The new “Godzilla” that opened May 16 may work as spectacle, but it sure doesn’t work as much of anything else. It’s one of the biggest disappointments to come down the horror pike in some time. The trailers were fantastically compelling, the cast is an accomplished one, and the special effects on display in this expensive blockbuster are exceedingly believable. But the story’s an utter mess, the characters are two-dimensional, and there are way too many beasts for one monster movie.
If you’re easily impressed by 3-D special effects that make you believe in skyscraper-sized lizards, then you might find this a reasonable summer distraction. But it’s not enough of a reason to seek out a movie that makes so many story mistakes, starting with the decision to make Godzilla the secondary monster in his own movie. The first hour of the movie is devoted to unearthing a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO) that’s been in hibernation underground in Japan for decades and it’s not Godzilla. It’s a winged creature that looks like a misshapen praying mantis. Once it escapes, it sends out a mating call to summon a female MUTO, and oh yeah, it wakes a dormant Godzilla from under the sea.
Sadly, Godzilla ends up being a third wheel in his namesake movie. The real plot revolves around preventing the two others from mating and creating dozens of other giant winged creatures. The human characters don’t fare much better. They’re all essentially cardboard. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen might as well be called ‘Hero’ and ‘Ingénue’. And the scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins have virtually no discernible traits other than that they’re scientists.
At least they get some screen time. Poor Juliette Binoche appears onscreen at the start of the movie for a few measly minutes, and Bryan Cranston is gone before you know it too. His voice-over dominates the trailers, likely playing off his “Breaking Bad” cred, but here’s he’s overwrought in a dumb role that is done before the real plot kicks in.
Occasionally, the director Gareth Edwards shrewdly eases up on the hyperkinetic action and lets his film breathe for a few moments. (A lesson lost on Michael Bay in most of his action oeuvre.) Sometimes Edwards has the characters stop and observe all the devastation, rather than just blithely running by it, and such scenes carry some resonance. But they can't gloss over a bad script that is often laughable in its exposition and ludicrous in its logic. Even worse, for a horror film, it has far too few real scares. Or genuine thrills.
Rather than show the plot, Max Borenstein’s slack screenplay loves to use the crutch of having newscasts tell us what’s happening, keeping us up to speed on ever-present TV screens in scene after scene. He also checks off a whole list of hoary cliché’s like having the hero’s child stuck in a school bus that just happens to be on the Golden Gate Bridge when Godzilla attacks. And he sure doesn’t think much of the military. In this venture, they come off as 'the gang that couldn’t shoot straight'.
Case in point, Borenstein has his soldiers keep shooting standard-issue weaponry at the beasts when it’s clear that they can crash into buildings and remain unscathed. He also plops dozens of aircraft carriers right in harm’s way, only to be tossed around like bathtub toys. So much for shrewd war maneuvers. And atomic weaponry is out of the question in his script as the radioactive creatures ‘feed’ on it. Okay, then how about other kinds of artillery then – drones or chemical weapons, perhaps? This movie acts like modern warfare doesn’t exist. It’s still fighting against Godzilla like it’s 1956!
Then, in the last act, the movie inexplicably turns Godzilla into a good guy. He may cause destruction and death everywhere, but hey, at least he’s the best hope to take out the beastly couple! The attempt to turn him into a tragic monster like “King Kong” (http://bit.ly/1j8X2DT) is the last terrible choice in a movie chock full of them. The audience I saw it with laughed at the end. That’s good if your movie is called “Neighbors” but not “Godzilla”.
Perhaps we should have realized a while back that those who spent a Godzillion bucks on this excursion were not making the wisest choices as filmmakers. How else can you explain their decision to not show the full Godzilla in the trailers or press materials, but then two weeks before the opening, they start running those god-awful Fiat commercials that not only show the full scaly one but portray him as a vomiting comic foil?
One could argue that such commercial tie-ins prove a certain contempt for the movie-going audience. One can also plainly see that the same is evident in this dunderheaded tent pole. Monster movies don’t have to be so dumb, over-stuffed and slothful. Classics like “Jaws”, “Alien”, “Jurassic Park” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (http://bit.ly/1o27gXC) proved that monster movies could be terrifying and terrifically entertaining. They could also have good actors playing fascinating characters from an intelligent script. But little of such virtues are evident here. This "Godzilla" may look like two hundred million, but its story is merely penny ante.