The King of the Monsters may have rediscovered his rrrrroar after Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster (pun intended), but Gareth Edwards’ creature feature follow-up to his micro-budget debut doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights you’d hope it would.
Trailers often fail to quicken the pulse, but the promos for Gojira’s latest big screen outing were a masterclass in wringing every last of drop of anticipation from an audience rubbing their hands at what the director of Monsters would bring to the table.
There are enough moments here to remind you of why Edwards is such an exciting talent. However, for a film that (correctly) chooses to spend so much of its time exploring the human story, it’s a shame too many of the characters fail to leap off the screen.
Godzilla‘s cracking opening credits sequence doffs its cap to Ishirō Honda’s 1954 Japanese original and runs with that film’s nuclear-inflected theme. Rather than a nuclear test, the hydrogen bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll by the US military was, we learn, aimed at destroying the gigantic ocean-dwelling Gojira.
All is quiet until 1999 when a Japanese nuclear power plant succumbs to what’s labelled a ‘natural disaster’, although plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is having none of it and believes something else is going on. Cut to 15 years later and Joe’s search for the truth lands him in hot water, forcing his estranged bomb disposal expert son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) to leave his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son behind in San Francisco to fly to Japan to bring him back to the US. Joe’s convinced the government is hiding something, although not even he can quite believe what it eventually turns out to be and soon enough all hell is breaking loose.
That Edwards’ Godzilla stomps all over Emmerich’s effort is pretty much a given (Ed Wood could have made a better film in all honesty). However, a cast full of stellar names are often reduced to delivering one-note performances that serve the story without adding any substance.
The strained father-son relationship between the Brody bunch is worthy of screen time and a driver of the film’s opening half, but Cranston and Taylor-Johnson never truly sell it to us.
Ken Watanabe spends almost the entire film as scientist Serizawa looking like he needs to go to the toilet, while the incredibly versatile Sally Hawkins never deviates from appearing ashen-faced as Seizawa’s colleague Graham. In fact, all the female roles are underwritten; with Juliette Binoche in a blink and you’ll miss it turn as Joe’s wife Sandra, while Olsen gets very little to do as Elle.
That being said, it’s admirable in this day and age for a blockbuster to even give a second’s thought to developing relationships and a narrative ahead of budget-sapping CGI. It’s an approach that worked well for Edwards in Monsters (although, with next-to-no funding it’s always easier to film talking heads rather than space creatures) and, with a little more finesse, will undoubtedly serve him well going forward.
Where Edwards really hits it out of the park is in the action scenes involving Godzilla and the massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) that are thrown into the mix. These aren’t just faceless CGI monsters; each of these creatures (Godzilla especially) are emotive forces of nature, whether it be the extended glance shared by ‘zilla and Ford or the moment of tenderness shared by the MUTOs amid the destruction. If this is indeed going to become a franchise (as looks likely) then it’s only right that you feel something for the King of the Monsters.
Other dramatic moments, including the Fukushima-inflected destruction of the Japanese nuclear power plant are deftly handled, while the film’s real highlight remains the awesome HALO jump sequence (a candidate for scene of the year), wherein Ford and a crack team of soldiers free-fall into a devastated San Francisco to the eerie strains of György Ligeti’s Requiem (a piece of music used to equally unnerving effect in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Edwards’ love for Spielberg’s Jaws is evident throughout, from the name Brody, to the long delay in showing the monster in all its titanic glory and the boat which Ford clambers onto in the film’s final act. Let’s hope the sequels fare better than the follow-ups to that franchise.
Godzilla is almost a first-rate blockbuster, it just doesn’t have the magic formula of great action and great characters to make it truly rrrroar-some.
Here’s that awesome trailer…