I have never been a Godzilla fanatic. But those who are have a strong emotional attachment to him and the entire giant monster movie genre. Another good friend, Rick O., has still not forgiven me for laughing through most of Godzilla 2000.
I say this to emphasize that unlike the creatures in Pacific Rim or Cloverfield, Godzilla fans demand that he be taken seriously and accurately. He is not simply a monster who brings destruction. Rather he is a force of nature that is our last best hope against the other monsters that seek to utterly destroy humanity. The 1998 American Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick completely missed this point.
The good news about this 2014 Godzilla is that it understands that Godzilla is the king of monsters who is to be feared and honored. For that reason alone, it is better than the Broderick version.
The movie begins with the discovery of the cave on an ancient creature by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabee) where something has escaped. It then shifts to Japan where American Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is working on addressing seismic anomalies that threaten the nuclear power plant where he works. But a calamity has radical effects on the entire city and his family.
The story jumps over a decade into the future where Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has returned from deployment to his wife (Elizabeth Olson) and child only to be pulled into to his father's quest to find the source behind the Japan disaster. One thing leads to another and without giving anything away, there is a lot of monstrous destruction.
As a character, the movie nails Godzilla. The first time you get a full glimpse of him it is a cheer-worthy moment. You get a strong sense of his personality by how he moves and fights. Andy Serkis is credited as a consultant and I believe that it comes through in this portrayal. The rest of the action is bold and exciting.
But the biggest problem with the movie is that the director, while understanding who Godzilla is, does not think that he is the most interesting thing in the movie. In fact at the beginning of the first great battle, director Gareth Edwards immediately cuts away to people watching the fight on TV. This is not an isolated incident. Consistently he takes us away from what we really want to see to follow some much less interesting character arcs.
The movie centers around Ford. The problem is that Taylor-Johnson cannot carry this film. His portrayal is appropriately stoic, but lacks any charm or charisma. When he should be at his most sympathetic and engaging, he comes off as dead-behind-the eyes. The movie would have been much better served by following Joe, who is played with wonderful desperation by Cranston. But he feels way too underutilized, especially considering his prominence in the trailers. And Olson is absolutely wasted as Ford's wife. She has very little to do except wait for Ford and hide. (On a side note, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen will be playing brother and sister Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron. That makes watching them make out in this movie a tad uncomfortable).
Because the movie so often trades Godzilla for Ford, you feel as if you are not getting a fair exchange. We pay to see monsters fighting and using cityscapes as their battle ring. But the movie spends too much time on action sequences with Ford to the point where it feels tedious. You sit through them until Edwards deigns to let us see what we paid to see.
Godzilla is a step in the right direction from where the franchise has been. But it feels much more like a wasted opportunity.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.