Reviews and entertainment articles by Dave Simpson
In 1998, Japan’s iconic “king of the monsters”, Godzilla, was given the Hollywood treatment. Despite having a big budget and some impressive set pieces, the end result was mixed at best. This incarnation of Godzilla amounted to little more than a guilty pleasure movie.
16 years later, Hollywood have taken another swing at westernising the famous kaiju and the results aren’t really much different to the last attempt. 2014’s Godzilla is an entertaining two hour romp that does improve upon its 1998 predecessor but doesn’t manage to elevate itself far above the status of fun but shallow popcorn movie.
There is a slow but steady build up to the reveal of the titular beast which actually works quite well. The film makers succeed in creating a nice air of intrigue and wonder surrounding the nature of the creature and its origins. It begins as a gripping conspiracy thriller, as we are kept guessing as to the truth behind the cause of a series of “natural” disasters. Certain real life historical events are even tied in in a clever way that teases the inevitable reveal and gets you all the more excited for it.
The moment when Godzilla first appears on screen in all his glory does end up being fairly epic, thanks to the mystery and suspense that the film’s first act manages to create. Unfortunately though, even after we are shown what we’re dealing with, there is still a continued effort to be suggestive about its actions rather than show them. This results in the movie becoming frustrating at times when we know there are bigger things going on off camera.
The action and major setpieces are visually striking and impressive but still somehow manage to fall flat a lot of the time. I found that while I was enjoying the action visually, it didn’t generate a lot of suspense or terror. I think this was due to everyone’s reaction – or lack thereof – to the strangeness of the situation. There seemed to be no overriding feelings of shock or awe concerning the nature of the threat. People clearly treated it as a life or death situation but I got no real sense that anyone viewed the source of the terror as particularly out of the ordinary as far as threats and crisis situations go.
There is also a concerted effort to split the focus between the human and monster aspects of the action which has varied results. There’s a tendency to cut away from the creature battles to put the human characters front and centre. This is particularly true in the final act when the epic and exciting monster confrontation takes place largely in the background, winning the spotlight only at key moments. I appreciate the need to keep the human element of movies such as this alive, but unfortunately the human characters aren’t very well crafted.
It’s a shame too because Godzilla is blessed with a very talented cast. The major players – Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe and Bryan Cranston – are all actors whose abilities I admire. It’s just a pity that none of them are given much to work with.
By far the movie’s most interesting character is Cranston’s nuclear physicist, Joe Brody. Brody is the man through which we are first introduced to the Godzilla conspiracy and his obsession with discovering the truth is the catalyst for the plot. In a short space of time, Cranston manages to create a very compelling and sympathetic character who I would have been happy to have had guide me through the story. Unfortunately he doesn’t end up being given a lot of screen time, which is both surprising and disappointing given his talent and popularity.
The role of protagonist falls instead to Joe’s son, Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson). I am a fan of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s work and there’s nothing particularly wrong with his performance here, there’s just also nothing particularly remarkable about it. The blame for this doesn’t lie with Taylor-Johnson though, it lies with how the character is written.
Ford Brody comes across as something of a cliché. He is a lieutenant in the US Navy who, at the beginning of proceedings, is just returning from an extended tour of duty to reunite with his wife and son. We know that disaster is surely on the horizon and that his happy reunion is unlikely to last for long. It all feels like something we’ve seen countless times before, which might be fine if he was given any real development. Instead he serves as a duty bound, military hero archetype, without much of a unique personality.
Ford’s wife, Elle (Olsen), suffers from many of the same problems. Again, while I like Elizabeth Olsen as an actress, she isn’t given much to work with here. Elle is a doctor, it seems, just because we should sympathise with doctors in a crisis. Her profession doesn’t serve the plot in any monumental way and her role could just as easily have been fulfilled were she engaged in any other career.
As with Cranston, Olsen doesn’t receive as much screen time as you might expect. And when she is on screen it’s often just to show her worrying about her husband. I can’t help but feel the writers made her a doctor just to mask the fact that she’s really nothing more than a concerned spouse stereotype.
The main problem with Olsen playing the worried wife though is that she and Taylor-Johnson are given all of five minutes of screen time together before the adventure begins. As a result, the audience isn’t really given a chance to see what kind of chemistry exists between these two characters. Consequently, we aren’t allowed to decide whether we want to share their concern for one another, rather we are told that we should.
Our resident Godzilla expert in the movie is Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Ichiro Serizawa. I got the impression that he was supposed to function similarly to how Dr. Alan Grant did in Jurassic Park, but this doesn’t end up being the case. Serizawa functions as little more than a generic scientist who is only there to deliver exposition simply because someone has to. Sally Hawkins plays his sidekick then, Dr. Vivienne Graham. Her role extends no further than being someone for Serizawa to deliver his exposition to when the plot calls for it.
The main characters really only get away with being any way likable due to the reputations of the actors who portray them and not on their merits within the fictional world of the movie alone. The title character is obviously who everyone is going to see, but it would have been nice to have had some better developed human players if they’re going to be as much of a focal point as Godzilla himself.
To sum up then, the movie boasts some amazing visual effects and does manage to improve upon the last Hollywood outing for the character, as well as upon other recent monster movies such as Pacific Rim. Godzilla looks good on screen and the moments when he gets to show off the full extent of his abilities are undeniably thrilling. Unfortunately they’re too frequently inter-cut with a cast that is talented but under-utilised.
Overall, I found Godzilla to be an entertaining enough popcorn movie that, while lacking in any real depth, is worth a watch for the monster action and the visual aspect in general, if nothing else.
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