There's a reason Godzilla is known as the King of All Monsters, and it only has a little bit to do with his massive size. The creature has been around for six decades and starred in more than 28 movies, begun as a metaphor for the devastating effects of nuclear weaponry on Japan and the world. A movie like Pacific Rim doesn't exist without Godzilla inspiring the entire kaiju genre, but at its heart the early films were designed as cautionary horror tales. Gareth Edwards' modern update, because frankly nobody wants to remember the 1998 film, is also steeped in heavy warnings about nature's devastating power and the dire consequences if humans choose to ignore it. But it's also those humans and their actions that are left forgotten in the need to generate just another soulless blockbuster spectacle.
Sadly, the most colossal thing about Godzilla is how disappointing it is, and perhaps my own expectations were inflated because of all the hype. I was there on the floor of Hall H when Edwards made the big Godzilla announcement and showed his early vision for the reboot, and the room was thick with the energy of anticipation. That excitement really never subsided thanks to a smart marketing strategy that kept the monster largely out of promos and trailers. The mystery is what mattered, and that tension over Godzilla's arrival is a large reason why the film works so well initially, yet is so disappointing once he appears.
The atomic era serves as sturdy ground for the story, penned by relative newcomer Max Borenstein (with a Frank Darabont assist), building on old fears of planet-killing nuclear destruction. Edwards uses stock footage from Hiroshima and other nuclear events, and later on uses many of these tragedies as a visual road map to the epic disasters he's capturing on screen. The film is at its best long before Godzilla ever enters the frame thanks to a superb cast adding such rich, emotional stakes one forgets this is supposed to be just another summer popcorn flick. Bryan Cranston is Joe Brody, a physicist struggling to get past the death of his wife fifteen years earlier when she was killed by an accident at a Japanese nuclear plant. Having lost his job, Joe has also lost the respect of his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who believes his father to be a total whack job obsessed with conspiracy theories that the Japanese government is hiding something big. The father/son dynamic is easily the best aspect of the story early on, with Cranston and Johnson playing off one another beautifully. Joe's haunted quest for the truth lends dramatic thrust to what is essentially a slow burn mystery. Ford, who now a husband, father, and soldier in the Ordinance Disposal unit (that'll come in handy later), is reluctantly dragged into exploring the quarantined zone where the original disaster occurred. There they discover a secret that threatens the world, and Ford learns that his dad wasn't a total nut job all these years.
From there all of the compelling emotional stakes and familial dynamics get roasted like they were caught in Godzilla's atomic fire. The typically-awesome Ken Watanabe doesn't do much but look bewildered as Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, a scientist who has been studying these disasters for decades and knows the truth about them. Now he's working at a secret facility where cocooned radioactive energy-sapping creatures are being housed in secret, even though their mere presence screws with all electronics and threatens the whole planet. It's also just kind of stupid in general terms. When the creatures inevitably escape and cause all types of havoc, another monster awakens to combat them, with Serizawa hypothesizing it's nature's way of finding balance. Godzilla has often been portrayed as an avatar of Mother Earth, a protector of the planet, and the film works this aspect into the story seamlessly without going too far with it. Nobody wants to see Godzilla turned into Captain Planet or anything like that.
The humans scramble around to make their plans to stop all of the monsters walking (or flying) the earth, and as one might expect it involves nukes and lots of gunfire, things we know are never going to work. Meanwhile, Ford is bouncing from location to location trying to get back home to his family, but he's really sort of adrift without a whole lot to do. There comes a point where human focus leaves Joe and shifts to Ford, and the story never quite recovers from that. We have no emotional investment in ford other than his return home, while the long-held tension he had with Joe provided the greatest heft. Elizabeth Olsen is sorely wasted as Ford's wife, and the same can be said for other bit players Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and David Strathairn. The amount of talent gone to waste here is phenomenal. As I said before, Godzilla movies all tend to leave their human characters in the background or relegate them to stock roles, and this is no different. Mostly the humans fumble around dumbfounded while the monsters cause wide scale disasters, and the whole thing just comes off as empty and pointless. We know it will be Godzilla who saves the day in the end, so where's the drama in everything that comes before that?
Poorly executed story aside, Godzilla is often the jaw-dropper we were always hoping it would be. This is the first big movie by Edwards, who floored many with his small-budget creature feature, Monsters. That film was an immigration parable clearly inspired by Godzilla movies, and here he throws in a dose of Spielberg-ian wonder to much of the spectacle. The visuals are impressive and will have you geeking out over the awesome scale of it, especially the design of Godzilla himself. He looks great and there's an incredible level of detail in every movement. Edwards keeps him hidden in a thick haze of smoke, fog, and shadow until the time is just right for maximum impact. The way he builds tension is a thing of pure beauty. Less impressive are the other monsters, called MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) which look hastily thrown together and rather generic. This severely hurts the monster clashes which never quite live up to the exhilarating display they ought to be.
There are good ideas here, and Edwards is a genuine talent and perhaps does the best with a modern Godzilla film than anybody could have hoped for. Godzilla as a character simply doesn't hold a lot of appeal outside of being a force of nature. He's awesome to look at and be in awe of but without human characters audiences can connect with, Godzilla might as well keep that mighty roar to himself.