Sunday, May 11, 2014


In some ways, I liken my experience of seeing the new Godzilla to that of seeing 1989’s Batman. I went in to both films very much wanting to love them. They were both heavily-hyped blockbusters featuring characters I had adored since childhood. They were both designed to wash away the stink of a previous incarnation—in the case of Batman, it was the campy 1960s Adam West TV series; with Godzilla, it was the horrid 1998 film starring Matthew Broderick and directed by Roland Emmerich, as well as the goofy, silly, kiddie-oriented Godzilla movies of the late 60s and early 70s. And both films had absolutely killer trailers that made me believe that I was going to be getting exactly what I wanted.

And yet, with both films, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment when the end credits began to roll. 

It’s not that Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, is a bad film. It didn’t anger me, or make me want to walk out halfway through, the way Roland Emmerich’s movie did. It’s just . . . not as good as I wanted it to be. Not as good as it should be. Not as good as it needs to be to fully overcome the negative reputation that the franchise has gained over the years as a result of its weaker installments.

On the positive side, the tone of the film is absolutely correct. It’s never anything less than dead serious, with no annoying winking or tongue-in-cheek nonsense. It doesn’t poke fun at itself or the genre as a whole. Appropriately, there is a sense of impending doom permeating throughout the narrative.

Much of this can be credited to Bryan Cranston, who brings his A-game, pulls out all the stops, and delivers an emotional and heartbreaking performance that grounds the film in reality and gives audiences a character they can relate to. 

Cranston plays nuclear physicist Joe Brody, who is desperately trying to uncover the truth behind a tragic incident at a Japanese nuclear power plant 15 years earlier, which took the life of his beloved wife Sandra, played by Juliette Binoche. Without a doubt, Cranston is the very best thing about the film. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly enough of him in it. And the same thing can be said about the title character.

Which is another way that this Godzilla and the 1989 Batman are similar: In both films, the title character is pretty much relegated to the sidelines, basically a supporting player in his own movie, with the emphasis placed squarely on the main antagonist. In Batman, it was Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Here, it’s a pair of new monsters, both called MUTO (which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). I was surprised to find that these new beasts provide the bulk of the mayhem. Godzilla is teased throughout the film, until he finally steps into the spotlight, but he’s never really front-and-center. When the focus did shift to him at long last, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of, “Too little too late.”

A glimpse at one of the MUTO creatures

I was also disappointed by Cranston’s limited amount of screen time—given how prominent he is in the trailers, I thought his character Joe Brody was going to be one of the leads. But it’s a relatively small role, as the main protagonist turns out to be Brody’s son Ford, an explosives expert serving in the U.S. Army. 

Ford is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who starred in both Kick-Ass movies, played John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, and will be seen next year as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Based on having seen him in Kick-Ass, I would say that Taylor-Johnson is a capable actor, but he’s given very little chance to perform in Godzilla. His character is so woefully underdeveloped and stoic and lacking in any real substance, that you can’t bring yourself to really care about him or anything that happens to him.

The same can be said about the rest of the cast—they’re all rough sketches, not characters. This includes Ford’s wife Elle, a beautiful young nurse and mother played by Elizabeth Olsen (who, amusingly enough, will play Taylor-Johnson’s sister, the Scarlet Witch, in the aforementioned Avengers sequel), Admiral William Stenz, played by veteran actor David Strathairn, and, perhaps most egregiously, Dr. Serizawa, a Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe (and named after a key character in the original 1954 Japanese Godzilla film—he was instrumental in stopping the monster’s rampage). Unfortunately, throughout this film, Watanabe does little more than look worried and deliver cryptic, stilted dialogue. His Dr. Serizawa is an insult to the character he was named after.

It’s not just the characters that lack substance—I’m not really sure what this movie is supposed to be about. The original 1954 Godzilla was an allegory about the horrors of nuclear weapons, produced by people who had seen those horrors in real life, up close and personal. Godzilla the creature was portrayed as the personification of nature striking back at humanity for daring to tamper with such powerful and dangerous forces. In this new film, Serizawa has a good line: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” But it comes off as lip service to a never-fully-explored theme, an attempt to shoehorn in some degree of meaning to all the noise and spectacle.

The first half hour (during which Bryan Cranston is most prominent) is excellent, leading us into a flabby and frustrating middle section. The best way to describe why it’s so frustrating is to compare it to epididymal hypertension—there’s dramatic build up to a major showdown, and then the film cuts away to something else, just when you least want it to. (Budget limitations, perhaps?) And this happens not once but twice

The final act is fairly decent, finally giving us what we’ve been waiting for, and it’s well executed. Godzilla is portrayed in a manner that is respectful and faithful to the better representations of the character: He is massive, imposing, oblivious of the humans scattering before him in terror—he’s essentially a living force of nature driven primarily by instinct. 

He does not run or hide like a frightened cat, as he did in the 1998 abomination. He does not engage in silly wrestling moves.

Nor does he do a victory dance. 

Edwards seems to have been most influenced by the way Godzilla was depicted in 1964’s Godzilla Vs. The Thing (one of my favorites) and in the more recent films produced by Japan’s Toho Co. Ltd., which presented the creature as neither evil nor benevolent, his true motivations remaining mostly unknown. This, in my opinion, is a very good thing—though I have to mention that in this regard, the film ends on a somewhat bizarre note that prompted snickers and giggles in the screening I attended.  
The special effects are masterfully done. I like the design of the new Godzilla, though it doesn’t rank as one of my favorites. The MUTO creatures are also well executed and interesting, echoing the monster from Cloverfield and Godzilla’s old sparring partner Rodan. They make for worthy adversaries for “Big G.”

I wanted to love the new Godzilla. I didn’t. I didn’t hate it either. But I feel it just doesn’t fully do the job that I think it needed to do. Yes, it’s better than the Matthew Broderick dud (damning with faint praise, I know), but on its own, I’m not so sure it’s going to convert many non-believers. 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2014.


  1. I'm still gonna see it, but I'm less excited now. Agreed, Godzilla vs. The Thing is one of the best of the originals, but I do have a sweet spot for Jet Jaguar. Chalk it up to childhood robot fantasies.

  2. As the Jews of yore might have said, "feh." Cranston and good effects, but that's it.

  3. I think we must have had a Vulcan mindmeld recently, because that was almost beat-for-beat what my reaction was.