Nobody expected Godzilla to reinvent the wheel, just to do things better than Hollywood’s poorly received first attempt at a Godzilla movie back in 1998. And by drafting in Gareth Jones, who caught the world’s attention with his low-budget independent Monsters, Hollywood have finally hit upon what is mostly a success.
Godzilla’s opening act does a fantastic job of setting up the situation: In 1999, scientists investigate gigantic chrysalises in a collapsed mine in the Philippines, while a Japanese nuclear power plant experiences strange tremors, causing Supervisor Joe Brody (played by Brian Cranston) to investigate. Fifteen years later, these event have large, monster-shaped consequences.
No prizes for guessing what those tremors from earlier are caused by. What is surprising, however, is that Godzilla is about not one monster, but three. Along with Godzilla come two other monsters, gigantic insect like organisms drawing on the kaiju (large monsters) often featured in Godzilla’s Japanese film past, and similar films throughout Japanese movie history.
What’s clear here is that Gareth has great respect for the source material, as well as an interest in drawing contemporary parallels. The influence of 2012’s Fukushima nuclear disaster can be seen in what happens to the power plant in the prologue, and the inclusion of a great cover-up can be compared to the many of the biggest conspiracy theories of the last century.
There are problems however, starting with Bryan Cranston. The problem with casting Brian Cranston is he will act everyone off screen – which he does, especially as he is required to go through deep emotional loss. Sadly however, having fulfilled the film’s Human Drama quota, he is judged too interesting a character to retain the lead role. Instead, we get his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) for the rest of the film, a lacklustre Explosive Ordinance Expert who gets to help out during the ensuing military operation despite not being on active duty. He has a wife and kid and all the usual stuff, and it’s a real shame that ultimately the storyline settles on one of the blandest characters in the whole line up.
The scientists from earlier are also played by some fantastic actors (Inception’s Ken Wantanabe and Sally Hawkins of Blue Jasmine and many great British films fame), but when they return, they simply function as plot exposition devices. They do a great job though, with my favourite part being the moment where Wantanabe announces that they call him ‘Godzilla’ with a glorious dramatic pause. He also sets up a sort of man versus nature theme, but this is ultimately underused.
The other great problem is the final section, which is just military men doing military things, while the three monsters fight. It also doesn’t help that the whole sequence is at night and in fog and rubble, where it’s difficult to see the monsters or the people. It seems lacking in imagination compared to what came before and as a climax, instead of adding intensity, it causes the film to lose steam towards the end of its course.
In terms of all the monster movie ingredients, Godzilla gets them right; moments where he scientists walk quickly along corridors flanked by advisors quickly filling them in on the details, people exclaiming “it’s worse than we thought”, and plenty of city-smashing, transport-crashing action. It’s just a shame the film couldn’t have given us better characters to care about while Godzilla does his thing. It’s good, but with a bit more depth and human drama it could have been great.