By Will Ashton
No matter what praise is lauded at the original 1954 movie, it should be perfectly clear that Godzilla, the monster himself, is no highbrow figure.
Not to knock the film itself, because—at least as social commentary of its time—the original Godzilla is, in its own right, a rather compelling film. But it is also a very hokey one, filled with fake sets, cheesy effects, wonky acting and occasionally questionable direction. Which should explain the type of legacy the series wound up with in the preceding decades.
Given our fascination with violence and big-budget special effects, it should be no surprise that America would try to get in on this cash cow. But after 1998’s flop remake, American studios have been worrisome of going back into the sea to retrieve the monster.
Which is a shame, but also something of a relief. For, more than anything else, Godzilla should be used as a vessel for talk about bigger and more important topics, if you want audience members to take it seriously at all. Which is one of the many ways that the ‘90s remake failed: it wanted to be taken seriously, but it also wanted to be goofy and fun, which is an extremely hard mix.
Well, for better or for worse, director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) is taking the same approach with his remake/reboot. While he certainly has his shortcomings with this movie, he is able to get this balance far better than Roland Emmerich ever could. For, Edwards’ understanding of timing and character make for the right blend of wits and summer fun.
This is where I get into the plot of the movie, but I am going to level with you for a moment: either you are going to be on board for a Godzilla movie or you’re not. Don’t try to pretend yourself. Think about it for a moment. Do you like Godzilla? If yes, then read on.
In many ways, Edwards tries to have his cake and eat it too with his new movie. He knows the importance of character and making the audience care for the humans in the movie, but he also wants to make sure that he gets the big smash-it-all fun that is found in the B-movie efforts of Godzilla’s filmography.
Much like Guillermo del Toro in last year’s Pacific Rim, Edwards is a competent filmmaker dealing with a subject that is usually done in an incompetent manner. But, where Edwards succeeds and Toro failed is that Edwards knows not to blow his wad too early on. He is smart enough to understand that, whether the audience knows it or not, they should only be given a little bit of Godzilla and his foes throughout the duration of the film. As much as they would love to see Godzilla in his full glory early on, the anticipation of waiting is a far better reward.
While this can, at times, make for a semi-frustrating film watching experience, it is worth it in the long run. For, where Pacific Rim just got dull after a while, Godzilla keeps the interest of the audience flooding. For they know the big showdown is coming, and that they just have to wait for the moment to come. And then, when it comes…hot dog.
While the monster scenes themselves are handsomely and intelligently done, it is truly at the heart of the human sequences that the movie succeeds and, sometimes, fails. Edwards certainly puts together a strong cast, and they all make good use of their time on the screen. Even if the script, written by Max Borenstein with a story by Dave Callaham, doesn’t always given them the smartest lines to say, they are able to make the situation themselves as believable as they can possibly be.
Particularly, it is Bryan Cranston and David Strathairn, even in their supporting roles, who give the film’s strongest and most thoughtful performances. But that is not to belittle anyone else, especially Ken Watanabe. Who, even when given the most exposition in his lines, makes sure that he gives the character the integrity he needs, no matter how silly the plot decides to get.
But this, again, goes to the primary source of the film’s problems: it takes itself a little too seriously at times, especially in the first half. I applaud Edwards for giving a $100+ character drama surrounded by a giant monster. At times, this reboot is a better movie than some of its audience deserve, and, for that, I am surprised and, at least at times, thankful. But, for a movie about giant monsters fighting each other, the movie doesn’t begin to take itself lightly until at least over an hour into itself.
And, listen, I believe that Edwards should be at least semi-serious about this movie. But when the movie does decide to go tongue-on-cheek, the transition comes across not only a little awkward, but abruptly, making for a semi-uneven movie.
It is with that in mind that I feel that Godzilla is a movie that is better in its second half than it is in its first. Whether that is by accident or by choice, I am confident that this is ultimately better than the other way around, but it does mean that the audience will have to occasionally drag themselves through some slower moments. Some of them good, some a little too self-serious for their own personal health.
But if there is one thing that Edwards knows, it’s how to make his Godzilla a badass motherfucker. Every money shot in this movie is worth the price of admission; for not only are the special effects extremely detailed and stunning, but they are all clearly shot and easy to follow, even during night sequences. Although I only got to experience the movie in a lieMAX, the experience of Godzilla on the bigger screen is worth it completely, if just for the louder sound when the title monster gives his roar.
There is no denying that the movie’s climax saves all the good stuff for the end, and, even if audiences walk out of the movie disappointed, I doubt there will be many fans who are going to admit they disliked the movie’s finale. Because there are moments of awesomeness here that even a grown adult can’t help but squeal joy about, which was what I was looking for in Pacific Rim but never felt I got.
Much like Monsters, this new Godzilla is a flawed but well-made blockbuster that demonstrates that Edwards has a strong blockbuster career awaiting him. He is a smart, thoughtful filmmaker that knows what he is doing and translates it well to the screen. As a result, he has made what could be the best Godzilla movie to date (even if that may or may not be saying much) and a film that deserves its spot in the summer blockbuster season.