Godzilla! – there is a legacy earned by the very name Godzilla that has lasted over half a century by way of the numerous film versions and perhaps for some, more notably, from an infamous children’s cartoon in the 1980s from which the theme tune remains burned into my brain for eternity.
The last time we encountered Godzilla was in director Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version which followed the worldwide smash of his previous film Independence Day. This film had set a new benchmark for destruction and spectacle, and led us down a path to the blockbuster summer release schedule we know and love, or alternatively loathe. With Godzilla, it’s Jurassic Park– baiting trailer issued a year in advance had set out a mission statement which it didn’t fail to deliver on – to be bigger and louder is to be better. However on almost every other count, it was a bit of a mess.
Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film sidesteps the weight of expectation placed upon a revival of the famous brand by giving Godzilla no more than an extended cameo in his own film. There is some brief exposition to cover that while there have been unsuccessful attempts to dispose of the beast in the past, he now remains a passive presence beneath the waves. The arrival of a pair of prehistoric creatures known as MUTOs, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, see him arise from the depths to hunt them down and serve his purpose at the disposal of the US military by preventing the widespread destruction from these MUTOs. It does however leave his reputation slightly curtailed as the military track his every move and guide him towards the completion of their mission.
From herein, a well thought out background is quickly forgotten as the action moves from Japan to Hawaii and onwards to San Francisco. The standard evacuation scenes quickly appear as people flee the city and head for the bridge in cliché-heavy action film beats. There is a lack of surprise at every turn as Godzilla eventually faces off against his two adversaries.
Edwards made his name with Monsters and having graduated to the big leagues, it is interesting to see how he attempts to utilise some of the factors that made his debut such a critical hit. However, although there is a touching moment between two MUTOs as they finally meet, it is then lost in the chaos of the fight.
The problem lies in that the CGI monsters are given more character than the humans, a reverse of what stood out in Monsters. The relationship between Taylor-Johnson and Olsen is forgotten about and they barely share more than a couple of minutes screen-time together.
If they hired Edwards on the back of what worked in his previous film, why stifle him at the first given chance. The cast is underused especially Olsen, who has impressed greatly in recent films, who takes a standard role as a nurse, or ‘good person’ in film speak. Taylor-Johnson’s role as a bomb-defusal expert screams out for a scene where he will have to defuse a bomb later in the film. It’s lazy writing and the film suffers for it.
Maybe I’m expecting too much from this. Godzilla didn’t come from highbrow background, its B-movie fare. So while there are the initial elements of social commentary taken from its source regarding nuclear war, and the power that nature holds over all creation, it generally always boils down to building crushing, by way of CGI-enabled crash bang and wallop. And there is plenty of that on show here as buildings crumble at the touch. On these terms, the film is a resounding success.
But still there remains a general lack of consequence which threads through the film. The death of the initial protagonist is delivered without much of a note, the destruction of the cities and death passes without any notice. No-one seems more than slightly bothered by anything that is happening at any given time.
The problems which arise in Godzilla could have been easily avoided by looking at how similar films in the genre have fared in recent years. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim showed that success could be mined without the A-list name recognition that Godzilla brings, as long as it was brought with verve and by embracing the B-movie sensibility of anything goes. JJ Abrams and director Matt Reeves took inspiration from Japan via South Korea’s The Host with Cloverfield. The monster is kept in the dark via home video footage and all the focus is placed on a group of friends on the run through the city.
Ultimately, the tone of the film is wrong. It’s not much fun watching Godzilla in 2014. So much effort has been placed in bringing the scale of destruction to the screen that they have forgotten the recipe for great adventure. There is no humour; no-one is placed in danger or peril at any time. There is no ingenuity at the heart of the film. Everyone essentially just waits for the fighting to stop. There is also detachment in the direction, cutaways to television coverage at many turns. It feels like whenever it starts to get interesting, the director isn’t comfortable in his own ability to hold your attention.
It’s a solid, sturdy and slightly dull movie which should see it serve as a starting point to the franchise that Emmerich’s version discarded when he inexplicably killed off Godzilla. This time around however Edwards sets us up for a series which has lingered under the water for far too long while lesser vehicles has cashed in, a bit like Godzilla himself. Let’s just hope it’s a bit more interesting next time round.