“Low key” is probably the last thing one would expect or want to hear when describing GODZILLA, but for about the first third of Hollywood’s latest attempt at putting its own spin on the long-running Japanese creature feature franchise, the term applies. But there’s a method to director Gareth Edwards’s apparent movie madness, and it soon becomes clear that his spin on the enduring property is to spin it back to its time-proven Toho roots after the misbegotten Roland Emmerich “reinvention” (desecration?) in 1998. This means an overall very serious and even somber tone, and–to the possible disappointment of attention-deficit-afflicted audiences–a very *patient* early pace. But this is all the better to relate a fairly thought-through and topical scientific origin, for not only our famous giant amphibious reptile but also an even deadlier threat to humanity that was borne out of the lingering radioactive residue of man’s reckless nuclear experimentation. Adding other creatures, known as “MUTOs” (standing for “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism”), into the mix proves to be a rather canny move by Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein. Beyond the obvious benefit of adding some big (literally and figuratively) brawling to go with the requisite building toppling, the conflict between different, equally uncontrollable forces of nature also does a lot to build Godzilla as a full-blown character.
But a more fully developed Godzilla makes the requisite “human element” to the film come off that much more undernourished, especially when Edwards and Borenstein do take their sweet time to not only set up the whole scenario but the big guy’s first full appearance, which occurs at around the film’s midpoint. Holding the audience over before then an eclectic array of actors such as Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Richard T. Jones, Victor Rasuk, and Juliette Binoche. While this wide variety of talent does manage to keep the proceedings reasonably diverting, it’s not because of their roles or storylines, for they generally have little to nothing to work with. Worse still, the one member of the cast who receives the most attention is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who here proves why the character of Kick-Ass was such an utterly forgettable non-entity in his self-named superhero franchise. He’s capable enough, but nothing (at least, to be fair, not yet) screams out about him that remotely reads as summer tentpole-carrying “star.” (Random/better thought/idea: what if the charismatic and largely underused Rasuk were cast in the lead instead..?)
But then one doesn’t really need a formidable flesh-and-blood star when the digitally created title character appropriately inspires such awe–and he makes quite the entrance with classic movie star style and swag While a CG creation, Godzilla looks, sounds, and feels a very tactile and tangible screen presence, and the delayed gratification frustration that comes with the teasing initial glimpses of not only Godzilla, but of any MUTO fighting he engages in and destruction he causes, only adds to the impact when he fully enters the picture. The design of him and the MUTOs is impressive in detail and appropriately massive in scale, and Edwards creatively figures out to prevent the novelty of the latter from ever wearing off by constantly shooting them from a distinctly human perspective, on the ground looking up or on distant perches or on television screens. It’s a smart touch that makes the big MUTO attacks all the more impressive, and the much-anticipated monster-vs.-monsters showdown that much more intense and exciting, reducing humans to the almost inconsequential presence that they should be.
One could then possibly argue that the familial dramas of the human characters (for the record, the main “emotional” thread centers on–clutch your pearls–if Taylor-Johnson will be reunited with wife Olsen and their young son) are trite by design, but I don’t think Edwards and Borenstein were quite *that* smart. Still, it takes a lot of genuine thought to come up with a satisfying popcorn entertainer, and even if this GODZILLA doesn’t work on every level, it at least suggests that these filmmakers and this new series are well on their way to getting it completely right. Grade: B
By Michael DeQuina