Audience expectations are a dangerous thing, not just for the audience but for the film presented. If the audience expects something that the movie doesn’t present, can it really judge the movie fairly? If I have it in my head that Godzilla is going to be a grim, brooding, $150 million horror film retrofitting the classic monster as a force of nature and a prominent figure in its own film, is it my fault if I don’t get that? And is it my fault if I don’t like what I get that much?
I say this because Godzilla was advertised as a completely different movie than the one currently in theaters. The good news is that the movie in theaters isn’t bad, and at times it’s excellent. The bad news is that the movie in trailers and commercials looks so much better than this film. Instead of Bryan Cranston as the main character, we get Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Instead of a compelling mystery story, we get a trite “nuclear-family is in danger” story. Instead of a genuinely unnerving and nerve-wrecking horror vibe, we get a slightly darker Pacific Rim vibe.
Cranston, in limited screen time, proves he can be a compelling presence without Walter White’s baggage. He knows what notes to hit for a character that could be much more boring thanks to the average screenplay he works with. Despite his age, he probably has a long career as a movie star ahead of him. Cranston plays Joe Brody, a man obsessed with finding the real cause of a 1999 meltdown at the Japanese nuclear plant he used to run. He drags his son Ford, played by Johnson, into the Quarantine Zone caused by the meltdown to search for proof. Johnson, so good as the titular character in Kick-Ass, is painfully dull here. He has the same vacant expression for when his dad asks him to go to the Quarantine Zone as he does when a giant monster wreaks havoc in that zone about 10 minutes later.
With no Bryan Cranston and less of a focus on these two characters, the movie becomes far less engaging since the real story is Ford trying to get from Japan to San Francisco to meet up with his boring wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and their son. Because of Johnson’s bland performance, he fails to engage the audience with his character on any significant level. He acts as a blank slate. He has no range of emotion or vocalization. He flatlines as a performer. All Olsen can do is cry for her husband. Juliette Binoche dies in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Once again, the female gender gets sidelined. Ken Watanabe is playing the movie’s Godzilla expert. He and his partner, played by Sally Hawkins, play the exposition people, telling us Godzilla’s history and function as nature’s balancing force. According to Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla exists to bring nature back into balance. And that’s why he’s looking for the MUTOs.
And those MUTOs strangely enough take precedence over Godzilla in the story and the screen. In fact, he doesn’t show up for about an hour, and only then in glimpses. The giant Cloverfield-looking MUTOs move the plot along. Godzilla only exists in this movie to fight them.
Slowly building to the reveal instead of just showing him early on is not a bad idea, and it kind of works in this movie. When he finally shows up in all his glory, he looks incredible. He’s gigantic, as tall as the skyscrapers. But if you’re going to build up to the monster’s reveal, you need to have an engaging human story on the way there. And this story does not engage. But what’s really…just weird is how much more screen time the generic-named MUTOs get. They cause a ton of havoc, destruction, and make the movie pop in the first couple of acts.
For all of his faults in directing actors, director Gareth Edwards has a lot of positive qualities. His 2010 film Monsters shares a lot of the same flaws, but it also foreshadowed his many gifts. If you’ve seen that movie, you got an inkling that he might be a master of building up dread and holding tension. Godzilla confirms it. Every scene that either involves a monster or leads up to a monster is outstanding. Edwards manages to instill dread, fear, and tension in the audience before inspiring a true sense of awe. The point-of-view shots help with this. He keeps his camera near human characters to let the audience view these gargantuan beasts from their perspective. It gives the movie a powerful sense of scale, since we can see just how big they are in comparison to us. Edwards keeps his camera still and allows the overwhelming feeling that scale inspires to sink in, while still ever-so-slightly shaking the camera to affect the fear the characters feel.
The best the movie gets is the HALO jump scene, glimpsed at in the first trailer for the film. This scene illustrates all of Edwards’ skills perfectly. In the lead-in to the jump,Edwards establishes the soldiers’ fear; they recite bible verses and Ford looks gloomily at a picture of his family. Then the plane opens up, and we glimpse the sky, reddened and darkened from the smoke coming from below. Edwards doesn’t reveal the cause of this atmosphere just yet. Alexandre Desplat’s score, now emulating chamber music with high-pitched vocals backing the diegetic sounds, underscores the scene like a horror film. In an extreme long shot, we see the soldiers, trailing red smoke from the flares attached to their legs, falling towards a city on fire and utterly demolished. The cause? Godzilla and a MUTO, brawling, smashing, careening through skyscrapers. All seen through Ford Brody’s mask.
That scene establishes character, massive scale, and point of view, through which Edwards evokes terror, dread, fear, and awe all in the course of less than two minutes. Edwards comes close to this greatness with other fantastic scenes, as well, which disappoints me even more that he can’t get his human characters right. Too often, Edwards cuts back to these characters that has failed to make resonate with the audience.
But the scenes like that make the movie worth watching. And if the whole movie had been of those emotional roller coaster scenes with better performances and Godzilla as the terrifying force of nature, it would have been phenomenal. It would have been the movie Legendary Pictures advertised.
Instead, we got a good version of the monster-punches-monster movie. That’s all well and fine, and I’m willing to see another Gareth Edwards Godzilla, but I was sold and hyped for a much different movie. A more interesting movie that doesn’t treat Godzilla like a tertiary character.