In honor of last week’s release of what might be the last film in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” here is my original review of the film that kicked off the franchise in 2014, director Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.” And you can find my review of “Godzilla vs. Kong” here.
Godzilla is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable movie monsters of all time. Making his debut in the 1954 Japanese film “Gojira”, Godzilla has since then fought many monsters and seen many incarnations, including the unmemorable—or memorably bad?—1998 Hollywood reboot. It has been a while since America tried to breathe life into the popular Asian monster again, and with reboots and remakes being the current craze, it was about time to try again.
“Godzilla”, directed by Gareth Edwards, opens in the Philippines, where Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his associate Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arrive to investigate a ginormous skeleton that has been unearthed at the bottom of a collapsed cavern. There is a trail suggesting that something got out and made its way toward the ocean. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant suffers a nuclear meltdown, and engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is unable to save his wife (Juliette Binoche). The whole city is evacuated and quarantined, and the disaster is attributed to an earthquake.
Fifteen years later, Joe’s young son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now an adult, with a wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son of his own. After returning from a long deployment with the U.S. Navy, Ford flies from his home in San Francisco to Japan when he learns his father was arrested in the quarantine zone. Joe is obsessed with finding out what really happened that day when his wife was killed. And while Ford is initially skeptical, it turns out his dad was right: there is no radiation in the quarantined area. Rather, the scientists and military are covering up the existence of an ancient monster known as a MUTO, setting into motion a series of evidence that jeopardize cities in countries around the world. The only thing that can stop it is an even bigger, stronger monster: Godzilla.
This movie needs to be given points for realism, because that really sets it apart from other recent blockbusters. There’s no CGI overload here, no excessive explosions or unrealistic action. The story and characters are given precedence over the action, which is refreshing. But there are problems. The story builds too slowly; it’s quite a while into the movie before we see any monster, Godzilla included. In fact, the MUTO probably gets more screen time than Godzilla does. Even after the monsters are revealed, the movie spends much of the time between Ford trying to get home and the Navy and Ichiro arguing over the best way to take down the monsters. Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) wants to lure them with radiation and then drop a nuclear warhead on them, while Ichiro thinks it’s best to let them fight it out—after all, it’s about time humans didn’t try to control nature.
Ford isn’t really the most interesting character to follow either. But overall the cast is fine, with Cranston giving an emotional performance in a supporting role. It’s just a shame that the action scenes are often so underwhelming; just when things heat up, the film cuts away from the monsters and back to these only mildly intriguing characters. The cuts happen too soon and too often, and become really noticeable as the film progresses. It’s a supposed to be a Godzilla movie, but it doesn’t really seem like it.
Fortunately things do pick up toward the climax, and we get to see some fun Godzilla-on-MUTO fight scenes. The creatures here are the most realistic and well-crafted of any “Godzilla” film to date, and the design of Godzilla in particular should thrill fans of the franchise. His appearance is similar to that of the original Godzilla, only bigger. His ear-piercing roar is terrifying. But most of all, he’s expressive; there are fleeting moments when we look into Godzilla’s eyes and feel what he is feeling.
This “Godzilla” is an improvement over the 1998 “Godzilla”, without a doubt. While there is a lot that fans of the character will love—especially the fact that it pays tribute to the 1954 original while completely ignoring that 1998 attempt—it comes off as underwhelming. I guess there’s no way to win with action movies these days. It’s either too much or too little; but it is nice to see the King of the Monsters back in action once again.
“Godzilla” is now streaming on HBO Max. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.