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Review: Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Premise: A remake of the 1954 film. Two ancient creatures that feed on nuclear energy emerge from hiding and travel the globe, destroying everything in their path. Godzilla, a giant fire-breathing lizard who is their natural predator, pursues these creatures.

What Works: The summer movie season has long been associated with mindless action movie fare. The trend of releasing effects-heavy spectaculars in the summer months began in the mid-1970s but critics and audiences sometimes forget that the movies that began this tradition, such as Jaws and Star Wars, delivered thrills and story in equal measure and were frequently very well made pieces of cinema. Godzilla is a reminder that popcorn movies can be more than just a roller coaster and despite the fact that it is essentially a wrestling movie with giant monsters it is pretty smart and extremely well made. Recalling the original 1954 picture, the monster Godzilla is a force of nature that lays waste to civilization. The original Japanese film was a spectacle but it was also a metaphor of Japan’s loss of World War II and the devastation wrought by the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The 2014 reboot continues that symbolism and reinterprets the monster for the contemporary age; the movie makes deliberate references to recent man-made and natural disasters, namely the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. In that respect, the movie is partly about mankind’s relationship with the natural world and that gives the destruction some substance which makes the movie about more than a giant lizard breaking things. This version of Godzilla is extremely well made and has several images and sequences that are beautifully composed. The set design frequently has a lived-in look, the action scenes are impactful, and the filmmakers visualize giant lizards punching each other amid the world’s biggest cities without it seeming silly. That is one of the more outstanding accomplishments of Godzilla; it’s not hokey but it’s still fun. The action is spectacular and the humor and in-jokes are funny but also subtle and underplayed. The 2014 edition of Godzilla also builds very well and this may be the film’s most notable quality. Restraint is unfashionable in Hollywood tent pole filmmaking but like good showmen the filmmakers keep the audience engaged by giving them just enough—but not too much—of a good thing.

What Doesn’t: The weakest link of 2014’s Godzilla is the human drama. The interaction between the protagonist and his father, played respectively by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Cranston, has some nice bits to it as does the relationship between Taylor-Johnson’s character and his wife, played by Elizabeth Olson. However, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the lynchpin of the movie’s human story but his character isn’t very interesting. There is nothing motivating him to action, he isn’t sufficiently characterized, and Taylor-Johnson frequently has a blank and clueless look on his face. The new version of Godzilla might also underwhelm those who come to it expecting two hours of monster mash action. The story is structured much more like a movie of an earlier era like Jaws, Alien, or the original Godzilla in that the tension builds gradually over the course of the picture as a slow burn, culminating in a final showdown instead of delivering one giant set piece after another. This is to the filmmakers’ credit but viewers accustomed to the constant action of movies like 2012 and Transformers might feel the movie is too slow. In a way this Godzilla is a more mature film than the average Hollywood blockbuster but that maturity might alienate part of its core audience.
Bottom Line: Godzilla is an excellent example of a well-crafted spectacle. The movie would be stronger if it had a better human story at the center of it and that shortcoming makes it merely good when it could have been great. But the 2014 version of Godzilla is a unique title in the summer movie season, a Hollywood show that is fun but presents mass destruction with artistry and a sense of gravitas.

Episode: #492 (May 25, 2014)