The character of Godzilla has appeared in 42 movies over the last sixty years, and most of them have been terrible. Some point to 1969’s Godzilla’s Revenge as the low-point of the series while younger moviegoers cite the 1998 reboot Godzilla as the character’s worst film, but most tend to agree the “King of the Monsters” was at his best and most fearsome in the 1954 Japanese original, Gojira.
Gareth Edwards, director of the excellent 2010 movie Monsters, here tries his best to satisfy both the fans of the long-running series and audience members unfamiliar with the monster beyond its cultural parody value. He mostly succeeds.
In many ways, the new Godzilla functions similarly to J.J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek. It reboots itself by pretending none of the previous films were made, while still using and making reference to many of the events in earlier films. Also, like Star Trek, the opening ten minutes knock you back in your seat by being much more emotionally powerful than you’ll likely expect.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, star of the Kick-Ass movies, plays Ford Brody, an bomb disposal technician for the US Navy. Fifteen years earlier, he and his parents (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) found themselves in the middle of a catastrophic disaster in Japan that questionably went down in history as a radiation leak.
In present day, Ford’s father spends all his time trying to expose the cover-up and unearth the truth about what really happened. Unfortunately for both Ford and his father, something else did really happen and, wouldn’t you know it, Ford discovers it’s about to happen again.
Cranston and Binoche, as Joe and Sandra Brody, are both top-notch, crafting three-dimensional people out of their characters. Taylor-Johnson, on the other hand, remains mostly expressionless through the whole movie. Gone is the quirky and interesting kid from Kick-Ass; on display is a militaristic grunt with no emotions beyond intense staring and squinted resolve.
Edwards smartly centers the bulk of the movie on its characters rather than its monsters, but he mistakenly assumes the audience will care about the characters without being given a reason to. Ford (as well as Taylor-Johnson) is too blandly dull to center the movie around. His surrounding characters — Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife, Ken Watanabe as a constantly astounded scientist — are given so little character development that they essentially remain strangers, ultimately leaving the audience with no effective anchor to care about through Godzilla, save the monster.
Godzilla himself, when he does eventually appear, does not disappoint. The visual effects — not to mention the jaw-dropping sound — are fantastic and some of the shots truly take your breath away in their scale. Edwards cares enough to return Godzilla to his complex roots and refrains from making him a simplistic monster, blindly attacking metropolitan cities.
The first two thirds of Godzilla are excellent. The final act turns into a series of monster-against-monster battles that may have a precedent (from all of the Godzilla vs. _________ movies) but that are unnecessary for the story Edwards set in motion. Had Godzilla not settled with its climactic act, it likely would have given Gojira a run for its money as the most solid of the whole series. Even with its excessively destructive finale and mostly dull characters, though, 2014’s Godzilla cleanses all the bad tastes left from 1998’s.