not only is this sequence superbly shot by Edwards, but Cranston delivers a powerful performance that makes the broken farewell to his wife via walkie-talkie so gut-wrenching.
15 years later, the cause of the meltdown has been covered up as an earthquake and Joe has become “the American maniac” he was trying to avoid, desperately driven to find the truth about what really happened that day even when it threatens to destroy his relationship with his won, Ford (Taylor-Johnson).
This first half is where the film is strongest with Cranston’s character incorporating a compelling human story into a smart conspiracy that ties the monster attacks to real-world natural disasters. It’s only when Joe steps aside and his son takes over that things start to fall apart.
Ford has no discernable character arc or motivation other than being an out-of-the-box soldier committed to doing his duty, and Elizabeth Olsen’s considerable talent is foolishly wasted as his wife who merely sits at home waiting to be rescued.
This lack of character development sees the focus shift to the battle of nature between Godzilla and the nuclear-power-hungry MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism), while the humans watch from the side-lines and the audience wonders why they’re even there at all.
Yet Edwards handles directing the visual spectacle well, delivering numerous entertaining set-pieces. The sequence from the trailer in which soldiers trail red smoke as they sky-dive above the monster is still incredibly cool and a scene where Ford tracks a feeding MUTO along a rickety rail bridge can be unbearably tense.
Edwards also succeeds in making the audience care about Godzilla. At 350 feet tall, this is easily the biggest monster in the canon and his description as “a power to restore balance” to nature pushes him into the position of the film’s hero as he takes on the more destructive MUTOs. You’ll find you are quickly rooting for Godzilla as the final, city-pummelling showdown ensues, which thankfully provides a powerful ending that looked unlikely after the earlier eradication of the human story angle.
Godzilla’s only other problem is that its tone is too sullen for its own good. Edwards does well to take inspiration from Jaws in building a terrifying off-screen presence by delaying a complete view of Godzilla, but this foreboding tone never quite matches up with the childish thrill of watching to radioactive monsters square-off on the Las Vegas Strip.
It’s this awkward melange of moody atmosphere and fantastical fire-breathing reptiles coupled with a loss of human emotion that stops Godzilla being the return to form dedicated fans desperately wanted it to be.
Runtime: 123 Minutes Genre: Action/Sci-fi Released: 15 May 2014
Director: Gareth Edwards Writer: Max Borenstein
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe
Click here to watch the trailer for Godzilla (2014)