The latest iteration of Godzilla faces the challenge of living up to sixty years of on-screen history. But it also benefits from the low expectations brought on the cartoonish 1998 movie of the same name, to the point that theaters might be tempted to advertise the 2014 Godzilla film as “Now with 100% less Matthew Broderick.” The new film directed by visual effects artist Gareth Edwards aims for the realistic grittiness of recent sci-fi fantasy films like The Dark Knight, but ends up getting about halfway there. And while the companion between reptile monster movies seems too easy to make, Godzilla 2014 ends up feeling surprisingly like the best elements of the Jurassic Park franchise – with just little bit of Breaking Bad thrown in.
The movie acknowledges its legacy right from the opening scenes, in which it quickly chronicles the story of Godzilla from its black and white days onward. The backstory this time is complex enough that it takes up nearly the first half of the film to flesh out: Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear scientist who figures out a little too late that something isn’t quite right about the readings at the plant he works for, and it costs him dearly – sending him spiraling into a tailspin of conspiracy theories in which he never does quite realize what it is he’s chasing after. His son tries to bring him back into the real world, but ends up getting sucked in himself when it turns out the now-quarantined plant has been hiding a secret all along that’s ready to boil over.
If you notice that the above description is distinctly lacking in mentions of Godzilla, that’s because the monster is more or less missing in action. I won’t spoil the twist, but suffice it to say that even when the movie gets to the point where it seems like Godzilla is about to become a central character in the film, it turns out to be a head fake. The first half of the movie is almost entirely driven by human characters, and the results are mixed. Cranston appears to be picking up where his Breaking Bad character Walter White left off, a principled man who’s been driven by circumstances into overwhelmingly dark places in his mind. But it turns out the main star of the film is actually Aaron Taylor-Johnson (yes, the kid from Kick-Ass is all grown up). Despite the layers of cliches his character Ford Brody is saddled with, Taylor-Johnson does a decent job of emoting through weak material.
But even Brody is woven in and out of the film’s narrative, which often jumps to new prominently placed characters whose sole purpose is to provide exposition before disappearing again. Unattended children and pets are randomly inserted into the story as plot devices. And poor Elizabeth Olsen isn’t given one good line the entire movie, left instead to try to prove she can act with her facial expressions alone. David Strathairn is miscast as a military leader who’s too frail to fill out his uniform, in a cardboard part that’s beneath his proven sci-fi acting chops. The troops dutifully shows up to try to help in the fight, but spend the first two-thirds of the film trying to take down a hundred foot tall heavily armored monster with nothing but machine gun fire.
For all the screen time that this film devotes to its human characters, and for as much effort as was made at casting familiar faces in those roles, most of the characters are more cliche than they needed to be. Fortunately, once Godzilla finally does become a part of the storyline, he doesn’t disappoint. The battles between Godzilla and his monster enemy are fierce, realistic, and even in this CGI-jaded age, startlingly impressive. So much so that by the end of it, viewers may be left to conclude that he’s the most complex character in the film.
In the end, the 2014 version of Godzilla redeems itself. The too-long and too-cliched buildup ends up paying off by the time the credits roll, in a manner that’s head and shoulders above the 1998 version, and should merit a sequel or two. Edwards is new to directing, and has room to grow in future films. Still, audience members will end up walking out of the theater scratching their heads over some oddball questions: Is it too soon after the Fukushima disaster to be making a movie about a Japanese nuclear power plant meltdown? Do all nuclear bombs come with a built in ninety minute countdown timer? And with a $130 million budget, couldn’t they have found Bryan Cranston a better wig? But those questions will only surface on the drive home. If you’re going to see this one at all, see it in the theater – if only to see the monster-sized fight scenes in their full glory. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5.