Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014) – When Roland Emmerich’s god-awful Godzilla hit screens in 1998, it was preceded by an ad campaign hinged entirely around size and scale. The movie itself featured a silly square faced cartoon that seemed to have no weight beyond that of failed expectations (zing!). Gareth Edwards’ drastically better Godzilla hit screens with an ad campaign that barely showed the monster even though the director’s greatest achievement in the film is communicating Godzilla’s scale. Until the glorious finale, Edwards shoots his two-ton star on the ground from a human perspective and just like the Steven Spielberg movies that inspired the approach, it works beautifully. The movie boasts incredible CGI, but those effects work better than in competing blockbusters because they’re used by a filmmaker who understands that how you show a monster is just as important as the monster itself. Given that the monster in question is one of the most iconic ever created, by showing him well Edwards has whipped up one hell of a Godzilla movie and slapped it onto the table to be eaten up by starved fans.
Before that, Edwards is also smart enough to take his time and tease the audience while developing characters and a world rather than just shoving the big guy on the screen and cashing the cheque. We’re first introduced to Bryan Cranston playing an American scientist in Japan who loses his wife to a tragic accident at a nuclear power plant. We then jump ahead a 15 years and follow Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing Cranston’s son who now has a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and boy of his own. Johnson has to fly to Japan when his father is arrested finds Cranston as a broken, paranoid man who has given up his life to uncover the conspiracy surrounding his wife’s death. Turns out that conspiracy involves a giant monster underneath the power plant, which is explained by Ken Watanabe’s super scientist to be one of many prehistoric monsters stuck in frozen animation under the earth. A big one named Godzilla popped up in the 1954, but he was bombed back down to the depths of the ocean by all those nuclear “tests “in the 50s. All that information comes to light just in time for not one, but two monsters to emerge from the earth who cross the Pacific Ocean to meet. Neither one is Godzilla. Nope, they’re new creatures that look like a cross between the Starship Troopers aliens and the Cloverfield monster. Godzilla shows up only to smash those guys into oblivion, because this is secretly an homage to the late Godzilla monster mash-movies, not the city-stomping villainous Godzilla pictures.
When all the monsters first arrive, they’re brilliantly shown in bits and pieces through the perspective of the humans in a terrifyingly visceral way. When they finally come together, it’s for an electrifying 45-minute battle royale with the humans running around like powerless ants amidst the action. It’s a glorious, massive climax that offers more than enough popcorn fun to justify the ticket price (especially the applause-worthy finishing move) and demands only the biggest and loudest possible presentation. When it comes down purely to Godzilla and the monsters, the film is a rip roaring success brilliantly crafted by Edwards, a filmmaker working on a blockbuster scale for the first time. The trouble is in the tone and characters.
While the slow burn opening works well and even teases out themes of nuclear responsibility and Herzogian notions of the deadly power of nature, once the monsters show up Edwards seems to lose interest in the humans entirely beyond how they see Godzilla and where they slot into the stunning set pieces. While it’s safe to say that no one has ever bought a ticket to a Godzilla movie for the human drama, the fact that Edwards bothered to set one up and fill his cast with talented players proves to be frustrating when they have nothing to do. All of the cast spends the last two thirds of the movie either starring off camera stoically or crying, neither of which is compelling for very long. Likewise, the tone throughout is dark and deadly serious. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. However, when your movie peaks with something as goofy as a giant monster battle, you may as well have a little fun along the way. Pacific Rim might have had similarly boring and serious protagonists, but at least by the time Charlie Day met Ron Perlman, the humans were almost as fun as the monsters.
While the dour tone and one-note characters of Godzilla might be a problem, it would be a lie to even suggest that kills that movie. The selling point and focus of this flick are Godzilla, his opponents, and how well they all smash the hell out of their surroundings. There’s no denying that Gareth Edwards handles all that material exquisitely. His movie delivers CGI monsters with weight and presence as well as set pieces that genuinely thrill and take advantage of the blockbuster scale. That’s an increasingly difficult feat to pull off at the movies these days, especially in a franchise focused studio product. For that alone, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla can only be classified as a rip-roaring success. Godzilla is back and in such a pleasing package that audiences actually left the theater craving a sequel. Hopefully next time the supporting humans will get to have a little fun backing up their ginormous co-stars.
Godzilla debuts on Blu-Ray in a beautiful package worthy of the king of the monsters. The video transfer is spotless, easily recreating the scale and atmosphere that rocked audiences to the tune of $500 million all summer long. Obviously, this is a movie designed for a theatrical experience and no home presentation can match it. Thankfully, the disc at least presents it on Blu in a near perfect transfer with a thunderous audio mix that will rock your walls as if you were in a theater. Special features wise, the disc unfortunately isn’t quite so overwhelming. Things kick off with three short featurettes designed to be fake classified government docs exploring the nature of the secret giant monster program. They are cute additions, but nothing substantial. The most substantial feature is a 20-minute feature on the history of Godzilla with the cast and crew discussing the legacy of the monster and how they hoped to revive him for contemporary audiences. It’s interesting and proves how heartfelt everyone was in their approach to the material, but feels like it easily could have been stretched out to an hour given all the voices involved.
You can’t help but wonder if Warner Brothers is holding back for a future double dip. Beyond that is a eight minute featurette on the major set pieces, a five minute doc on the remarkable HALO jump, and seven minutes briefly discussing the other monsters in the film. All are nice additions, it’s just a shame that they are so short. Still, it’s a nice collection of extras for a gorgeous disc. Godzilla was handled far better than anyone could have hoped for last summer, folks. Let’s all pray the sequel pushes things even farther. There’s room to improv and hopefully Edwards’ and company have plans to do just that for Godzilla second round of blockbuster carnage. (Phil Brown)