Go big or go home. Or in the case of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, just go home, please. Director Gareth Edwards makes the jump from his debut Monsters (budget: $500,000) to this reboot of the gargantuan lizard franchise (budget: $160m) with no small aplomb, but the sometime pedestrian quality of its human element will probably prevent it from laying waste to the box office as it perhaps could have.
Edwards’ take on the definitive kaiju legend – originally an allegorical response to the awe and soul-searching that accompanied the hydrogen bomb – sets off with the one who knocks, Heisenberg himself, Bryan Cranston, suffering great personal tragedy as the Japanese nuclear facility he works at suffers a catastrophic meltdown. We then rejoin the story fifteen years later, during which time Cranston’s character, Joe Brody, has retreated into a squirrely mess of conspiracy theories and paranoia as he tries to understand what happened to his wife (Juliette Binoche). Joe’s now-adult soldier son, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaves his own wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child back in San Francisco and heads to Japan to try and bring his father out of custody and back to the real world. Don’t you worry though – the fact that Ford is a bomb technician, and the fact that San Francisco would be a fun place to destroy with CGI, are likely to become relevant later in the film.
The good things first: all the monster mayhem is outstanding. The kind of disaster-porn that served to overwhelm recent efforts like Man of Steel and the Transformers franchise is not easy to do well. Zack Synder’s Superman reboot in particular showed that it’s not as simple as cranking the volume up to 11 and just destroying everything on screen; impressive and entertaining are not the same thing. Edwards builds enough anticipation through the first hour’s snatches and glimpses that when the real showdowns and set pieces start to arrive, they inspire euphoria rather than boredom. The halo jump from a plane, through the clouds, and then into a fiery nightmare of lizardy combat is beautifully executed, as well several other glorious visuals involving Vegas, train bridges and various falling skyscrapers. Allied to this is absolutely superb sound design, with large creatures causing tremors of sufficient profundity, and primal animal roars that are terrifying. The music is entirely appropriate and has a pleasant old-school feel, especially over the opening credits with their playful newsreel footage. It’s also mercifully short – it’s a sad state of affairs when a film needs to be applauded for sticking to two hours, but there you have it.
The bad: there are three great actors in this film. Bryan Cranston gets a good half-hour to play with but is certainly underused; that being said, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen might as well not have bothered, the former given a few minutes of nothingness and the latter making the best of a few scenes of crying and worrying about her boring husband. It’s enough to make you run home and dig out The English Patient and Martha Marcy May Marlene in sheer frustration. Instead we spend the bulk of the film with the inert Ford Brody. He’s not quite as generic as the soldier drones that populate the hateful Transformers films but he really is anonymous, compensating for a lack of anything much going on emotionally with some big arms and a scowl. It all renders him a little bit unconvincing as an adult, which is a problem for the ostensible lead – he doesn’t strike me as old enough to have a child, let alone an accomplished bomb disposal career which would permit the plot contrivances that make him central to the story. Then in the background you’ve got Ken Watanabe wandering in and out of scenes as if he’s trying to remember where he parked his car, murmuring fearful portents, with Sally Hawkins holding his jacket and occasionally getting a line of her own. Of course the monster is always going to take centre stage in a Godzilla film, but it does feel like a great cast squandered.
In short, monster good, people bad – and that’s enough for a Godzilla film, but perhaps with a few tweaks to the plot, we could have had a little more.
Godzilla is on general release in the UK from Friday 16th May 2014. For more mayhem, visit the official website.