The King of the Monsters returns in what now marks the second attempt at a Hollywood adaptation of the iconic Japanese franchise. The first was back in 1998, which was the laughably bad disaster movie about a mutated iguana. This time, director Gareth Edwards is at the helm and rather than push for tongue in cheek camp or summer blockbuster shtick, he moves into darker territory and towards something resembling a suspense drama about the massive lizard.
It stars Bryan Cranston (at first, anyway), who works in Japan with his wife at a nuclear power plant. After a series of suspicious tremors, the plant is destroyed, leaving him a widower and single father. Rather than keep the story in this time period, we jump ahead fifteen years so that his son is now grown (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with a family of his own and tries to distance himself from his crackpot father. It is around this time that the tremors begin again, leading to the appearance of multiple giant monsters that can level cities. Oh, and Godzilla’s in there somewhere.
Starting with what really works here, we have to get to Godzilla. There’s no point when that thing is onscreen that the movie isn’t excellent, capturing the sheer size of him and his incredible presence. He looks like the old rubber suit fully realized as a giant beast, rendered with CGI as a colossal menace that can wreck buildings like they were play sets. The other beasts, referred to as MUTO, are also interesting, but they don’t have the weight and the anticipation of the titular monster.
Gareth Edwards knew this, and it’s clear in the manner he handles the giant monsters. Early on and for much of the action scenes, we get a lot of clear shots of both MUTOs. They wreck cities and scare soldiers, but they’re only to stall until we get to see Godzilla, which is hardly ever until the finale. Being a student of Steven Spielberg’s style of action movie making, he tries to limit the monster’s exposure. This works for when we see them – many scenes play out very much like the T-Rex sequence from “Jurassic Park” – but we rarely get to see them. Gareth Edwards has a notable visual sense for shooting these skyscraper tall behemoths, and they look fantastic when they’re on the move.
The way it plays out is that most of the action set pieces are cut away from; teasing what we know is the epic battle between titans. After Godzilla’s first impressive appearance, his following battle is ended before it begins, teasing the audience with only snippets on the news. This is fine for a time, but the director overplays this aspect of the movie. It’s more noticeable because he fills in the times when we could be watching Godzilla with our protagonists or the not Godzilla monsters. The human characters are what truly bog down the enjoyability of the movie. Bryan Cranston, the only interesting character, has a very small part. Ken Watanabe is important for plot details and exposition, but his actual role is very minor. Instead the lead is given to Ford Brody, who is unfortunately a soldier in a giant monster movie.
This is already a problematic lead because, no matter how much he integrates himself into the action scenes, it’s a pointless endeavor that will surely come to nothing. Everything they do is useless or wrong, but we still have to watch them do it. If Godzilla was the only monster in the movie, maybe this could work. Man vs monster in the style of “Jaws” or even the original “Godzilla”, but that’s not the case here. There are several monsters and they have multiple action scenes that we just don’t get to see. Instead, we get scenes with the lead that’s pointless at best and dull at worst. Elizabeth Olsen rounds out the cast as his wife, but she has very little to do.
The big finale, which is where it becomes a Godzilla movie in earnest, is highly entertaining, but it leaves you wishing there had been more. In the end, “Godzilla” is a bit of a mixed bag. I see what Gareth Edwards was trying to do here, and when he gets it right, it’s downright amazing. When we do see him, Godzilla has never looked better. If only the rest of the movie could match him.