Review: Godzilla (2014)

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Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein, with story by David Callaham
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, Victor Rasuk & David Strathairn
Runtime: 123 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIu85WQTPRc]

For all of its faults, of which there are numerous, Godzilla is a peculiar combination of ambitious failure and cautious success. Directed by Gareth Edwards, whose previous effort – Monsters – could now be seen as a low-budget rehearsal for what he would ultimately try to achieve with this film, Godzilla makes a valiant though somewhat unsuccessful attempt to hark back and pay homage to the titular monster’s satirical origins, whilst simultaneously hoping to offer a modern twist on the tale in order to make it relevant to the culture, fears and politics of the 21st Century.

It is in this ambitious but flawed aim that both Godzilla’s greatest achievements and its most obvious failings lie. Like Edwards’ previous film, Godzilla is much less about the monster than it is about his impact on individual people caught up in the wake of his destruction, yet because almost all of these people are so sketchily written, the film becomes trapped between two very different threads, both of which feel undernourished in the long run. Within the first fifteen minutes, we cover everything from the fifties through to the present day, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue but for the fact that alongside all of this rapid exposition we’re also introduced to a bunch of characters about whom we know next to nothing, which remains the case for the rest of the film.

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To put this into context, there are at least two characters that serve no purpose whatsoever. Elizabeth Olsen (In Secret) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) – two wonderful actors – are all but surplus to requirements, while the only remotely interesting human character in the film – Bryan Cranston’s (Breaking Bad) Joe – is massively underutilised. Juliette Binoche’s character (Bleu) offers little more than a crude emotional backdrop to the central relationship at the heart of the film’s first act, whilst the inclusion of Ken Watanabe’s character (Inception) offers nothing but a rather cheap throwback to the monster’s Japanese heritage. What this leaves us with is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass)… now, don’t get me wrong, he’s a perfectly fine actor but he struggles to carry a film of this magnitude on his shoulders, and considering how little time we actually spend in Godzilla’s company, this is problematic.

Nonetheless, Edwards has to be given credit for crafting a blockbuster that tries to do things a little bit differently. He doesn’t succumb to lazy, soulless, CGI-laden action sequences whenever the plot hits a blockade, rather he attempts to focus on the consequences of what is happening. On a number of occasions, just before a scene of mass destruction, Edwards turns the camera away to focus on what one of the human characters is doing, though we still get glimpses of the carnage thanks to news reports in the background. In a sense I can understand why people find this approach frustrating; the human characters aren’t all that engaging, and by the end Godzilla himself turns out to be far more fully-rounded and developed than any of them, yet I have a lot of admiration for what Edwards was trying to do, even though it doesn’t always work.

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That isn’t to say, however, that Godzilla is devoid of action. In the final act, after lots of false starts and teasing, Edwards finally unleashes Godzilla on the audience in all his glory, and the effect is simply marvellous. The fight sequences are a joy to behold, and though it’s all over just a little bit too quickly, Edwards handles the scale of the destruction perfectly. His Godzilla is fierce, terrifying and fascinating in equal measure, and as the film reaches its epic denouement it becomes apparent that there’s far more to this monster than meets the eye. For me, the payoff in the final act (soppy, feel-good ending excepted) is well worth the wait and more than makes up for the somewhat hopeless characterisation issues that bedevil the rest of the film.

Edwards’ film isn’t an “intelligent” blockbuster by any stretch of the imagination but it’s certainly a thoughtful and heartfelt one. I perhaps admire it a bit more than I like it, not least because it felt different to most modern blockbusters, and though the attempts at emotion and drama often fail to land, there’s more than enough going on to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t always work but it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a film that tries to breathe new life into a franchise without sacrificing what it was that made the classic stories so enjoyable and that, ultimately, is all I really wanted.

★★★

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